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Free agent focus 2018: Jerick McKinnon could be an intriguing gadget on offense

Jerick McKinnon could help Cowboys’ offense generate the RAC yards.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

If you were looking at the precious “yards after catch statistics” for 2017, you would have to look past the Top-50 before you found a Dallas Cowboy on that list. That’s because the Dallas Cowboys ranked 30th in the league in YAC at 1,370 yards. Dez Bryant was the top performer at 55th in the league with 281 yards but right at 64th was your second Cowboy, Ezekiel Elliott, with 271 yards, despite missing six games.

That’s just not very good and the skill players must improve around quarterback Dak Prescott in 2018 or they’ll be sitting at home again during the postseason.

[In this series, come along as we peruse the long list of free agents and focus on players that could be of interest for the Cowboys. Some of these players may, of course, price themselves out of range. However, any time you feel like your team is close like Dallas most definitely does, why not be a little aggressive in the acquisitions department?]

RB Jerick McKinnon (5’9, 205 lbs, 25 years-old)- Minnesota Vikings

2017 stats: 16 games played, 570 rushing yards on 150 attempts, three rushing touchdowns, 51 receptions, 421 rec. yards, two rec. TDs

One guy who wasn’t too far down the YAC list was McKinnon, who ranked 13th with 476 yards after catch. The Vikings ranked 10th in the league in YAC.

McKinnon was recruited by Georgia Southern University as a quarterback and slotback in GSU’s triple-option system. McKinnon remained an option quarterback until his junior year when he started all 14 games at running back, eclipsing 1,800 rushing yards which tied for third all-time is school history. He only played in 10 games his senior season where he started five at quarterback but still lead the team in rushing.

McKinnon wasn’t a draft darling as many pundits had him going late round or undrafted. That was until his draft stock shot up as a result of his combine performance where he ranked second among running backs with a 4.37 40-time. He was among the top performers in his position for every Combine drill, his 32 reps on the bench press still ranks first among all active running backs in the NFL. As a result, McKinnon was drafted 96th overall in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Vikings.

During his rookie year, he ranked second on the Vikings in rushing yards (538 yards) but first in average yards per carry (4.8) having only played in 11 games with six starts. His season was cut short by a back injury that landed him on IR in December of 2014. The next season, behind Adrian Peterson, McKinnon found ways to be productive.

He still had the highest average per carry at 5.2 yards but also carved a role out as a receiving back and on special teams. McKinnon’s total yards weren’t impressive but he did score three touchdowns where two of them came against the Giants to clinch a playoff berth. In week 17, Jerick caught a team high three passes for 33 yards and returned a kick 24 yards to help the Viking clinch the NFC North in the season finale at Lambeau Field.

In 2016, his role was defined as a backup but he managed to outperform his rookie numbers in rushing and receiving. He scored four touchdowns, two receiving and two rushing, but had five plays of 20+ yards or more. This season, McKinnon’s role increased slightly and his production was the highest of his career. Still not the premier back, he came nine yards short of hitting the 1,000 mark in total yards. He scored five total touchdowns, had three runs and eight receptions of 20+ yards or more, averaging 8.3 yards per catch.

His best rushing performance was a week five win over the Bears where he had 16 carries, 95 yards, and a touchdown. For receiving, he had a dominating seven-catch, 114-yard performance in a 34-7 week 15 win over the Bengals.

McKinnon is never likely to be a bell cow back but that’s not a detriment by any means. He’s done a really nice job of showing off his athleticism when it’s his turn to perform. This offseason is going to be about improving the offense around Dak Prescott. Though Ezekiel Elliott is the ultimate playmaker for Dallas, Dak needs more players to step into roles. McKinnon is a tough runner in between the tackles but can run routes like a polished receiver.

Dallas isn’t likely to keep Alfred Morris around as he’s 29-years-old and they have a power back in Rod Smith on the roster. What they could use at multiple levels of their offense is speed because that’s what will give them an edge they do not possess currently. McKinnon could fit the role they always dreamed of for Lance Dunbar but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to fill it.

It will help Dak tremendously to have mismatch speedsters that can make plays in space. This offense needs an extra gear but mainly they just need guys to do better with their opportunities. While the front office looks for personnel to fit their quarterback, keep in mind that eight of the Top-15 players in YAC were running backs.

It’s important to have shifty guys in this league that can turn short dump offs into big gains, that’s McKinnon’s game all the way. The Vikings were seventh in rushing and 11th in passing production on offense. McKinnon was second on the team in rushing and fourth in receiving. Of that Top-15 YAC list, McKinnon was the only backup running back that made it.

Interesting stat: Back at Mississippi State, Dak’s best statistical season was his senior year (2015), he had a nice little scat back named Brandon Holloway. That season Holloway was second on the team in rushing and fourth in receiving, just like McKinnon was in 2017 for Minnesota. Coincidence? Probably, but what’s the fun in that?