As expected, questions were raised when the San Francisco 49ers signed free agent running back Tevin Coleman. Not only because Coleman adds to an already jam-packed group of speedy running backs. But largely because the 49ers were just a year removed from signing Jerick McKinnon to a lucrative multi-year deal with the intention of becoming a significant piece of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive plan.
McKinnon’s highly-anticipated debut with San Francisco was put on hold due to a torn ACL suffered ahead of the season opener. Instead of showcasing his ability as a starter, McKinnon was forced to spend the past several months rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee. The injury, coupled with the addition of Coleman, had some questioning McKinnon's future in San Francisco. But general manager John Lynch reiterated a few weeks back that the 49ers remain committed to McKinnon heading into 2019.
McKinnon spent the majority of the offseason at the 49ers training facility under the care of San Francisco’s revamped medical training staff led by head of player health & performance Ben Peterson. So far, the 49ers change of personnel has served McKinnon well during his rehab.
“(My knee) feels good,” McKinnon explained to the media on Wednesday. “I feel confident with the strides I’ve made since working with the new medical staff. Every day is a work in progress just getting to that final step.”
The final step is McKinnon’s first regular season game action since 2017. McKinnon revealed he has already began linear running and making cuts so far through the first week of the offseason workout program. Despite his continued progress, McKinnon declined to put a definite timetable on his return. However, he does believe that joining the team at the start of training camp is a realistic goal.
“Definitely. But that’s way down the road,” McKinnon said. “I just know when that time comes, I’ll be ready.”
San Francisco’s surplus of running backs is a favorable problem for Shanahan, given the 49ers recent struggles with injuries. Matt Breida is coming off of a breakout campaign despite battling through an ongoing ankle ailment. He led the team with 814 yards and three touchdowns on 153 carries in 14 games last season. Raheem Mostert, who was re-signed this offseason, will remain in the mix. Now with the addition of Coleman, who flourished under Shanahan with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 (941 total yards and 11 total touchdowns on 149 touches), San Francisco’s running back group appears to be one of the 49ers biggest positions of strength heading into 2019.
“It’s the same system. That’s where he came from. He’s had success in that system,” McKinnon said of Coleman. “But the thing that excites me the most is how much depth we have. Everybody can do the same things. Injuries bugged us last year. Adding another back should keep everybody healthy throughout the whole season.
“If we’re not the best running back group, I think everybody in that room is going to be disappointed with the type of ability we have.”
Sports Illustrated recently ranked the NFL’s best running back situations with San Francisco’s wealth of talent ranking eighth despite McKinnon’s uncertain return date. There’s no telling how electric San Francisco’s backfield can be once fully healthy. But as of now, McKinnon will continue on his road to recovery with Week 1 surely at top of mind.
“I haven’t played in so long. You want to get to that first game so bad just to get back out there,” McKinnon added. “Every day is a work in progress, and you got to win today, especially in a rehab process like this.”