As training camp gets underway, those who observe football professionally end up preforming two services.
The first is to dutifully note that player X or Y, has gone through an innovative off-season conditioning program and is now “in the best shape of my life.” For the sake of brevity, let’s stipulate that everyone is in great shape.
And the second is to identify and analyze potential prospects. This is a subset of a simple evaluation of the roster. These are players about whom there has previously been some buzz, but then for some reason — probably injury — have fallen off the radar. Now they are back at camp, playing well and eyebrows are being raised.
A word of caution. Everyone is excited about someone who seems to be making a successful comeback. But getting injured, and then getting injured again, can be a troubling pattern. There is no logical reason for someone to be injury “prone,” but it does seem to happen. So in discussing these two players, we include a few grains of salt:
Running back Jerick McKinnon: Like the Yeti, McKinnon is much discussed but has rarely been seen in the wild. But he’s been an object of fascination among 49er-watchers for a couple of reasons.
First, when he came to the team in 2018, he earned raves for his speed (his nickname is “Jet”) and elusiveness. Although he’s not big at 5-9, 180 pounds, the scouting reports rave over his “elite change of direction.” Reporters talked of how he was “embarrassing” linebackers who tried to cover him.
Quarterback Jimmy Garopollo developed a rapport immediately. This year Jimmy G said that because McKinnon played quarterback in college “he feels space like a quarterback.”
And second, coach Kyle Shanahan went out of his way to encourage the team to sign McKinnon to a hefty four-year, $30 million contract for the 2018 season. In an era where there is a debate in the NFL about the effectiveness of a “bell cow” running back, that’s a lot of money.
And then McKinnon tore his ACL. That cost him all of 2018. He came back in 2019 after rehabbing, but he knew the knee wasn’t right. He ended up having a second knee surgery and missing all of last year too.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said last week in a virtual interview with reporters. “It was a dark time. And I caught myself in some dark places at moments.”
Now he’s back on the field and the shifty scatback looks fluid and fast. It is possible that this could be a big story for the team this year. Shanahan famously said when McKinnon got hurt that the injury took away a lot of the offensive schemes he was planning. Now that he’s back, McKinnon can be expected to be featured on pass routes out of the backfield, especially in third down situations.
At his previous team, Minnesota, McKinnon didn’t put up impressive rushing numbers, but caught 51 passes in 2017.
But that was two knee surgeries and two years away from football ago. It is revealing that the 49ers have stuck with him, despite the lack of production. And it has not gone unnoticed by McKinnon. He talked of how “my teammates and coaches reached out to me,” encouraging him.
And in return, now that he’s (fingers crossed) healthy, McKinnon was willing to take a salary cut this year, to a base salary of $910,000.
It is two sides of the same equation. The 49ers had McKinnon’s back, and in return he accepted the salary cut to stay with the team. That’s the advantage of a franchise that is perceived as well-run and professional.
“There’s something special about this organization,” McKinnon said.
Wide receiver Trent Taylor: It is good to have Taylor back in uniform, if nothing else, so he and locker room pal George Kittle can keep everyone amused.
You probably saw Kittle’s T-shirt at his press conference to announce his new contract. A fan made up a mock-presidential candidates’ T-shirt that said, “Garopollo Kittle ’20.”
So last week when Taylor appeared for his presser, he wore the same shirt except that he’d put tape over Kittle’s name and had written “TAYLOR” over it.
“I’m still Jimmy’s favorite target by far,” he deadpanned to reporters. “No matter what George tells anyone else.”
As amusing as that line is, it might also very well be true. Taylor, like McKinnon, is another small, quick player with mind-bending shiftiness. Working out of the slot, Taylor fills the role Wes Welker used to play for the Patriots. That’s the team, of course, where Garopollo spent his early years. And to complete the circle, Welker is now Taylor’s position coach with the 49ers.
So there is every reason to think Taylor could return to his 2017 level when he and Garopollo hooked up repeatedly and effectively.
But it has been a long, hard slog for Taylor. When Garoppolo was lost to knee surgery after just three full games in 2018, Taylor’s stats fell. He also battled a back injury.
And then before the 2019 season started, and when he was being praised at training camp, Taylor suffered a broken foot that led to an almost incomprehensible list of complications. He had surgery on the foot, then another surgery to relieve discomfort. Then the foot became infected. That was followed by a procedure to place surgical screws in the foot. And then more surgery to take them out.
Let’s just say it was a big moment for Taylor to take the field this year at training camp. His (fingers crossed) is pain free and Shanahan says he looks like he’s back.
“It’s been a tough road,” Taylor said. “Just sitting in my 800-square foot apartment all season long. When camp started I was thinking, ‘How long has it been since I put on a helmet?’”
Assuming he stays healthy, he will have plenty of opportunities to put on a helmet. In addition to being a prime Garopollo target — especially on third downs — he’s volunteering for extra work.
“My goal is to be our punt returner for the season,” he said.
That will win him no votes.