SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — After spending most of his first four seasons in Minnesota as a part-time back, Jerick McKinnon wanted to find a spot in free agency where he could show off his ability as a featured runner.
San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan saw enough from his film over those years to decide he was the player they wanted to be their starting running back, giving him a four-year deal that will guarantee him nearly $12 million in 2018.
“It was big for me,” McKinnon said Thursday. “It was what I was hoping to have and looking for instead of staying in Minnesota and being in that third-down back role. I was looking for that opportunity. I’m glad this organization, this team, coach Shanahan felt strong enough about me and brought me in. I believe it’s the perfect fit.”
The 49ers said they heavily targeted McKinnon and center Weston Richburg as players they wanted to acquire early in free agency. Richburg agreed to a five-year deal on Wednesday and both players were introduced at a news conference Thursday.
McKinnon spent four years in Minnesota mostly as a backup after being drafted in the third round in 2014 after playing mostly quarterback in college at Georgia Southern. He has rushed for 1,918 yards with average of 4.0 yards per carry, has 142 catches for 984 yards, and has scored 12 touchdowns.
McKinnon had his most productive season last year when he ran for a career-high 570 yards,, while setting personal bests with 51 catches for 421 yards.
The addition of McKinnon replaces Carlos Hyde, who is leaving as a free agent for Cleveland. McKinnon has more speed and is a better receiving threat than Hyde and should fit well into Shanahan’s offense.
“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach,” Shanahan said. “Based off of what downs you put him in and that when you do put him in, the defense doesn’t know exactly what type of plays you’re trying to run because he can do it all.”
Richburg spent the past four seasons with the New York Giants but played only four games last year because of a concussion. He began his career as a left guard before moving to center in 2015. He played there the past three seasons and is considered one of the top pass-blocking players at the position and has the athleticism to thrive in Shanahan’s zone-running scheme.
The Niners are hoping Richburg has a similar impact in San Francisco as Alex Mack had in Atlanta when he joined the Falcons when Shanahan was offensive coordinator there.
“I’ve been around some real good ones in my career,” Shanahan said. “He’s put it all on tape and he looks right there with all those guys and that’s why I value him a ton off the tape. Didn’t know a ton about him until I turned on the tape and it was as good as I’ve seen.”
With Richburg in place, the Niners traded last year’s starting center Daniel Kilgore to Miami in a deal that included a swap of seventh-round picks. The 49ers had signed Kilgore to a three-year extension last month but felt Richburg was the better option at center so worked to find a new spot for Kilgore.
It’s been a busy offseason already for San Francisco. The Niners signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year deal last month before he even hit free agency, signed cornerback Richard Sherman after he was cut by Seattle, re-signed defensive lineman Cassius Marsh and offensive lineman Garry Gilliam and gave an extension to receiver Marquise Goodwin.
The team also signed defensive lineman Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year deal Thursday to help bolster the pass rush and still could make a few more moves to upgrade a team that won its final five games last season after Garoppolo took over as starter to finish 6-10.
“We feel like we’ve improved our team greatly and that excites us,” general manager John Lynch said.
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