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Chiefs training camp notebook: Jerrick McKinnon enters the fold

Seven years after he was drafted, the veteran is gunning for the Chiefs’ third running back spot.

Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

This training camp, there is a new face in the Kansas City Chiefs running back room: seven-year NFL veteran Jerrick McKinnon, who they signed to a one-year contract this offseason. McKinnon began his time in the league as a third-round pick made by the Vikings, and he spent 2014-17 in Minnesota before signing with the San Francisco 49ers.

Then came the most difficult part of the 5-foot-9, 208-pound back’s career — an ACL tear in 2018 and a setback that cost him the 2019 season. McKinnon finally returned to appear in 16 games with the 49ers in 2020 — but after practice on Saturday, he revealed it took until this offseason to truly feel like his old self.

“Last year was my first year back and still had to get in the groove of things after missing two years, had to get a feel for the game again and just getting that in-game experience,” said McKinnon during his press conference. “It felt good last year, but there’s still a learning curve coming back after two years. This offseason, I felt really, really good, and coming into the camp, OTAs, my knee’s been feeling really good.

“It’s just the love for the game. Two knee surgeries wasn’t easy, but for the most part, going through that stuff, it was really my teammates that I leaned on the most for help and comfort and things like that. So, coming in every day on crutches, I look at my teammates go hard, and it makes me go that much harder. So that’s how I look at my teammates. Those guys push me no matter what team I’m on.”

The 29-year-old has to prove his worth to carve at a role with the Chiefs, who already have their No. 1 and No. 2 backs in place in starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire and third-down back Darrel Williams, respectively. The other running backs in camp include Elijah McGuire and Derrick Gore, as well as Darwin Thompson.

But Thompson has yet to take the field at camp, as he is on the COVID-19 list, allowing McKinnon to get on the radar of his starting quarterback.

McKinnon rushed 81 times for 319 yards and five touchdowns while catching 33 passes for 253 yards and a score through the air for San Francisco in 2020. Thompson had only 13 touches before Week 17.

“I think he’s going to be a playmaker,” Patrick Mahomes said of McKinnon on Friday. “I’ve seen it from day one, right when he got in here. The way he’s able to run the ball, but then catch the ball out of the backfield, I mean I think he’s a playmaker that will be a big part of our offense.”

Head coach Andy Reid, who has been just as impressed, sees McKinnon as a pass-catcher for his offense.

“He’s a talented receiver,” said Andy Reid. “He’s been doing this for a long time, especially for running backs’ longevity in this league, the average longevity is like three years. So, for him to have been in it and doing it this long, he brings great experience. But he sure has a knack for the pass game. He does a nice job with that.”

Learning Reid’s concepts and terminology hasn’t been easy, so McKinnon says he has relied on both Edwards-Helaire and Williams, who help him understand “the little things” coaches expect. McKinnon said he talked to a total of three teams in free agency, but it was Reid’s offensive scheme that made Kansas City the right fit.

“Just the way they use the running back and stuff like that was very intriguing,” said McKinnon. “This was the team that was the most intriguing to me, so I decided to come here. It’s a good character locker room, and they’ve got a lot of great athletes. So, I thought, what the hell? Let’s come in and see where I fit in.”

Now in Kansas City, McKinnon sounds more motivated than ever.

“Every day in this league, you got to prove yourself. I’m going into year eight. I still feel like I got something to prove. That should be everybody’s mindset. Once you lose that mindset and get complacent, you’ll be out of the league for sure.”

Observations

  • The weather in St. Joseph Saturday morning was drizzly to start practice. At one point, there was a downpour of rain for a period of 10 minutes or so, but the Chiefs never had to pause practice or go inside. The temperature was in the low 70s when practice began at 9:15 a.m., with a real feel of 73 degrees.
  • There has been some mixed messaging regarding the statuses of tight end Travis Kelce (back and hip) and linebacker Anthony Hitchens (hamstring) — both were on the field at the start of the practice during individual periods but did not participate in team drills once again. The Chiefs are using caution when it comes to the two key players — one on each side of the football.
  • With Hitchens already out, Ben Niemann injured his hamstring and had to leave practice early, leaving second-year linebacker Willie Gay and rookie Nick Bolton to make the calls. According to Reid, both took part in reps as the green dot. With Kelce sidelined, rookie tight end Noah Gray saw continued added action.
  • Rookie offensive lineman Lucas Niang, who opted out of what was supposed to be his initial season, started at right tackle on Saturday since Mike Remmers was out of practice due to back spasms. Prince Tega Wanogho took his place at left tackle on the second-team offensive line.
  • Niang’s workout Saturday made me think he might get a legitimate look at being the starter. I’m eager to see how he fares against Chiefs defensive linemen when the pads come on. If Niang overtakes Remmers, Kansas City may wind up starting three rookies along the offensive line this season.
  • In one of my earlier notebooks, I mentioned seeing a little rust in the Patrick Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill connection. Any sign of that has disappeared, with Mahomes finding Hill north of five times in team work — including a beautiful high-point display early. It does not matter how many defenders are around Hill; Mahomes tends to find him in the perfect spot. I did not see a drop from Hill throughout Saturday’s workout.
  • Saturday included one of those Mahomes passes that only he can throw — with Hill as the recipient. Let’s call it a right-jump-sidearm-flip that Hill reined in.
  • For the second straight year, tight end Jody Fortson has looked good. It did not translate to him making the 53-man roster, so he spent the year on the practice squad. If I were writing a new 53-man projection today, Fortson would still miss — but he has my attention.
  • Mahomes’ deepest ball of the day went to wide receiver Byron Pringle, who tracked the ball nicely and made an over-the-shoulder catch way down the right sideline. Cornerback Charvarius Ward had decent coverage, but Pringle just made a great play (see the play below in our tweet of the day section). Ward did have a nice pass breakup later in the day.
  • I have noted that safety Juan Thornhill’s work has primarily come with the second team, but that may change soon, as he keeps getting his hands on the ball. Thornhill nearly intercepted Mahomes during the seven-on-seven work.
  • In 11-on-11, wide receiver Mecole Hardman made a noteworthy catch on a ball that Mahomes threw way down the middle of the field and just out of Thornhill’s reach. Hardman would have scored on the play.
  • Running back Darrel Williams had more work than usual with the first team on Saturday.
  • I like how defensive end Chris Jones has looked along the EDGE and am eager for the padded practice on Tuesday. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders batted a ball down at the line of scrimmage against the third-team offense.
  • Hill took part in the fan-favorite quarterback competition on Saturday — and the lefty impressed:

Press conferences (Spotify)

If you can’t see the embed below, click here for Apple iTunes.

Injury report

  • Did not practice (COVID-19 list): Running back Darwin Thompson
  • Did not practice (injury): Defensive end Malik Herring (ACL), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (hamstring), tight end Nick Keizer (back spasms), tight end Travis Kelce (tight back and hips), right guard Kyle Long (tibia), offensive lineman Mike Remmers (back spasms) safety Armani Watts (foot).
  • Injured Saturday: Linebacker Ben Niemann (hamstring)

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Saturday's tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

AP reader Brandon Thompson snagged a beautiful shot of this Byron Pringle catch along the right sideline.

Quote of the day

Andy Reid, mid-Saturday presser: “There’s a bug crawling up my pants here; that’s not a good thing.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs have a day off on Sunday, and they resume camp with their fifth full-team practice Monday at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Afterward, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and several players will speak to the media. Kansas City’s first padded practice of the season happens on Tuesday.