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Jerick McKinnon has become one of the Chiefs’ most underrated-but-integral players

The pass-catching back is in his ninth year with the NFL.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

A little more than three weeks ago, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy explained that after six games, the club was still trying to find its identity when it came to its running game. Four weeks, a bye week and three games later, one might argue it is beginning to take shape.

In their 27-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chiefs primarily leaned into two backs as opposed to three, giving rookie Isiah Pacheco 35 snaps and veteran Clyde Edwards-Helaire only four. Jerick McKinnon was on the field for 24 snaps as the team’s pass-catching, pass-protector extraordinaire.

That has grown to be a comfortable role for McKinnon over the course of his nine-year career with the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers — and now the Chiefs.

“Since I’ve came into the league that’s kind of been how I’ve kind of been used,” said McKinnon. “In Minnesota, I was blessed to play under Norv Turner. That was really my introduction into the passing game. Being able to be in his office and learn from him and kind of fill space and sense things like that and then you know going to San Fran with (49ers head coach) Kyle [Shanahan] – it’s kind of the same simulation. Then coming here with coach [Andy] Reid and just piggybacking off of each other. I probably would just contribute it (to) all three of my coaches that I’ve had and how they use me.

“Of course, you know if you’ve been used in a certain role, you get comfortable and develop with things of that nature in that role. So that’s all I’ll say: I’ll just say it’s a credit to the coaches that I’ve had and being in those systems and learning the playbook and being able to fill space and become available for the quarterback.”

Over the Chiefs’ first seven games, McKinnon caught 13 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. Over the last two games — in wins against the Tennessee Titans and the Jaguars — McKinnon has combined for 12 receptions for 96 yards.

When McKinnon is in the game, quarterback Patrick Mahomes has found comfort in looking to him as a checkdown option when other pass-catchers are covered downfield.

“Last year, toward the end, Pat started checking down more than he was before — not just to me, but just in general,” said McKinnon. “[It] just comes along in practice with that trust — him knowing where that back is going to be, whether it’s me, Pap (Pacheco), Clyde, just being available, making positive gains off it. That’s all it is — whatever it takes to keep the chains going, keep those positive plays and yards going and come away with the scores.”

McKinnon fits best as Mahomes’ third-down back because — in addition to his ability to catch and run — he is the best pass protector in the running back room and perhaps of all the team’s skill-position players.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” said McKinnon. “It first started when I came out for the draft and Senior Bowl. I really didn’t know what pass protection was — I’m not going to lie to you. I’d never done it, I never traditionally played running back. After taking some Ls in the Senior Bowl one-on-ones and getting into the league and being a rookie and going through one-on-ones and trying to understand pass protection calls and going through that whole learning curve, physically messing up and getting yelled at, it’s something I definitely took pride in.

“Credit to the running backs coach that I had when I first got into the league, [Kirby Wilson], he told me, ‘That’s one thing that will keep you around for a long time. You’ve got a lot of great backs. Everybody can run the ball, things of that nature. But pass pro is definitely something that’s difficult, especially when you’ve got great linebackers in the league — the NFL.’ It’s definitely something that I work at day-in, day-out. I take pride in it. And I’m little so I got little-man syndrome when it comes to stuff like that, but it’s definitely something that I hone in on and I definitely like. It’s fun, working with the O-line. Those guys, they make it easy. We go back and forth, so it’s a collective effort.”

McKinnon is one of 13 Chiefs players who have caught passes in 2022, and he is one of five Chiefs with 25 receptions or more. Mahomes is finding ways to win by using everybody — and as the Chiefs hit their stride, McKinnon has become an integral part of that effort.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he added. “You know when you got a lot of guys who contribute, and you’ve got a lot of guys who step in and become new contributors it’s hard for defensive coordinators to plan for that. Especially when you have success you know that’s a credibility to the coaches — coach Reid, [offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy], the whole coaching staff — and then you know Pat dishing the ball out to different guys and different guys making plays and having success and making it easy on juggling and when you play collectively like that as a unit and you come away with positives, it makes it hard for people to stop.”

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