News & Analysis

Kyle Juszczyk: The artificial ceiling on Jerick McKinnon's fantasy stock

Dec 10, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that receiving is an ever-increasing part of the job for a running back (well, unless you’re LeGarrette Blount). It’s why Dion Lewis became one of the league’s top-salaried backs in free agency, why David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell are fantasy monsters, and why Danny Woodhead got enough attention to become PFT Commenter’s favorite player.

Modern running backs have capitalized on the receiving trend in various ways. Eight running backs have finished in the top 25 at the position in receiving yards each of the last three years. They break down into the following groups:

  • RB1s (LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram, Devonta Freeman): It’s difficult — though not impossible — to be a true RB1 in today’s game without some serious receiving chops. These three have combined durability the last three years with the receiving ability to stay high in the rankings. Bell, Johnson, and others would be here if not for injury limiting them one of the years.
  • Change-of-pace backs (Duke Johnson, Theo Riddick, James White, Giovani Bernard): Each of these guys has had serious fantasy relevance for some or all of a given season — Johnson was just the No. 11 fantasy back in PPR leagues, while Bernard and Riddick tied for No. 17 in 2015. But these guys are basically there to provide a pass-catching alternative to a starter who might not have the same receiving acumen. Think Darren Sproles, who would be here if not for his 2017 injury.
  • Kyle Juszczyk

Juszczyk is his own animal in this group. It’s clear even in the fact that he isn’t actually a running back, but rather one of the league’s vanishing supply of fullbacks. He’s the only guy on this list who has changed teams in the last three years, having left Baltimore after 2016 to join San Francisco as a free agent.

I’m not going to get ahead of myself here — this is about Juszczyk. He’s a fascinating player. But I’m not going to offer up 1,000 words on a fullback and pretend he’s fantasy relevant. With occasional weeks of exception, Juszczyk isn’t a fantasy option. He’s a fullback with 14 carries in five-year career and has never had even 350 yards from scrimmage in a season.

But what Juszczyk can do (will do?) in 2018 is make life frustrating for Jerick McKinnon owners.

(Also, as an aside, I have officially learned to spell Juszczyk on my first try, so even if everything else I write here ends up wrong, I got that going for me.)

McKinnon has yet to reach 1,000 yards in a year or score more than 5 touchdowns. Still, that didn’t stop the 49ers from giving him a four-year, $30 million deal in free agency. Per Fantasy Football Calculator, since the signing was announced, McKinnon’s ADP has climbed more than two rounds, and you can expect that to keep going. In an offense where Carlos Hyde had 83 targets a year ago, McKinnon — whose pass-catching ability far outclasses Hyde’s — is going to carry all sorts of appeal.

Look deeper, though. Look at the running back’s targets and receiving yardage per game by starting quarterback:

Targets and receiving yards per game, 2017
Starting quarterback Carlos Hyde Kyle Juszczyk
Brian Hoyer (Weeks 1-6) 4.7 23.7 1.8 13.3
C.J. Beathard (Weeks 7-12) 6.7 25.5 1.5 6.7
Jimmy Garoppolo (Weeks 13-17) 3.0 11.0 3.8 39.0

Juszczyk and Garoppolo worked together well — Juszczyk put up 195 receiving yards with Garoppolo as the starter, seventh in the league among running backs, and better than Christian McCaffrey, Freeman, Bernard, and, yes, McKinnon.

If that pairing continues to work in the same mold in 2018, it will cap McKinnon’s fantasy ceiling, even if only a little. But the knock on McKinnon has always been his size, with concerns that he might not hold up over a full workload, Juszczyk (and second-year backs Matt Breida and Joe Williams) will chime in.

McKinnon is a fantasy RB2 in San Francisco. But unlike some others drafted in that range, I just don’t see him having a potential RB1 ceiling. He caps out where he is, and part of that is because of his team’s fullback.

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