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NFL coaches and general managers routinely say cut-down day, when hundreds of players lose their jobs across the league, is one of the grimmest on the calendar.
And it was particularly brutal for the 49ers on Saturday.
In the morning, not long before the 49ers pared their roster to 53 players, starting running back Jerick McKinnon — who signed a four-year, $30 million contract in March — suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, a league source said. It was McKinnon’s first full practice since a calf injury in the same leg sidelined him for the final three preseason games.
Even before McKinnon’s injury was confirmed by an MRI exam, head coach Kyle Shanahan feared McKinnon could be lost for the season. Shanahan indicated McKinnon grabbed his knee after going to the ground.
“He made a cut on air, nobody was around him, and just went down,” Shanahan said. “It looked awkward. We’re concerned about it. … We’re nervous about it, that’s for sure.”
McKinnon, an excellent pass-catcher who spent his first four seasons primarily as a backup with the Vikings, was expected to have a do-it-all role as a feature back in Shanahan’s offense. In Minnesota, he had 2,902 total yards, 142 catches and averaged 4 yards a carry.
The 49ers will now turn to Alfred Morris, 29, and Matt Breida, a 2017 undrafted free agent, to headline their backfield.
Morris is the more accomplished, but he doesn’t have the pass-catching ability Shanahan prizes in his backs. He has just 57 catches in his six-year career, but he does have two Pro Bowl and three 1,000-yard seasons, his first two when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator in Washington from 2012-13.
Morris, who was working out in Cross Roads, Texas, before he signed with the 49ers in August, had 84 yards on 17 carries in his preseason debut on Aug. 24 in Indianapolis. Last year, Morris rushed for 547 yards and averaged 4.8 yards a carry with the Cowboys.
The 49ers not only lost their top rusher this weekend — they also lost out in their bid to acquire one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers.
General manager John Lynch said the 49ers, who don’t have a player on their roster with more than nine career sacks, seriously pursued All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack before the Raiders dealt him to the Bears on Saturday.
In his first four seasons, Mack, 27, the No. 5 pick in 2014, has 40.5 career sacks and has been voted to three Pro Bowls. The 49ers had the sixth-fewest sacks (30) in the NFL last year.
“We’d have been foolish not to,” Lynch said. “The guy is a spectacular player. We’ve always said we’re going to exhaust every option to improve our team, and so we did. We went in aggressively, but also knowing we had to set some parameters. And we did, and somebody else landed him. And we’re excited about our team.”
For Mack, the Bears surrendered two first-round picks (2019, 2020), a third-round pick (2020) and a sixth-round pick (2019), and also received a second-round pick (2020) and a conditional fifth-round pick (2020).
After the trade, Mack signed a six-year, $141 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
In the past two seasons, the 49ers have drafted just one edge rusher and signed one in free agency. On Saturday, they parted with both — Pita Taumoepenu, a 2017 sixth-round pick, and Jeremiah Attaochu, who was signed to a one-year deal with $2.5 million guaranteed in March.
The biggest surprise was the decision to cut ties with Attaochu, who was expected to serve as a primary edge rusher with Cassius Marsh.
“Jerry was a guy — we were excited — unfortunately due to some injuries during camp we just didn’t get that many opportunities to correctly evaluate him,” Lynch said.
Attaochu missed the preseason opener with a groin injury, but played the second-most defensive snaps (46) in the second preseason game at Houston. He played 29 snaps in the third exhibition game and had a sack. He didn’t play in the preseason finale, and it’s not known if his absence was injury-related.
“As we go into the regular season, dependability in terms of knowing a guy is going to be out there is really important,” Lynch said. “And we just didn’t have that feeling. So we made a tough decision, but one we felt we had to.”
The other players the 49ers waived or released included guard Jonathan Cooper, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, inside linebacker Korey Toomer, tight end Cole Hikutini and defensive back Tyvis Powell.