Training camp preview: Scouting the Vikings' running backs
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Each weekday until the Minnesota Vikings report to training camp on July 29, 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero breaks down the roster at another position, based on offseason practice observations and conversations with coaches, scouts and personnel people around the NFL. Day 2: running backs.
On the roster (9)
Good bet: FB Naufahu Tahi.
Long shot: RB Ian Johnson.
Peterson (6-foot-1, 217 pounds) is as dangerous as anyone in the NFL with the ball in his hands. His per-carry average (4.4) in 2009 was a career low, but he scored more (18 TDs), was a greater factor in the passing game (43 receptions for 436 yards) and continued to develop as a pass blocker. Ball security (16 fumbles, 10 lost over the past two seasons) remains a concern. Peterson's physical running style, coupled with the departure of veteran backup Chester Taylor (Bears) in free agency, necessitated the Vikings' bold draft-day trade up for Gerhart (6-0, 231), another one-cut bruiser built for the inside-zone scheme. The second-round pick (51st overall) is fast enough (4.53 seconds in the 40) for his size, has good balance and can break tackles when he gets going downhill.
Young (5-10, 209) sat No. 2 on the depth chart before the draft, but he's a change-of-pace guy at best. Moats (5-8, 210) is another smallish back who posted career highs with 496 combined yards and five touchdowns last season. Days after Houston cut him, Moats signed a one-year deal with a minimum base salary ($630,000). Reynaud (5-9, 201) converted from receiver in offseason practices, but his primary value is on special teams. He averaged 10.3 yards on 30 punt returns last season. Practice-squad holdover Johnson (5-11, 212) probably needs multiple injuries to have a shot.
The starting fullback since 2008, Tahi (6-0, 254) received the right-of-first-refusal restricted tender ($1.176 million). His work was more limited last season as the Vikings spread their offense and shifted away from the running game (44.3 percent, down from 51.2 in each of the previous two seasons). D'Imperio (6-2, 241), the converted linebacker from Rutgers, started from scratch in rookie camp and has a long way to go.
Barring an injury, Gerhart figures as the top backup to Peterson, but that doesn't mean Moats and Young will go down without a fight. Both offer a perimeter element Gerhart doesn't, and the rookie has to play catch-up after missing most of the offseason while finishing his degree. Also, Moats comes from the Brad Childress-Philadelphia roster tree, which has landed several street free agents in Minnesota, and he has by far the most NFL experience of the three. Taylor's old third-down role is up for grabs, too, although Peterson may fill that void at least in part. Gerhart is known as an effective blocker, but he finished his college career with only 39 receptions total -- one fewer than Taylor's yearly average during his four seasons in Minnesota.
One NFL scout's take on ... rookie Toby Gerhart
"I was kind of in the minority on that actually. I wasn't a huge (fan). I know he was a really good college football player, but he's a kind of move-the-chains guy. I thought he was one of those guys you kind of had to feed a lot. I thought they'd be looking for somebody to do something a little bit different (than Peterson) -- somebody who would have a little more juice. This guy's like, you give it to him 20, 30 times. (But) I think I was a little hard on him, so I think he's going to be a pretty good pro for them."
The Vikings sunk to 13th last season in rushing yards (119.9 per game) and 22nd in yards per carry (4.1), but a variety of factors played into that. At age 25, Peterson in essence has two years remaining on his original rookie contract -- the final year, 2012, will void -- and there have been rumblings since his absence from last month's minicamp he might be angling quietly for a new deal. The Tennessee Titans' willingness to restructure star halfback Chris Johnson's contract with three years remaining could be construed as supporting the argument for sweetening Peterson's, too. But unlike Johnson, Peterson isn't playing for relative pennies -- unlocking $11.695 million in escalators has pushed his base salaries to $3.64 million this season and $10.72 million in 2011, with millions more still available -- and it's highly unlikely his dissatisfaction, if it exists, would trigger a holdout at this stage anyway. So, the primary questions are about the division of labor behind Peterson, who has averaged 1,495 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in three Pro Bowl seasons -- with Taylor timesharing and serving as valuable insurance policy.