The Minnesota Vikings’ running back group heads into training camp without Adrian Peterson for the first time since 2007, which might feel strange to many fans and people within the team, but it doesn’t mean the Vikings will suffer in Peterson’s absence. GM Rick Spielman poured assets into the backfield, signing one running back and trading up for the other. How will they mesh? Let’s have a look…
LISTEN: Matthew Coller and Judd Zulgad preview the running backs:
2016 stat line: 14 games, 195 carries, 788 yards (4.0 YPC), 12 TDs, 33 catches
When Murray signed his three-year, $15 million contract, he probably expected to be part of a running back tandem with Jerick McKinnon, but the Vikings’ decision to draft Dalvin Cook in the second round makes it appear that the former Oakland Raider will have a specified role in Minnesota. Call it the Chester Taylor Role. Murray, who is 6-foot-3, 230-pounds, was rated as Pro Football Focus’s third best pass blocking running back last season. He is also a serviceable pass catcher out of the backfield, routinely sneaking out to find spots underneath zones or running swing routes along the sidelines. So he’s likely to be used in third downs and passing downs. Part 2 of his role will be in short yardage situations. In 2016, Murray used his size and power to tumble into the endzone 12 times and ran 17 times for 83 yards in third or fourth and short.
Playing as part of a trio won’t be any type of adjustment for Murray as he split time with Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington in Oakland’s backfield last year – though he was technically the No. 1 back. Dalvin Cook’s performance in training camp and preseason will determine whether Murray sees the most snaps of the three backs or not.
Whether he’s a role player or the go-to back, the Vikings’ new Pro Bowl running back brings versatility to the table.
Murray preview must-read:
2016 stat line: 13 games, 1,765 yards (6.1 YPA), 19 TDs, 33 catches
In a running back crop that GM Rick Spielman called the best he’s ever seen, Cook was considered to be one of the top talents in the class. But concerns over off-field issues caused him to drop to the second round, where the Vikings traded up from 48th to 43rd to pick him. The Vikings appear to believe they not only drafted Adrian Peterson’s replacement, but possibly have their version of Le’Veon Bell or LeSean McCoy so long as Cook stays on the straight and narrow.
At Florida State, Cook set the school’s all-time record for yards – and did it in just three seasons – and his career 6.5 Yards Per Carry as a Seminole ranks just behind Ezekiel Elliott and just ahead of Todd Gurley’s college marks. Pro Football Focus metrics ranked him as the best running back draft prospect and best among Power-5 schools in “Elusive Rating” and Yards After Contact.
Why was Cook so good at Florida State? He is exceptionally explosive. The Vikings’ rookie running back has the ability to create big plays by patiently waiting for holes to open up and accelerating through them, giving linebackers and safeties little time to react and bring him down.
Expectations for Cook’s first year are high, but his production is unlikely to mirror the Bell’s and McCoy’s just yet. With Murray and McKinnon, the Vikings have a chance to get Cook acclimated into the NFL without putting the pressure of a full workload on his shoulders right away. However, if he carries over his big-play ability from Florida State, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will have no other choice than to give him the majority of the work.
Cook preview must-read:
2016 stat line: 15 games, 159 carries, 539 yards (3.4 YPC), 43 catches
After two exciting seasons to begin his career, McKinnon was put in a difficult position in Year 3. Not only was he asked to become the feature back because of an injury to Adrian Peterson, but he was forced to run behind one of the NFL’s worst run-blocking offensive lines. Of his 159 runs, 23 were stuffed in the backfield before the Vikings’ 25-year-old back had a chance to make a move. Compare that to Latavius Murray, who had just 14 stuffed in 193 carries. It’s reasonable to expect a bounce back considering McKinnon averaged 4.9 YPC over his first two years.
With Murray and Cook also in the backfield, Shurmur can amend a shortcoming from his campaign as interim OC by using McKinnon as a receiver/playmaker more. It took nearly half the season for the Vikings to use their multi-talented running back in the passing game and when they did, it was far too often as a checkdown option instead of a main target. This time around, Shurmur will have the option of lining up McKinnon all over the field and in all types of different situations. Even the Wildcat would be more effective with Murray or Cook by his side as opposed to Matt Asiata.
The question for McKinnon isn’t whether he can be a significant part of the offense, it’s how creative his offensive coordinator is willing to be to maximize his talents.
McKinnon preview must-read:
2016 stat line: N/A
After two fairly effective years with the Tennessee Titans, the former second-round pick found himself without a job in 2016. The Vikings signed Sankey and placed him on the practice squad toward the end of the season, then elected to keep him on the roster into OTAs and Minicamp. While the ex-Washington Huskies running back did average 3.8 Yards Per Carry and 8.5 Yards Per Catch during his time with the Titans, it’s very unlikely that he will compete with Cook, Murray or McKinnon for a spot in the offense. However, he is only 25 years old and has a decent chance to make the team as depth, especially if one of the three regular running backs gets hurt.
2016 stat line: (At Nebraska) 190 attempts, 879 yards, seven touchdowns, 18 catches
The rookie running back led the Nebraska Cornhuskers in rushing the last two seasons, but averaged just 4.6 YPC in his senior year. He was also Nebraska’s kick returner. Unless he emerges as an NFL-caliber kick returner or special teamer, it’s hard to see Newby getting many opportunities in Minnesota.