While Latavius Murray has been sidelined recovering from ankle surgery, rookie Dalvin Cook has shown everything the Minnesota Vikings hoped to see when they drafted him in the second round – and more.
Not only has Cook looked quick and appeared to fit into the Vikings’ zone running scheme, the all-time leading rusher at Florida State has been frequently come out of the backfield on screen passes and even lined up as a wide receiver. He’s also garnered good reviews as a pass protector, which was an area he needed to improve coming out of college.
“I don’t see any elements of running back play that he can’t be very good at and pass protection is one of them,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said.
No doubt, the Vikings would love to see Cook fulfill his potential and become one of the league’s top all-around running backs, but if he proves capable of being a three-down back, where does that leave Murray?
“I have a lot of catching up to do, he’s been on the field, he’s been playing,” Murray said. “He deserves everything that he has right now. I have to prove to the coaches and the team that I’m able to still go out there and perform at a high level.”
After Saturday night’s practice, Jerick McKinnon told 1500ESPN he sees all three running backs having specified roles. McKinnon is pretty clear: He’s a versatile playmaker who can line up outside or in the slot or even in the Wildcat, as he showed last season. Murray doesn’t quite fit the “playmaker” role, but he still has two elements of his game that stand out: His short-yardage rushing and pass blocking.
While Cook has gotten credit for improved blocking, Murray is one of the best blockers out of the backfield in the NFL.
“I was very critical of myself and I think that really motivated me to use my frame, even if it may not look pretty,” Murray said. “Use my frame, use my size, and make sure my guys doesn’t touch the quarterback. I think I’ve been able to improve on that each year.”
The 2015 Pro Bowler received the third highest grade as a pass blocker of any running back in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus metrics.
Since the Vikings do not employ a starting tight end who can stay in and help tackles block when they face off with top-notch pass rushers, a pass-blocking running back could become an essential part of protecting Sam Bradford. Murray was often used in Oakland as a chip blocker to assist tackles with star rushers like Tamba Hali and Von Miller. The veteran running back is also considered a very smart player and has the ability to read and react to blitzes.
The value of that skill will vary from game to game and with opponent and health of the Vikings’ offensive line.
Murray can play the role of short-yardage back because of his size – 6-foot-3, 230-pounds – but he has more versatility than you might expect. He carried the ball 86 times for 366 yards (4.3 Yards Per Carry) and caught 26 passes out of the shotgun in 2016.
So the Vikings could use Murray more in shotgun situations, while Cook plays more often in single-back or I-Form sets (if they keep a fullback). That might help cover up one of Murray’s shortcomings: Vision. *Outside zone runs might not fit as well as they would require the former Raider to be a little more patient as he looks to either cut back or hit a gap. He might be better fit for shotgun inside zone runs instead.
*There are many good breakdowns of how zone runs work, this one is solid
How Murray is used will likely be finalized over the next few weeks. Now that he’s practicing with the team, Shurmur can start making judgements about where the veteran best fits in the offense. But it’s clear that Murray’s skill set should still allow him to fill a role as part of a running back trio even if Cook rises to the top.