Way back when the Minnesota Vikings signed Latavius Murray, he and Jerick McKinnon expected to make up a tandem in the Vikings’ backfield. Murray was going to be the downhill runner and McKinnon the scat back/playmaker. But Dalvin Cook changed those plans by dominating through the first four weeks.
Now with Cook out for the rest of the season with an ACL tear, both Murray and McKinnon have a chance to return to square one.
But the two runners are in different spots in their careers. Murray already earned a $1.8 million signing bonus and is guaranteed $3.4 million over the life of his contract. As a 2015 Pro Bowler and proven all-around back, Murray is very likely to be needed somewhere even if the Vikings move on after this year to clear the way for Cook.
McKinnon’s future is resting on the next 12 weeks.
When the Vikings’ 25-year-old runner took on the No. 1 RB role for a handful of games in 2014 and gave plenty of reason to be excited about his future. He carried the ball 127 times for 538 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and showed big-play ability, breaking four 20-plus runs, including a 55-yard rush against the Falcons.
In 2015, Adrian Peterson returned as the feature running back and led the NFL in rushing yards, but McKinnon quietly performed well as a change-of-pace back. He gained 5.2 yards per carry and caught 27 passes at 8.2 yards per catch. The former third-round pick exploded late in the year against the New York Giants for 89 yards and two touchdowns on just seven runs.
Last season McKinnon got an extended shot as RB1, but Vikings’ offensive line sabotaged any chance for a big season. When running up the middle, he gained just 2.6 yards per carry. On runs to the outside, he gained a respectable 3.9 yards per carry, including big plays of 36 and 25 yards.
The Vikings didn’t scheme to get McKinnon the ball in the passing game. Instead he was a check down option. He was rarely lined up as a slot receiver, outside of a late-game touchdown scored at the goal line against the Dallas Cowboys.
Many of last season’s issues are solved. The Vikings’ offensive line has been solid over the first four weeks and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has had an entire offseason to find ways for running backs to make an impact. After all, running backs who can catch are a staple of successful West Coast offenses.
Now McKinnon will have to perform. So far this year he hasn’t had much success, gaining just 26 yards on 10 carries. McKinnon also dropped a key third down pass against the Detroit Lions.
As a free agent after this season, McKinnon will need to prove that he can bring valuable as a runner and receiver in order to convince the Vikings to re-sign him or land a prominant role on another team.
If he can bounce back to 2014 and 2015 form, it will soften the blow of losing Cook and put McKinnon in a good place for his NFL future.