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The future of the Vikings, part 2: The running backs

Following their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, the Minnesota Vikings are now officially in offseason mode. Throughout the coming weeks, we will look at the future of each position, what changes may come in free agency, the draft or trades and which direction players are trending. For Part 1, we looked at the quarterbacks, for part 2, the running backs…

After finishing the 2016 season dead last in the NFL in rushing, the Minnesota Vikings put an emphasis on improving their ground attack. They signed two run-blocking tackles, drafting a strong rookie center, signed Latavius Murray and drafted all-time Florida State leading rusher Dalvin Cook. While Cook got hurt after just four weeks, the Vikings’ plan worked. They finished seventh in rushing yards and the Vikings’ running backs added 614 yards receiving.

Could they be even more effective next season?

The results

Dalvin Cook

Who is the real Dalvin Cook?

It didn’t take long for the Vikings’ second-round draft pick to prove he is a special player. In training camp, he quickly separated himself from the pack, showing rare elusiveness, power and patience. Those things translated immediately to the field. In Week 1, he gained 127 yards on just 22 carries. In the fourth quarter, he shredded the New Orleans Saints twice for 30-plus yard runs.

Through three games, Cook was at the top of the NFL leaderboard in rushing yards. He also flashed some receiving ability with five catches for 72 yards against the Tampa Bay Bucs.

But in Week 4, the Vikings’ star rookie suffered an ACL tear, ending his promising season. Cook finished with 74 carries for 354 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and 11 catches for 90 yards. Over 16 games, that pace would put him at 1,416 yards rushing and 360 yards receiving.

Latavius Murray

Do not overlook Latavius Murray’s role in the Vikings’ winning streak

The 2015 Pro Bowl running back got off to a rough start as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Not only did Cook beat him for the No. 1 job, but he didn’t show much burst when he did receive opportunities. Through the first six weeks, Murray had just 97 yards on 41 carries. But his season turned in a home game against the Baltimore Ravens. Murray went off for 113 yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown.

From Week 7 through 17, Murray gained 745 yards on 175 carries and scored eight touchdowns while sharing the backfield with Jerick McKinnon. The 16-game pace would equate to 1,192 yards.

He was especially good in goal line or short yardage situations. Murray rushed eight times on either third or fourth-and-short and he gained seven first downs. He scored eight times on 24 carries inside the 10-yard line.

The best power runners are used in today’s game as closers, grinding clock away late in games by creating short third down situations. On first down, the veteran back picked up 4.5 yards per rush.

When leading with less than four minutes to go, Murray averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Overall when the Vikings were ahead, he picked up 4.1 yards per carry – a higher rate than when tied or trailing.

Jerick McKinnon

Following a rough 2016 as Adrian Peterson’s replacement, McKinnon bounced back to help create one of the league’s top running back tandems. Following Cook’s injury, the former third-round pick gained 544 yards on 140 carries (3.9 yards per carry) and caught 43 passes for 381 yards. Over 16 games, his pace works out to 725 yards rushing and 57 catches for 508 yards receiving. Per Pro Football Focus: McKinnon forced a missed tackle every 5.0 carries, eighth-best in the NFL.

His efficiency in the passing game was particularly impressive. He caught 75.0 percent of the passes his way and averaged 8.2 yards per catch. PFF graded McKinnon as the seventh best receiving back in the NFL and the ninth best pass protector.

The options

— Dalvin Cook will return as the No. 1 back next year. His ceiling is a top-five all-around running back in the NFL, so there’s a good chance he’s the centerpiece of the entire Vikings offense in 2018.

— The Vikings will likely have to move on without McKinnon. His comments at locker cleanout indicated that he’d be looking for a starting role or at least a spot as part of a duo. If he were to return to Minnesota, he’d be a situational player at best. He proved this year that he can be very effective as a No. 2, especially in the passing game and is deserving of a significant role somewhere.

— Murray will be entering the second season of a three-year, $15 million contract. The Vikings could walk away for only $1.2 million in dead cap money, but he’s an excellent insurance policy in case Cook requires more time to return to 100 percent. Murray isn’t the ideal situational back as McKinnon would be, but he will take some of the pressure off the up-and-coming star.

— The Vikings will either need to draft a No. 3 RB or sign one in free agency. The best free agent options who are likely to be in the Vikings’ price range and fit the needed skill set to replace McKinnon are: JD McKissic (Seattle), Kerwynn Williams (Arizona), Benny Cunningham (Chicago) and Corey Grant (Jacksonville).

— Players to watch in the middle rounds of the draft include: Ronald Jones (USC), Royce Freeman (Oregon), Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) and Josh Adams (Notre Dame). Late round RBs who could catch the Vikings’ eye include Tennessee’s John Kelly and Alabama’s Bo Scarborough.

The bottom line

The Vikings should be thrilled with their situation in the backfield for 2018. Considering they will bring back almost their entire offensive line next season, Cook will have a chance to jump right back in where he left off. What we learned about Murray’s personality this year is that he can handle a situation where he isn’t the only running back. He could end up playing a valuable role next year. If the Vikings can find a No. 3 back who can make an impact in the passing game, the running backs will end up playing a huge role in the offense again.


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