Running the ball successfully is key to winning games in the NFL. Even the most pass-heavy offenses need to be able to grind out tough yards on the ground to keep defenders honest and prevent becoming one dimensional.
In years past, running the ball with success was synonymous with having a work-horse half back on the roster. Players like Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were the focal point of their respective teams. They carried the load, often leading their teams to great seasons.
Unfortunately, the Minnesota Vikings have not seemed to learn that in the modern NFL, investing large sums of money on a single running back is not useful for winning games. The time for a decision with star runner Adrian Peterson is coming soon, as he is due $6 million on March 11. The soon-to-be 31-year-old was either injured or ineffective for the entirety of last season. Already the highest paid back in the NFL, his salary is set at $18 million in total next season, money the team needs to resign young stars.
If his salary, age, and on field performance were not reason enough to move on, Peterson has long been an distraction off the field. His child abuse case is well-documented, and now,he is already listing other teams he would like to play for next season. All logic points to a single conclusion– it is time for a parting of ways between the Vikings and Peterson. If general manager Rick Spielman comes to the same conclusion, the team will need to find a replacement for Peterson.
Minnesota Vikings Roster Looking Forward: Running Backs
Position as it Stands
Currently, the Vikings have five running backs and one fullback with the team. They can easily be divided into two categories: Adrian Peterson, and everyone else.
The status of the former is well known. As stated above, he is overpaid, ineffective, distracting, and ultimately overrated. Unless he will except a drastic pay cut to a salary a runner over 30 coming off a horrible season would earn if his name were not Adrian Peterson, it is time to move on.
For the other running backs on the roster, the future is far less certain. Jerick McKinnon, C.J. Ham, and Bishop Sankey are all under contract for next season, while Matt Asiata and fullback Zach Line are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.
McKinnon, a former third round pick and triple-option quarterback at Georgia Southern, led the Vikings with 159 carries for 539 yards (3.4 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns last season. He also added 43 catches for 255 yards (5.9 yards per reception) and two touchdowns through the air. He struggled at times last season to find running room, both a result of poor line play and his small stature, but he did show flashes of the talent fans saw over his first two years in the league. He will be a major contributor next season, whether as a starter or as a change-of-pace back, in a similar role to that of Darren Sproles.
Asiata, now 29 years old, is unlikely to command a large contract in free agency. The bruising runner will likely be back in Minnesota on a one or two-year contract. Last season, the former Utah Ute ran for 402 yards on 121 carries (3.3 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. An integral part of the team’s blitz pickup and pass protection, the third down back also caught 32 passes for 263 yards (8.2 yards per reception). Unfortunately, last season, the part of Asiata’s game that has been seen as his strength, short yardage situations, was his biggest weakness. Several times last season, Asiata failed to pickup first downs and touchdowns in third-and-short and goal-to-go situations. He will need to return to his previous form in this regard if he want to remain in purple.
Zach Line, the team’s starting fullback was a integral piece of the offense in 2015 and at the start of 2016, saw his snap counts shrink drastically after Norv Turner quit midway through the season. Line played just over one quarter of the team’s offensive snaps while Turner was offensive coordinator, but only a little more than 18 percent of offensive snaps under new coordinator Pat Shurmur. An upcoming free agent, the question of whether to re-sign Line may simply be a question of if they plan to use him.
The other two backs on the roster, Ham and Sankey, are fighting to prove they are worth a roster spot next season. Ham, an undrafted rookie and local player from Duluth, Minnesota had a strong preseason last year and history on his side. A tryout player, he was signed to a contract after showing well in the team’s rookie camp, then spending most of his first season on the practice squad. This is a similar path to that of wide receiver Adam Thielen and return specialist/backup corner back Marcus Sherels, both Minnesota locals who made the practice squad in their rookie seasons after strong tryouts at rookie mini camps. Both are now key contributors to the team on game day each week. Sankey, a former second round pick by the Titans in 2014, is widely considered a bust but he may have the skill set to find a niche with the Vikings.
If the Vikings want to find a solid contributor at running back or even a possible starter in free agency, they may be able to find good value. This year’s loaded draft class should help lower the cost of high quality free agents.
Current Green Bay Packer Eddie Lacy is scheduled to hit free agency, and Vikings fans know all to well how dangerous the former offensive rookie of the year can be when he has his weight under control.
Latavius Murray scored 12 touchdowns with the Raiders last season, and it has been rumored he will hit the open market.
The NFL Draft is the most likely place for the Vikings to rebuild the running back position for the future. Projected mid-round picks like Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, BYU’s Jamaal Williams or Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine show the potential to be great contributors in a back-by-committee approach.
For too long, the Vikings have tired to use Adrian Peterson as a single focal point to the rushing attack. They need to realize that no longer works in the NFL. This season, the Oakland Raiders gained 1,746 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground using three running backs for a combined cap hit of less than $1.7 million in 2016. This is the approach the Vikings need to take to the running back position; infusing the position with young, cheap, specialized backs who can each contribute to a different aspect of the offense.
The team has to move on from Adrian Peterson and focus on creating a modern stable of backs. The team can get better total production with more players for a fraction of the cost. It should be an easy decision for the Vikings front office and coaching staff.
However the team finds new backs, they should improve on a historically poor rushing attack from a year ago. The time has come for a changing of the guard at the position and fans should be excited for it.