With the NFL Draft and Free Agency having passed, rosters around the league are generally set. As the Minnesota Vikings OTAs and mini-camps roll on ahead of training camp, players at every position are working hard to stand out. While they are still running around without pads, the players who can make a good impression now put themselves in better positions to succeed. We will be analyzing each player at each position, from veteran stars to unheralded undrafted free agents. Today, the focus is on the running backs.
Minnesota Vikings Running Back Depth Chart Projections
Looking Back on Last Season
Adrian Peterson elevated the Vikings offense to a perennial top-five unit running the football for nearly a decade. Unfortunately, injuries and age took their toll. The future Hall of Famer played in just three games in 2017, posting 72 yards, one fumble, no touchdowns, and a lousy 1.9 yards per rush. While in previous seasons his ability was enough to overcome shoddy line play, he lost the burst and power to succeed.
With Peterson sidelined for most of the season, the workload fell on Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, and briefly Ronnie Hillman. Together they led a historically poor rushing attack. Of the four backs to take a handoff for the Vikings last season, only McKinnon remains with the team. This is by no means a bad thing– when a team rushes for just over 75 yards a game, a major overhaul is necessary.
The Vikings declined Peterson’s $18 million option, and he has since moved on to join the New Orleans Saints. Peterson has promised a big performance against Minnesota Week One on Monday Night Football. Several high profile defenders say they are up for the challenge. After years of being unable to tackle the star in practice, Everson Griffen and the rest of the defense is ready to bring the hammer down on Peterson.
Asiata, a physical short yardage back with solid pass protection skills, had a down year last season. Already nearing his dreaded 30th birthday, the bruising back was less effective on the goal line and in short yardage situations than in previous seasons. The veteran will suit up next season for the Detroit Lions.
Hillman only lasted five games after joining the team off waivers, and while he had moments in the passing game, he averaged only 2.8 yards per carry running the ball. Hillman finished the season with the LA Chargers and is currently unsigned.
C.J. Ham, the other halfback on last year’s roster, spent most of the season on the practice squad. Ham joined the active roster to close out the season, but did not touch the ball. The former UDFA and tryout player impressed in the preseason, using his size and strength successfully.
Finally, fullback Zach Line was used less last season than he had been in previous years. After offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned mid-season, he saw far less playing time in Pat Shurmur‘s West Coast, spread influenced scheme. Line is now a free agent.
The Roster Today
The Vikings have completely overhauled the running back room since last season, hoping to transform a weakness into a strength. Only McKinnon and Ham remain from last year’s team. New additions include former Oakland Raider Latavius Murray, second-round pick Dalvin Cook, undrafted rookie Terrell Newby, and Tennessee Titans castoff Bishop Sankey. Unlike other positions, depth chart order means little for running backs. As the NFL shifts to by-committee rushing attacks, every back on the roster has a rolle to play, regardless of depth chart order.
Murray was signed in the off-season with the intention of him being the starter. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, he is huge for a halfback, but he also runs a sub-4.4 40 yard dash. Though he is not extremely physical as a runner, he is still a good short yardage back. Murray’s skill in pass protection and his ability as a receiver make him a compete player, although he may not be the most talented back on the roster. Murray’s contract can be voided after one year, or last as long as three. The veteran has yet to practice this off-season due to a minor ankle surgery.
Dalvin Cook may have been the most talented running back in this year’s draft class. Fortunately for the Vikings, rumored off-field issues had him slide into the second round, where general manager Rick Spielman jumped at the chance to trade up for him. Cook is able to produce despite shaky line play, and is more physical between the tackles than he receives credit for. A great athlete who can contribute in the passing game, Cook could be the Week One starter and an early star if things pan out.
McKinnon entered the off-season as the de facto number one back. Although the team has brought in two players looking to eat away at his playing time, McKinnon recently reminded fans to not count him out. The former triple option quarterback is undersized but strong and shifty, with long speed to burn and underrated ability as a receiver.
Additionally, he has improved in pass protection and should factor into the Vikings running game in a big way. Whether as a third-down back, a kick returner, a wild cat quarterback, or a slot receiver, Minnesota cannot afford to waste McKinnon’s talent. In a contract year, he also cannot afford to waste his opportunities.
Signed last season after a tryout in rookie mini-camp, Ham is following a recently beaten path to a roster spot on the Vikings. Ham, like Adam Thielen and Marcus Sherels before him, is a Minnesota Native who received little interest in the draft. Thielen is now one of the Vikings best receivers, and Sherels is the best punt returner in team history.
Ham is transitioning to fullback this off season, and has impressed enough to earn a shout out from Spielman earlier in the off season. Ham’s usefulness on offense as a ball carrier and blocker, as well as on special teams, make the option of keeping four backs on the roster an attractive one.
The highest back drafted in 2014, Bishop Sankey has bounced around the league since the Titans let him go before the 2016 season. Sankey spent time with New England and Kansas City before joining the Vikings practice squad in November. While he has physical talent, he remains a long shot to make the roster. This preseason may be his last chance to prove he belongs in the NFL.
Undrafted runner Terrell Newby is the last back on the roster. The former Cornhusker amassed over 1,000 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season, and has some experience returning kicks. Newby will likely be pushing for a practice squad birth this off-season.
Simply put, the Vikings have a loaded backfield. Cook is as good as any rookie, and is already being named as an early rookie of the year candidate. By selecting him, the Vikings drafted a first-round talent in the second round. Murray, McKinnon, and Sankey all have experience in both leading and backup NFL roles, and any or all could be major contributors.
Newby is a relative unknown, but it is doubtful he pushes for snaps in his rookie season. Ham is the wild card, having impressed as a runner last season, and the Vikings have experience transitioning big halfbacks to fullbacks. Ham must prove to the team he is more valuable than an extra tight end or receiver. The Vikings running game is poised to take a large step forward after being one of the league’s worst units last year.