Image Courtesy of Vikings.com

[Note:  This segment is a part of a position-by-position look at what the Minnesota Vikings might be inclined to do during the 2015 free agency period.  This is the second article, focusing on the running backs.  In case you missed it, feel free to check out the quarterback preview here.]

Any writer that says he or she knows how the Vikings running back depth chart will look in 2015 is lying to you, even if they end up being correct.  I’m a huge fan of irresponsible speculation, truly, but I’m not going to lie to you:  I have no idea how the Adrian Peterson situation will shake out.

If you are interested in some of the speculation on the topic then feel free to read this, this, this, this, this or this.  On second thought, it might just be easier to type “Adrian Peterson” into the search bar at the top of this page and browse as you please.

Now that we’ve established that I’m about to make some predictions based on an impossible-to-predict situation, let’s take a look at what I think I know.

There is no reason to suspect that Jerick McKinnon won’t play a significant role moving forward.  There is also no reason to expect the Vikings not to bring restricted free agents Joe Banyard and Matt Asiata with them to Mankato, as I’ve previously assessed.  They will also have recently-signed Henry Josey and practice squad player Dominique Williams available to them.

Even without Peterson, the Vikings certainly have the quantity of running backs in their current stable to create a decent competition at the position.  The worry, however, is that the quality is lacking (again, if Peterson doesn’t return) and I would not be surprised to see them add some talent.

[Side note:  This seems like a good spot to clarify that I’ll be looking at the fullbacks separate from this post.  Won’t that be exciting?]

If the Vikings decide to add running back talent, even with a Peterson departure, I’m not sure it would be via free agency.  The 2015 Draft class presents a lot of interesting options at running backs, many of whom will likely be available after the first round and could present plenty of value.

With that being said, courtesy of Spotrac, here is a list of 2015 free agent running backs listed from oldest to youngest and including their 2014 salary cap hit:

Ronnie Brown RB 33 SD TBD $402,353 UFA
Leon Washington RB 32 TEN TBD $635,000 UFA
Frank Gore RB 31 SF TBD $6,450,000 UFA
Antone Smith RB 29 ATL TBD $762,500 UFA
Justin Forsett RB 29 BAL TBD $570,000 UFA
Kory Sheets RB 29 OAK TBD $525,000 RFA
Jerome Messam RB 29 MIA TBD RFA
Cedric Peerman RB 28 CIN TBD $1,050,000 UFA
Ahmad Bradshaw RB 28 IND TBD $486,353 UFA
Marcus Thigpen RB 28 BUF TBD $167,647 RFA
Chris Ogbonnaya RB 28 NYG TBD $134,118 UFA
C.J. Spiller RB 27 BUF TBD $5,916,666 UFA
Ryan Mathews RB 27 SD TBD $3,612,000 UFA
Knowshon Moreno RB 27 MIA TBD $3,000,000 UFA
Darren McFadden RB 27 OAK TBD $1,718,000 UFA
Bobby Rainey RB 27 TB TBD $570,000 RFA
Matt Asiata RB 27 MIN TBD $570,000 RFA
Daniel Thomas RB 27 MIA TBD $569,118 UFA
Chase Reynolds RB 27 STL TBD $495,000 ERFA
Alfonso Smith RB 27 SF TBD $265,588 UFA
Shaun Draughn RB 27 CLE TBD $134,117 UFA
DeMarco Murray RB 26 DAL TBD $1,596,625 UFA
Bilal Powell RB 26 NYJ TBD $1,531,125 UFA
DuJuan Harris RB 26 GB TBD $645,000 UFA
Joe McKnight RB 26 KC TBD $437,000 UFA
Phillip Tanner RB 26 SF TBD $75,882 UFA
Ben Tate RB 26 PIT TBD UFA
Mark Ingram RB 25 NO TBD $2,359,875 UFA
Roy Helu RB 25 WAS TBD $1,548,563 UFA
Shane Vereen RB 25 NE TBD $1,101,275 UFA
Stevan Ridley RB 25 NE TBD $939,750 UFA
Jonathan Dwyer RB 25 ARI TBD $635,000 UFA
Chris Polk RB 25 PHI TBD $573,334 RFA
Travaris Cadet RB 25 NO TBD $571,667 RFA
Dan Herron RB 25 IND TBD $570,000 RFA
Fozzy Whittaker RB 25 CAR TBD $495,000 ERFA
LaMichael James RB 25 MIA TBD $234,706 UFA
Michael Hill RB 25 IND TBD $18,900 ERFA
Jason Ford RB 25 PIT TBD RFA
Jacquizz Rodgers RB 24 ATL TBD $1,478,750 UFA
Jordan Todman RB 24 JAC TBD $645,000 RFA
Lance Dunbar RB 24 DAL TBD $570,000 RFA
Chris Thompson RB 24 WAS TBD $87,353 ERFA
Fitz Toussaint RB 24 BAL TBD $74,117 ERFA
Calvin Middleton RB 24 STL TBD RFA
Lee Meisner RB 24 ATL TBD RFA
De’Anthony Curtis RB 24 TB TBD RFA

As I browse this list of candidates here are some opinions to chew on:

DeMarco Murray:  A cut above the rest, Murray is clearly the best running back on this list based on past performance, but that doesn’t mean much regarding his future potential.  The Cowboys ran him ragged this season by handing him the ball 392 times and throwing it to him on 57 occasions.  The production was there, and I don’t think it was all the product of a great offensive line, but one can’t help but be concerned about his durability down the road.  Very seldom does a back carry the ball that many times and then not experience a drastic drop off in production the following season.

C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, and Shane Vereen:  I’ve clumped these guys together mainly due to the fact that I’m lazy and my analysis for each is essentially identical.  Each of these guys could be a nice addition to a team’s running back committee (which the Vikings may employ moving forward), albeit for different reasons.  I think that of these three Mathews has the most to offer as a runner, but Spiller and Vereen could both add an insurance value considering McKinnon was disappointing in the passing attack as a rookie.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these guys are retained by their current team.

Mark Ingram:  This is probably my favorite option expected to hit the open market (because New Orleans has, like, no cap space at all).  Ingram has had his issues as a pro, including some injuries, but he is still only 25 years old and played very well at times this season.  Any team looking to sign Ingram would be wise to host him to a visit first, though, as you want to be sure that it was just a coincidence that his best season just so happened to align with his contract year.

Frank Gore:  I’ve been saying Frank Gore is on the verge of decline for like three years now… and I’ve been mostly wrong.  I love watching Gore play kind of like I love watching Peterson play.  They both just have that extra gear and desire to be great that makes them so much fun to see on the field.  I’m not advocating the Vikings sign Gore, but if Peterson departs and a veteran presence is of value, then he’d be the guy I’d turn to for a year or two.

Justin Forsett:  Where has this production been, Justin?  A very nice year in Baltimore should garner some attention in free agency, if he makes it that far, but he could also be the product of a system friendly to running backs.  He’s also no spring chicken, at this point.

PREDICTION

Admittedly, a lot depends on the outcome of Adrian Peterson’s situation, so this is difficult.  Regardless, however, I think the odds favor the Vikings retaining the young guys they have on the roster and adding to the training camp competition through the Draft or lower-level free agency signings.

The running back position has been devalued over the years, but that isn’t because the position isn’t important.  It has more to do with the availability of adequate talent.  There are some special exceptions at the position, with Peterson being one of them, but the NFL is now a place where success can be found by utilizing a committee approach.

At the very least, a formidable squad of running backs can be assembled with minimal investment.