Running Backs
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Welcome to the latest installment of the Vikings Territory Training Camp Primer series focusing on Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, and the Minnesota Vikings’ running back position.

It’s an odd thing to say, but the Vikings are arguably better off at running back without Adrian Peterson in the backfield. With Peterson, Minnesota tied itself to a player stuck in the past, a player too stubborn to advance his game where the team needed it to go.

Thus, the Vikings moved forward without him this offseason, allowing the future Hall-of-Fame running back to take his immense (if limited) talents to New Orleans. And when the Saints come to U.S. Bank Stadium Week 1, the Vikings know exactly what they’ll see in Peterson — a square peg in the round hole that is New Orleans’ pass-happy offense.

But in Minnesota, the backfield situation is one of fluidity. Any of the three players at the top of the depth chart — Murray, Cook, and Jerick McKinnon — can line up from the shotgun or under center. Not only that, they can catch out of the backfield and split carries when asked — elements Peterson didn’t seem to grasp in his final years as the Vikings’ lead back.

TRAINING CAMP INVITES

Player Name2016 NFL TeamCollege AttendedNote
Dalvin CookRookieFlorida StateDrafted in 2nd Round, 2017 NFL Draft
Latavius MurrayOaklandUCFAcquired in free agency, 2017
Jerick McKinnonMinnesotaGeorgia Southern
Bishop SankeyMinnesotaVanderbiltFormer 2nd-Round pick
Terrell NewbyRookieNebraska

CURRENT SITUATION

Rehashing the past won’t change the fact that Minnesota finished 2016 as a historically bad rushing team. Between the offensive line’s inability to block consistently an the lack of a home-run threat in McKinnon or Matt Asiata, the Vikings couldn’t find a way to move the ball on the ground.

Sam Bradford‘s arm was a more dangerous weapon than a four or five-yard run, forcing offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and his staff to rely heavily on the pass. For the year, the Vikings rushed just 37 percent of the time, and even less at the end of the season — 29 percent. But an infusion of offensive lineman tailored to thrive in the run game — Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Pat Elflein — and a crop of dangerous backs gives the Vikings a chance to reverse course in 2017.

Murray’s offseason ankle surgery kept him out of the team’s recent minicamp, but he’s set to return when training camp begins this Sunday. Despite missing practice time with the first-team offense, he should have a clear shot at winning the starting spot in the backfield. With Cook and McKinnon available as well, though, Minnesota could look to a committee approach this season.

ROSTER LOCKS

Latavius Murray: In signing a three-year, $15 million contract this March, Murray expected to arrive in Winter Park as the team’s feature back. He has all the talent to be just that for the Vikings, but the addition of Cook through the NFL Draft complicates Murray’s future outlook. As Matthew Coller points out over at ESPN 1500, Murray’s greatest asset may be his short-yardage acumen and ability; he averaged nearly five yards per carry on fourth and short last season. Look for Murray to play many roles in Minnesota’s offense, but most prominently down at the goal line or in critical short-yardage situations.

Dalvin Cook: The Vikings were fortunate Cook fell all the way to the second round, as he’s a legitimate option to become Peterson’s long-term Minnesota successor. We’ve analyzed his potential before, but Cook really can do it all for the Vikings. He’s the home-run hitter the offense has lacked; a back who can score from anywhere on the field, even if blocking breaks down or teams stack the box with defenders. There’s no expectation Cook becomes the every-down star his rookie year, but he’ll surely make the most of his limited opportunities as a runner and pass-catcher.

Jerick McKinnon: Talk about a do-it-all player. The former college quarterback figures to be a prominent figure in Pat Shurmur’s offense, even if it’s not at running back. The Vikings toyed with McKinnon as a receiver last season, and with the logjam in the backfield, could find even more opportunity to split him out wide or shift him all over the field. To prepare himself for the potential increase in playing time, McKinnon added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason.

ROSTER BUBBLE

Bishop SankeyAn illustrious college career and two average seasons with the Tennessee Titans weren’t enough to convince teams of Sankey’s worth in 2016. He started the year as a free agent and signed to the Vikings’ practice squad near the end of the season. While he’ll likely make the active roster, Sankey isn’t in the conversation to compete for a substantial role on Sunday afternoons.

Terrell Newby: Like many undrafted free agent additions, Newby is a camp body who doesn’t appear to have a short or long-term future with the Vikings. He was Nebraska’s leading rusher the past two seasons and served as the Cornhuskers’ kick returner in 2016, but the competition to replace Cordarrelle Patterson is already rife with contenders.

BATTLE TO WATCH

RB1: Dalvin Cook vs. Latavius Murray

Before the 2017 NFL Draft, Murray appeared to be the go-to back to replace Peterson’s production — or lack of — this season. But the selection of Cook in the second round makes the impending training camp battle one of the more interesting storylines to watch in the coming weeks.

The breadth of diverse talent between Cook, Murray, and McKinnon suggests the Vikings will rely on the three in a committee, but one name will surely rise to the top. In the immediate future, it feels as though this is Murray’s job to lose, even if he missed all of the team’s offseason program. He’s the more expensive immediate investment, the more battle-tested back, and thinking ahead, there’s no rush to give Cook 300 carries his rookie season.

Fortunately for Cook, Murray’s contract is more a one-year deal than a three-year commitment. If he flashes as the team, the media, and fans expect him to, there’s no denying Cook his rightful place atop the depth chart in future seasons. And if he’s the spark the offense has lacked for so long, he may even take over starting duties at some point in 2017.

ROSTER PROJECTION

PositionNo. 1 (Starter)No. 2 (Backup)No. 3 (Rotational)Depth
Running BackLatavius MurrayDalvin CookJerick McKinnonBishop Sankey

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