Camp Preview: The Runners

We started off our preview series by discussing the depth chart at quarterback.  I neglected to discuss Christian Ponder’s ability to run the football, one that cannot be underestimated by opposing defenses, but when talking about the Vikings offense it isn’t going to be Ponder’s legs that steal the show.

Adrian Peterson returned from major knee surgery to make 2012 the best season of his Hall of Fame career.  He started every game for the first time in his six NFL seasons.  He averaged a ridiculous six yards per carry, despite a consistent extra man or two being brought into the box to stop him, and ended the season just nine yards shy of the all time rushing record.  His 2,097 rushing yards were more than enough to lead the NFL, but so were his 76 broken tackles and 1,438 yards accumulated after contact.  He also scored 12 touchdowns one the ground and had a whopping five runs of over 60 yards.

Peterson’s dedication and work ethic are surely a huge part of his big comeback season, and it is easy to forget about the man who paved the way for him, but Pro bowl fullback Jerome Felton deserves a lot of credit for all of that success, as well.  The Vikings were wise to re-sign Felton this offseason and make sure their duo stays intact for at least one more season, as Felton proved to be a major upgrade ahead of Peterson and also blocked cleanly in pass protection, and he never committed a single penalty.

With Peterson and Felton both having robust contracts relative to their positions, and stated goals to increase their roles within the offense, there is no doubt that they will retain their seats atop the depth chart.  The primary backup to Peterson is still expected to be Toby Gerhart, who ran the ball only 50 times for 169 yards and a touchdown last season, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see his role continue to diminish as he plays out his rookie contract.

Gerhart’s true value lies in his ability to step in and be a workhouse in the event that Peterson goes down with an injury.  He has shown the ability to do this in the past and, despite being benched for a case of fumblitis against the Niners, the lack of any big signings or draft selections at the running back position suggests that the Vikings staff feels comfortable with him as the primary backup.  Besides, he is a very serviceable option when it comes to stepping in on third down for pass protection and as a decent hands guy to run the checkdown routes.  Gerhart caught 20 balls for 155 yards in 2012, and nine of those catches converted into first downs.

Second year player Rhett Ellison had a nice rookie season, which included snaps out of the backfield, but is officially listed as a tight end.  That versatility gives him the upper hand in backing up Felton at the fullback position.  However, Zach Line is a rookie out of Southern Methodist, and has enough promising attributes to make him someone to watch as the practices get underway in Mankato.  He went undrafted, yes, but he also hauled in the biggest signing bonus of all of the Vikings undrafted rookies.

That essentially means that, barring unforeseen circumstances, there is a logjam of young running backs all vying for the same spot as a third stringer.  Rookies Bradley Randle (UNLV) and Jerodis Williams (Furman) will join Matt Asiata (two seasons) and Joe Banyard (one) in the competition.

Asiata is the incumbent as he played in every Vikings game last year, albeit mostly on special teams.  He is a powerful back that, like Gerhart and Line, could play some fullback in a pinch.  I have long bemoaned this team’s inability to add another dimension to their offense by finding themselves a true scat back and I think the absence of Percy Harvin will only highlight that absence even more in 2013.  I don’t see those traits in any running back on this roster, at least not at the NFL level.

It isn’t completely impossible to imagine the Vikings parting ways with Gerhart one season early, but I doubt they get more for him in a trade than he could fetch them as a compensatory draft pick after the 2014 offseason, and more than one of these guys would really have to turn some heads in Mankato.

If these guys do the opposite of head turning in camp (what is the opposite of head turning?) there is still some unemployed talent that could be intriguing additions to this competition.  I was disappointed to see Rick Spielman ignore LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones, both of whom could have been had for minimal contracts, so I wouldn’t expect to see him make any hasty decisions.  Still, Beanie Wells and Kevin Smith (as well as a few others) deserve to compete for a job this fall, despite the injury concerns.

While there isn’t expected to be any major changes to the stable of runners on this squad, watching the bottom of the depth chart sort itself out is the type of thing us junkies find really enjoyable, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye on the situation as the preseason progresses.