FREE AGENCY PRIMER: The Running Backs
Welcome to the next installment of our Vikings Free Agency Primer series: the running backs. Check out our other primers on tight ends, defensive ends, cornerbacks, safeties, quarterbacks, wideouts, and defensive tackles.
Ah yes, here we are. The inevitable departure of Adrian Peterson has happened, and we can take a clear look at the Vikings running back situation and what to do about it.
It wasn’t good. The Vikings were dead last in the league in rushing last year, and while much of that can (and should) be attributed to the floundering offensive line play, none of the backs did much to inspire hope, either.
Peterson only played in three games due to injury, rushing 37 times for 72 yards—a putrid 1.9-yard average. While we’ll fondly remember the AP glory days—he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players in franchise history—his legendary burst has mellowed, his injuries have begun to pile up, and his cost is most likely too high for a return. The fanbase is ready to move on, and you get the feeling Adrian is, too. It would be surprising if the Vikings re-signed him.
The absence of Peterson thrust Jerick McKinnon into the lead role in 2016, finally giving us the long look at the shifty back many fans had anxiously awaited. It went…fine. McKinnon carried the ball 159 times for 539 yards (3.4 YPC) and two touchdowns, and also had 43 catches for 255 yards and another two TDs. Again, it’s difficult for any runner to perform well without holes to run through—the YPC average was by far the lowest of his career—but McKinnon never really displayed the electrifying ability we hoped he possessed. It may still be in there, but calls for McKinnon to receive more touches have temporarily been silenced.
Then there was Matt Asiata. We knew what we were getting from Asiata at this point, and the numbers backed that up; 121 carries for 402 yards and six touchdowns (with 32 receptions for 263 yards). Plodding, straight ahead, goal-line style, but without the push of a true short-yardage back. Asiata is a free agent and likely won’t be re-signed, as the club looks for an upgrade on the open market and/or through the draft
Here’s the current roster and salary breakdown of the Vikings running backs:
McKinnon will be back, and is the only one on this list likely to see significant snaps. Asiata will either be let go or brought back as a reserve for the veteran’s minimum. Sankey—who did not see the field in 2016—could be cut or retained for depth if Asiata leaves. And Ham spend last season on the practice squad, and could be a candidate again in 2017.
The big picture? After shedding Adrian Peterson’s gargantuan $18 million contract, the Vikings have hardly anything invested in the running back position. And in today’s NFL, that’s a good thing; the surplus of young talent available and the lack of high-end, game-changing players, combined with the steady marginalization of the position over time, makes running backs less valuable than they’ve ever been. It seems like we’re in the dime-a-dozen age of tailbacks, and you can find a serviceable player just about anywhere—indeed, even a lot of the top backs in the league come from humble origins.
Take a look at last year’s top 10 rushers in the NFL. Of these players, only one—Ezekiel Elliott—was drafted in the first round. Seven were drafted in the third round or later, and one—the league’s top touchdown-maker—went undrafted. It’s also a young man’s game; seven of the players on the list have played four seasons or fewer in the NFL. And six of the league’s top 10 rushers made less than $2 million last year.
So the majority of the NFL’s top rushers are young, cheap, and not drafted in the first two rounds. And refusing to spend wildly on running backs has translated to team success in recent years, too; as one small example, take a look at both teams in last year’s Super Bowl. The Patriots spent just over $4 million on their entire stable of running backs in 2016, and the Falcons spent less than $3 million.
This all just confirms what we already know: you don’t need to spend lost of money or high draft picks to get a quality running back in today’s NFL. And the Vikings are in a good position, because currently they have neither of those things invested in their backfield.
But, of course, they need to do something. The team desperately needs to improve its rushing attack, and along with fixing the offensive line, finding a back to pair with McKinnon is a priority. Ideally it would be someone with a complimentary skill set; a powerful, between-the-tackles runner who can block and catch passes. They could accomplish this through the draft—this particular rookie class is loaded with running back talent, and the Vikings have enough ammunition in the mid rounds to grab a player who could contribute as a rookie. The oft-coveted D’Onta Foreman is shooting up draft boards, and if the team wants him, they’ll probably have to use their top pick. This would, in theory, fill the complimentary spot next to McKinnon, and reduce the free agency period to a search for a cheaper rotational player.
But it would be nice to use that top pick on another, more pressing need; offensive line or defensive tackle, for example. And if the Vikings sign a quality free agent, it gives them the flexibility to wait on drafting a running back, and we know how Rick Spielman loves flexibility.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
According to Spotrac, here are the available unrestricted free agents at the running back position (page through the table to see the full list of names):
Latavius Murray: He should be the top free agent back on the market; at 26 and with a relatively clean bill of health, Murray has a lot more left in the tank than Peterson or Charles. His skillset is an impressive blend of speed and power, and he is a fluid and natural as a receiver. Sure, Murray was helped by Oakland’s superior offensive line, but it’s clear he’s a talented back. There have already been reports the Vikings are interested. The only problem is his price tag; estimates have him commanding $6-$7 million a year.
I need to be clear I was asked—nay, commanded—to mention the possibility of Murray to the Vikings by Vikings Territory boss Adam Warwas. As a self-proclaimed “world-renowned running back expert,” Adam has declared Murray a “fantastic” free agent option for Minnesota. In fact, the Latavius Murray possibility spurred quite the discussion in the VT writer’s room, so I wanted to share the opinions of the rest of the team:
From BJ Reidell:
“Latavius Murray may drive a hard bargain — $5-7 million average annual salary — but he’s definitely worth it for a Vikings team that has been stuck in 1947 with regard to running back skill sets. He can rush with both power and finesse, catch the ball out of the backfield (relatively new concept, I think) and pass protect efficiently on third down. Murray may not possess the “wow” factor as previous Minnesota running backs once did (five years ago), but he is can he is capable of executing every facet of the position, making him a solid fit in Pat Shurmur’s high-tempo, high-efficiency offense.
“Why buy a free-agent running back when the draft class is strong you ask? Simple, rookies need time to develop — generally speaking — and Murray’s presence will allow Shurmur and Co. to ease Wayne Gallman (or whoever) into the offense, as opposed to cramming the new guy into a featured role before he’s ready.”
From Drew Mahowald:
[quote_box_center]”Murray appears to be a solid fit with McKinnon in the backfield. He’s a big-bodied back that excels in short yardage situations and can survive in passing situations. It also doesn’t hurt that he was statistically better carrying out of shotgun last season, which is about 70 percent of Minnesota’s offense.”[/quote_box_center]
I’ll note that, like me, Drew isn’t gung-ho about the idea of spending $7 million a year on Murray when bigger priorities exist.
From Austin Belisle:
[quote_box_center]”I’d be disappointed if the Vikings passed on signing Latavius Murray in free agency, but I’d be even more upset if Rick Spielman didn’t draft any of this year’s running back prospects. What’s that mean? I like Murray, but I don’t think he’s a priority. My dream scenario would be to sign Murray, snag a certain tailback prospect from Texas, and roll with a McKinnon-led trio in 2017. Murray’s a cheaper, bigger, and more versatile Adrian Peterson, albeit, without the Hall of Fame talents. Production, age, and experience are all on Murray’s side, and that’s enough reason for me to see the Vikings kick the tires on the ‘other’ No. 28.”[/quote_box_center]
I agree most closely with what Austin said, and I’m far less bullish on Murray than the world-renowned Adam Warwas. I like him as a player, but for the reasons I laid out above, it just doesn’t justify spending that type of money on a running back to split carries. I also don’t see him as a perfect compliment to McKinnon. The team can find comparable production, and spend a lot less money, elsewhere.
Speaking of which…
Eddie Lacy: Some think it’s crazy, but I love the idea. Lacy’s style is a direct contrast to McKinnon, and for a big back, he’s a remarkably good receiver. After watching him destroy the Vikings for years, I’d happily welcome him to the other sideline, and his success in Green Bay’s spread/shotgun sets should ease any concerns about his fit in Pat Shurmur’s offense. Yes, the weight is an issue, but it hasn’t seemed to slow him down on the field much; Lacy has never averaged less than four yards per carry in a season.
Again, the guys weigh in:
[quote_box_center]”Call him fat, but the dude flat-out steamrolls defenders — and the Vikings know this better than anybody. Lacy presents a fiscally acceptable upgrade in the “thumper” role that Matt Asiata currently fills. You want a guy to pair up with Jerick McKinnon that presents a compatible skill set? Bring Cheeseburger Eddie to Manny’s and you’ve got a done deal.”[/quote_box_center]
[quote_box_center]”Look, I don’t care how fat Lacy is or that he is a former Packer. The guy churns up yards — and he has destroyed the Vikings doing just that several times in his career. If he can work in Green Bay’s high-octane offense, he can certainly work in Pat Shurmur’s scheme in Minnesota. ‘Fit’ might not be a word to describe Lacy, but he’s a great fit in Minnesota.”[/quote_box_center]
To be clear, it’s a risk. The big question about Eddie Lacy is his price tag; if it were to creep up close to Murray territory, I would shut down my advocacy and run the other way. But if teams get concerned about Lacy’s weight, and the market softens to $2-$3 million per season, it’s a potential steal. And former Packers have worked out pretty well in Minnesota in the past.
LeGarrette Blount: Blount was a deal for the Patriots last season—he cost them just $1 million but became a focal point of the offense, churning out yards and leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Really, he’s everything Matt Asiata should have been; a simple, powerful straight-ahead runner who can push the pile and move the chains. Chances are Blount gets paid more next year, but how much is anyone’s guess. Even at 30 years old, he would be a good fit for the Vikings if the price is right, but if Blount is going anywhere cheaply, it might be back to New England.
Bottom line: if he’s cheaper than Lacy, it’s worth it for the Vikings to make a run at him. If not, there are better options.
Jamaal Charles: His name is exciting, but after cutting ties with one aging running back with mounting injury issues, I’m not sure the Vikings are ready to go sign another. Charles is 30, and while he’s dynamite when healthy—his career 5.5 YPC average is fourth best in NFL history—he is still recovering from his second torn ACL and has had a laundry list of other ailments along the way. Charles’ injury concerns significantly outweigh Adrian Peterson’s, and at this point in his career, he’s going to cost more than he’s worth.
Jacquizz Rodgers: If the Vikings aren’t looking for a big, bruising compliment to McKinnon, Rodgers is an intriguing name. He ran the ball a career high 129 times with the Buccaneers last season, and posted his best rushing average (4.3) yet. Rodgers is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and a shifty runner. He won’t be carrying the load, but if the Vikings find the right back in the draft, Rodgers could be a valuable and cost-effective addition to the rotation.
Andre Ellington: Once seen as the future in Arizona, Ellington has had his role greatly diminished the last two seasons as the Cardinals made way for David Johnson. Last season, he only received 34 carries and posted a dismal 2.8 yards per attempt. Still, Ellington has a healthy 4.3-yard career average, and is only 28. He still has more football left in him, and it will be interesting to see what his market is.
Adrian Peterson: I guess we can’t write him off altogether.
There are a handful of scenarios for how the Vikings will handle this:
- Re-sign Adrian Peterson. Let the market settle, and when Adrian doesn’t get the big contract he’s seeking, sign him back for much less. Have him split carries with McKinnon, and draft a running back late for depth. Unpopular, and unlikely to happen.
- Open the wallet and sign Murray. Invest significantly over the next four or five years, and bank on the three-headed approach of Murray, McKinnon, and whatever rookie they select, probably in the draft’s second half. Not my preferred route due to cap ramifications and the diminishing relevance of the position, but many fans would be happy.
- Sign Lacy or Blount (or a similarly skilled/paid player), and draft a back in the mid to late rounds. Spend a little, not a lot. Balance the roster and see how it works with one of the big boys.
- Sign Lacy or Blount (or a similarly skilled/paid player), and draft a back early. This would be maximum running back commitment. Possible if they don’t see any linemen the like with their second-round pick.
- Sign an Ellington or Rodgers and draft a back early. Bank more on the rookie/McKinnon combination, and add a cheap veteran to the rotation.
Personally, I like the Lacy/Blount route best (with the assumption that Lacy will be more available of the two). It gives the Vikings the opportunity to use their early draft picks on more pressing needs, and still pick up a talented running back later in a loaded draft. The Murray commitment is too rich for my blood, especially considering he hasn’t been, and won’t be expected to be, a workhorse back. As illustrated above, you don’t have to make a big investment to get big production out of your running backs.