Kevin O’Connell Says Not So Fast on RB Committee

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell at 2023 mandatory minicamp in Eagan. The Vikings won 13 games in O'Connell's first season as head coach. He previously won a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams as offensive coordinator in 2021.

The departure of Dalvin Cook changed the landscape of the running back group in Minnesota. It will be the first season in 17 years without Cook or his predecessor Adrian Peterson on the roster.

The last time the Vikings didn’t have Cook running the show for a full season was in 2017, when he was out with a torn ACL in his rookie year. Having a cheaper running back group has been successful in the NFL.

Kevin O’Connell Says Not So Fast on RB Committee

Says Not So Fast on RB Committee
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings re-signed free agent Alexander Mattison to a decent two-year $7 million contract. He was Cook’s backup for all four years of his professional career after starring at Boise State. In addition to him, the purple team employs Ty Chandler – a 2022 fifth-round pick, Kene Nwangwu — a 2021 fourth-round selection — and DeWayne McBride, who joined the team in April’s draft as a seventh-rounder.

The potential of a committee at the position is real, mainly because nobody in the group is a bonafide star. However, head coach Kevin O’Connell doesn’t think so. He was asked if Mattison will play a Dalvin-sized role or if he envisions a rotation:

I feel really good about our running back room and Alex Mattison is a huge reason why. I think he’s proven that he can, whether over the past few years when he stepped in there, handling a really good workload and producing and also just in our short term together, his ability to handle the roles and responsibilities of that position in our offense, so I feel great about where Alex is at. The next step in his career is just obviously a little bit more consistent opportunities which we hope to provide for him.

And then with Kene and Ty, and obviously the rookie, we want to allow a real competition to take place. We feel that there’s talented guys behind Alex that can provide roles within our offense or maybe depending on down and distance, depending on situation in the game, we could get some different guys in there but all knowing that it’s about that complete group being able to do everything we ask them on every single snap both in the run and the pass game.

Kevin O’Connell

Of course, O’Connell is not giving a clear answer on who gets how many snaps in the upcoming season, especially in June with three more months to go, including training camp, but his words were fascinating.

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

He made it sound like Mattison is the clear top guy, and the other three players are competing for the backup job, implying that Mattison is getting Cook’s role instead of sharing those snaps.

Mattison has started six games in his career in place of Cook and rushed 117 times in those contests for 477 yards and 3 touchdowns. That equals 19.5 carries a game, a really high number, which shows that he can handle the big workload of a true bell cow running back. He also caught 23 passes for 216 yards and 2 more touchdowns.

The 24-year-old has shown the ability to come in and be a starting-caliber player for a game or two per season. He now has the opportunity to show that he can do the same for an entire season. Mattison is a running back with good power but doesn’t have the vision and explosiveness of Cook.

The backups, however, have that burst. Especially Chandler and Nwangwu provide sub-4.4 speed, which could give the Vikings a nice change-of-pace running back. McBride is more of the mold of Mattison, a powerful runner.

The Vikings National
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings had a poor running game in 2022. It is one of the top things on the agenda to improve. Both the running backs and the offensive line must do a better job, but O’Connell’s play-calling and play design must also improve. The offense ranked 29th in rush EPA/play and 28th in rush DVOA. That inefficiency led to the Vikings just stopping to run at times. The team ranked 30th in rushing percentage. The addition of Josh Oliver – a great run-blocking tight end – and the possibly higher usage of fullback C.J. Ham could help the run game.

It will be a fascinating storyline in training camp when the running back competition shakes out. Cook had 264 carries in 2022, which are now vacant and can be claimed by the four running backs.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt