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The future of the Vikings, Part 2: Running backs

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. Now onto the running backs… 

Dalvin Cook

What worked

Despite struggles on the offensive line, Cook made the most of his opportunities. He gained 4.6 yards per carry on 133 rushes and caught 40 passes on 49 targets at 7.6 yards per reception. Cook ranked fourth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating (among RBs over 100 carries), which uses broken tackles and yards after contact in attempt to separate the runner from his blocking. Cook also graded as the third best pass blocking running back in the NFL.

Head coach Mike Zimmer wanted to see Cook more often on first down for good reason. He averaged 5.0 yards per rush on first down and was tremendously successful running out of the shotgun, gaining 6.4 yards per carry on 39 runs.

The former Florida State star saw an increase in workload after Kevin Stefanski took over as offensive coordinator, gaining 248 yards in three games at 5.4 yards per carry.

What didn’t work

The Vikings’ 2017 second-round pick  suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out for most of a six-week span between Week 2 and Week 9. When he was healthy, Cook was vastly underutilized at times. Before Stefanski was handed play calling duties, he only cleared 15 carries once and was rarely given chances to make an impact in the passing game.

His biggest games in terms of catches came against New England and Seattle, but he only gained 50 yards on 13 catches in those two contests. He was targeted zero times on throws that traveled over 10 yards through the air.

Cook was ineffective in the red zone, gaining a first down or touchdown on just three of 16 carries inside the 20. His success also dropped off significantly in the fourth quarter, picking up just 58 yards on 23 carries in the final quarter.

What might change in 2019?

Lots.

With the addition of Gary Kubiak as an offensive advisor, you can bet the Vikings will be running an outside zone system, which Pat Shurmur favored for Cook in 2017 and Stefanski used effectively over the final three games. Cook has outstanding patience and vision, which fits perfectly with running to the outside and finding cutback lanes. The sheer number of touches by the Vikings’ No. 1 back is likely to jump exponentially. The top running backs in the league like Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Christian McCaffrey are getting more than 20 touches per game whereas Cook saw 15.7 per game in 2018.

Using Cook’s full skillset should be a priority. With his terrific receiving ability, the Vikings should be aiming to get him in the range of 60-80 targets. While improving the screen game should be a top priority, it would also make sense to give Cook some downfield throws like we have seen to the likes of James White, Tarik Cohen and Gurley.

Best case scenario for 2019

Cook justifies everyone picking him at the top of fantasy drafts and fully lives up to his potential to gain 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage. He plays 16 games and becomes the centerpiece of the Vikings’ offense, taking pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Worst case scenario for 2019

Cook can’t stay healthy for a full season, making it difficult to find continuity with his usage.

Latavius Murray

While Murray’s total rushing yards came short of 600 yards for the first time since his rookie year, he admirably filled in when Cook was injured. Between Weeks 5-8, Murray carried the ball 63 times for 322 yards (5.1 yards per carry). He also scored four touchdowns and added 10 catches for 70 yards.

The former Raider said he would be interested in returning to Minnesota, but it’s hard to see him coming back to play a limited role behind Cook. When the Vikings’ RB1 was healthy from Weeks 9-17, Murray only saw 58 runs for 198 yards (3.3 yards per carry).

Mike Boone

After earning a roster spot out of camp, Boone rarely saw the field, rushing 11 times for 47 yards. He is an incredible athlete with a natural skill for breaking tackles and enough receiving ability out of the backfield to be used regularly in the passing game. Like many young backs, Boone needs to improve is pass blocking and his feel for reading blocks. He flashed enough potential to have a chance at being Cook’s backup in 2019.

Roc Thomas 

The Vikings put Thomas on the practice squad after a strong preseason and then elevated him to the active roster briefly before assigning him back to the PS. He ran eight times for 30 yards and caught two passes in five games. Thomas has vision and patience, but struggled to stay healthy.

Ameer Abdullah 

The Vikings brought in Abdullah when he was waived by the Lions. He caught one pass, rushed once and returned 10 kicks for 258 yards. Abdullah is a free agent.

CJ Ham

We can expect more of Ham this season. Historically Kubiak’s offenses have used the fullback regularly. Under John DeFilippo, he was used less than with Pat Shurmur calling the shots in 2017.  His snap count went down by 65 plays. Ham caught 11 passes for 85 yards and ran six times for eight yards.

Options 

In a money-saving venture, the Vikings could rely on Boone and Thomas to handle the backup duties, but with Cook’s injury history, it would seem they would want to either draft a running back as a No. 2 option or sign another veteran free agent backup.

There are some excellent options, including Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman, who spelled Devonta Freeman. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and caught 32 passes out of the backfield. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound runner is just 26 years old.

TJ Yeldon is another all-around weapon on the market. He caught 55 balls at 8.9 yards per catch in 2018.

Other potential free agent options include Spencer Ware, Ty Montgomery, Jacquizz Rodgers, Alfred Blue, Doug Martin and Mike Davis.





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