EAGAN. — At this time last year, Mike Boone was just another undrafted rookie hoping to earn a chance. This year the door is open for him to play a significant role in the Minnesota Vikings offense.
With veteran Latavius Murray exiting in free agency, the Vikings’ only experienced running back behind Dalvin Cook is Ameer Abdullah, who is likely to be the team’s kick returner. The Vikings used a third-round draft pick on a bigger, more powerful runner in Alexander Mattison. They left the door open for Boone to win a gig as Cook’s replacement in case of injury and as a versatile offensive weapon.
In 2018 preseason he flashed the impressive athleticism that got him signed as a UDFA. At Boone’s pro day, he registered a vertical jump of 42 inches and a broad jump of 11 feet, 7 inches. Both would have ranked No. 1 among running backs at the ’18 combine. He also managed a 4.45 40-yard dash. In preseason Boone rushed 49 times for 195 yards and caught 10 passes in preseason and then ran 11 times for 47 yards in the regular season.
The 5-foot-10, 206-pound running back said Tuesday that he’s come to understand the game at a higher level over the past 12 months.
“Learning concepts and structures of defense,” Boon said. “Coming out of college they touch on that stuff but not as much as here. [Kennedy Polamalu] is a great coach, he does a great job of understanding patterns and that helps us play faster. I feel like I great in that area.”
Early in Boone’s college career he showed a high level of potential, averaging 6.4 and 7.2 yards per attempt in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but his production dipped over his final two seasons and teams passed over him despite his raw physical gifts. He said the Gary Kubiak outside zone running scheme is a fit for his talents.
“We trickled it in a little bit with college, we were mainly in between the tackles in my years,” Boone said. “I feel like I have a good amount of speed and athleticism, everybody in the running back room feels the same way about themselves. Outside zone allows us to get free and run a little bit, it feels good.”
Boone explained how it works from the running back’s eyes.
“You read the defense, you read the points from the D-line to however the coach teaches the progression. You’re outside-in and whenever the holes hit, you gotta hit them because they are not there wrong. Split-second holes, you’re looking to cut the defense.”
As the Vikings look for more weapons to emerge around Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and Kyle Rudolph, the door is open for Boone to rotate into the backfield and potentially take a Jerick McKinnion type role. Coming into college he was a wide receiver. He grabbed 65 passes for 596 yards in his career as a Bearcat.
There is also the issue of Cook’s durability. He missed time last season battling a hamstring injury. At Tuesday’s practice, Boone was mixing in with Mattison on the second team.
One area that will be in need of improvement — as goes for 90 percent of young running backs — will be pass blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up three pressures on only 12 pass blocking reps in preseason and allowed a sack in his only pass blocking assignment of the regular year.
“I had great guys to look at with Dalvin [Cook], Latavius [Murray] when he was here, CJ Ham, he’s a technician, seeing how those guys do it and KP helping me learn from those guys, it kind of grows on you, I feel like that’s another advantage for me,” Boone said.