EKSTROM: With Peterson Gone, Vikings Joining Multi-Back Trend

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

When the Minnesota Vikings parted ways with Adrian Peterson in free agency, their offensive identity immediately changed.

While it’s still unclear exactly what type of attack the Vikings will roll out now that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur gets to begin the season at the helm rather than being thrown in midseason, it appears as if the running game will not revolve around a workhorse back for the first time in a decade.

The NFL is changing in the way it approaches the run. In the 2005 regular season, there were 23 1,000-yard rushers. Last season, just 12, and the year before that, just seven.

For one, the overall emphasis on rushing the football has decreased. Teams rushed 14,375 times in 2005, more than 1,000 times more than they did last year (13,321). On top of that, teams are steering away from traditional feature-back systems and looking for more versatile running back duos (or trios) to throw different wrinkles at defenses, hence the drop in 1,000-yard rushers.

The Vikings are doing a drastic about-face, going from Peterson to the trifecta of Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon and rookie Dalvin Cook. Presuming Murray recovers soon from his offseason ankle surgery, Minnesota will have three mouths to feed, just two years removed from giving Peterson nearly 70 percent of the team’s carries, enabling him to win the rushing title.

Sharing the ball with two backs isn’t uncommon, but sharing it with three could be more challenging, especially when all three bring something valuable to the table.

It would be surprising if one of Minnesota’s three running backs won a rushing title this season for multiple reasons, chiefly that all three have great reason to be utilized and it would be strange to leave any of them out of the mix. Murray was paid over $3 million guaranteed this year and led the Oakland Raiders each of the past two years in rushing. McKinnon, the longest-tenured Vikings running back, is shifty in the open field and has the incentive to play well in his contract year. Cook is a potentially electrifying rookie and has received most of the first-team reps so far due to Murray’s lengthy rehab and a minor injury to McKinnon in camp.

Sharing the ball with two backs isn’t uncommon, but sharing it with three could be more challenging, especially when all three bring something valuable to the table.

Of the top 16 rushing teams last season, seven did not have a 1,000-yard back, insinuating a successful two-back approach. Eight of the 16 teams had a second back who gained at least 400 yards. Only one of those 16 teams, however, had a third running back gain 400 yards (this excludes Tyrod Taylor, who ran for 580 yards as a quarterback). That team was Oakland, where Murray led the way with 788 yards and was assisted by Jalen Richard (491) and DeAndre Washington (467).

“When you throw three good running backs at a defense, that makes it really hard on them because when they’re over there gasping for air, you’ve got a fresh back in every few plays, and that’s tough to defend,” Murray said.

“I think it gives defenses a different look,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “when you have a different style of back coming in.”

The 2017 version of the running game should have better balance with all three options profiling as adequate runners, blockers and pass-catchers.

The Vikings had a multi-back system last season by default when Peterson hurt his knee. McKinnon and Matt Asiata combined for 280 of the team’s 380 carries, but a patchwork offensive line, nagging injuries to McKinnon and the subpar speed of Asiata resulted in a league-worst finish in the rushing game.

The 2017 version of the running game should have better balance with all three options profiling as adequate runners, blockers and pass-catchers. “We feel like each one of those guys can go in there and run the ball, pass protect and then catch it when we throw it to them,” said Shurmur, “so it gives us a lot of flexibility offensively.”

The best doppelganger for this year’s running back group might be the 2015 Philadelphia Eagles, coordinated by Shurmur and quarterbacked by Sam Bradford. McKinnon told Zone Coverage he’s studied that Eagles running back group of DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles that finished 14th in the league in rushing.

Murray took the bulk of the carries and played 41.7 percent of snaps, Sproles led the group with 55 receptions and participated in 34 percent, and Mathews spelled Murray on first and second down and took 21.2 percent.

“I would guess [the rotation] would be something similar to that,” McKinnon said.

Shurmur said he’s yet to decide whether substitutions will occur play by play or series by series. McKinnon will be rooting for the latter. “Backs like to get into that rhythm, have those couple carries in a row — boom, boom, boom,” McKinnon said. “It’s just something you’ve got to work with.”

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

The flip side of McKinnon’s criticism is the system’s biggest benefit: freshness. Reducing reps for everyone not only reduces the likelihood of wear and tear, but it creates a scenario where plugging the hole left by a potential injury is easier since there’s greater interchangeability in the system.

McKinnon and Murray are currently rehabbing from injuries, and both have dealt with nagging injuries at times during their three-year playing careers. Knowing that, it makes even more sense for the team to share the workload in 2017 and keep its eggs out of one basket.

“It’s a lot of wear and tear on guys as well when they’ve got to do protection, third downs, all those things,” said Zimmer of having a feature back.

While it’s expected that McKinnon and Murray return to health in time for the Sept. 11 opener against New Orleans, the Vikings look like geniuses for trading up to draft Cook, who’s made the most out of his time with the first team.

The pieces are there to institute a three-headed rushing attack starting in Week 1, meaning Shurmur’s title as offensive coordinator never seemed more appropriate. He’ll be looking for a way to coordinate the use of three talented backs who all correctly believe they have value.

Hopefully there aren’t too many Cooks in the kitchen.

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