Minnesota Vikings Position Battles: Running Back

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

Over the next couple weeks, Zone Coverage will break down the Minnesota Vikings post-draft roster by position group.

Today’s Focus: Running backs

Since the Vikings’ preeminent draft selection was RB Dalvin Cook out of Florida State, it makes since to start in the backfield, where Minnesota will feature a different face for the first time since 2006, when Chester Taylor was the lead back. The next decade belonged to Adrian Peterson, who moved on New Orleans after being released by the Vikings. Heading into 2017, the Vikings will boast a deep, three-pronged rushing attack.

First, let’s take inventory.

Free agent departures: Adrian Peterson (Saints), Matt Asiata (FA)
Arrivals: Latavius Murray, Dalvin Cook, Terrell Newby
Already rostered: Jerick McKinnon, C.J. Ham, Bishop Sankey

THE LONG SHOTS: Bishop Sankey, C.J. Ham, Terrell Newby
It’s not probable we’ll see any of these three on the 53-man roster until an injury occurs, but considering the primary running backs all have their own set of injury concerns, whoever separates themselves from this triad to potentially sneak onto the practice squad may have the inside track at some playing time.

Sankey, 24, is a former second-round pick who signed a futures contract after spending time on the practice squad last season. He had over 700 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2014 with the Titans and is still young enough to be promising.

Ham, 23, finally made it into the 53-man roster in Week 17 but was not active. He won a practice squad job over Jhurell Pressley last preseason and will presumably be locked in a similar battle this year. He profiles as a similar back to Matt Asiata from a size standpoint, though he has better speed and is not as polished as a blocker.

Newby, 21, was signed Monday as an undrafted free agent. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, he may need to add some weight, but his speed and shiftiness make him a candidate to stick around despite not rushing for 1,000 yards during any year in college.

It feels like Ham has a slight edge heading into OTAs. He’s spent the most time on the team of these three candidates; plus, the Vikings lack a rusher of his bruising stature.

THE INCUMBENT: Jerick McKinnon
Strangely, this 2014 third-round pick is suddenly the longest-tenured Viking in the running backs room. He turns 25 years old on May 3 and will be entering a contract year.

Last season was challenging for McKinnon even though he set a career high in yards from scrimmage. His 3.4 yards per carry average left a lot to be desired, though the offensive line’s blocking was the main culprit. He also struggled keeping his ankles strong and admitted that he played banged up most of the season.

McKinnon is a wonderful back whose versatility strains defenses, he was a threat out of the Wildcat last season, and his pass-blocking has improved. The question is: Will he be willing to accept a complementary role going forward if Cook emerges as the clear No. 1 option?

THE ACQUISITION: Latavius Murray
The Vikings signed Oakland’s former feature back to a three-year, $15 million deal, but it’s really just a one-year deal with two option years. Minnesota will pay Murray a little over $4.1 million in Year 1, then can release him with only $1.2 million of dead cap.

Make no mistake, Murray will have to prove his worth to stick around.

The ex-Raider brings three years of experience to the table, and his 6-3 frame makes him an imposing runner. He is coming off an offseason ankle surgery, however, and will certainly need to remain healthy during the season in order to stay in the mix. With two capable options in McKinnon and Cook, Murray may not receive the workload he’d hoped for when he signed in March. Nonetheless, he’ll be a nice option to have and will stick around as long as he’s useful.

THE ROOKIE: Dalvin Cook
With the 41st pick in the NFL Draft, the Vikings took their running back of the future in Cook. After watching Todd Gurley in 2015 and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, it isn’t outlandish to expect big things from a rookie running back. Is Cook that guy? It’s yet to be determined. However, his college tape checks all the boxes.

Cook’s explosiveness as a runner and pass catcher will make him an immediate weapon as long as he refines his pass-blocking and eliminates a fumbling habit.

Making the roster: Cook, McKinnon, Murray
Practice squad potential: Ham

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