After a great rookie season, big things were expected from Alexander Mattison. The former Boise State running back racked up over 500 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. Due to his efficiency, expanding his role would have made sense. Instead, Mattison got lost in the shadow of superstar Dalvin Cook, who had just signed a five-year contract extension.
The Vikings only used Mattison when Cook couldn’t stay on the field. He didn’t get more than eight touches in a game until Week 5 against the Seattle Seahawks when Cook left in the third quarter with a groin injury. Mattison came in and ran for a career-high 112 yards against a top-seven run defense. Nevertheless, Mattison missed a crucial hole on fourth and one that would’ve won the Vikings the game, displaying the difference in skill between the two running backs.
Mattison got his first opportunity to start the next week against the Atlanta Falcons, but he notched just 10 carries because the Vikings fell behind early, and there was no way to get him involved. Since then, his usage fell off completely. Mattison had just six carries from Week 10 to Week 16 before getting 21 attempts against the Detroit Lions. This has been a pattern for Mattison in his two-year career: Whenever the Vikings are up in games, they use him as their bruiser to collect yards after contact and seal the game.
However, last year, there were very few times when the Vikings could close out games. Mattison’s game script efficiency, which represents the average point differential during carries at any point in the season, dropped from plus-1.84 to minus-2.38, according to PlayerProfiler.
In general, Mattison’s efficiency regressed during his sophomore season: He had fewer evaded tackles and breakaway runs and a lower juke rate. Mattison’s expected points added (EPA) also dropped to minus-3.6.
It is fair to wonder if Mattison’s third season in the NFL will be more like his first or closer to his second. This offseason, the Vikings lost Mike Boone, Mattison’s backup, to the Denver Broncos. They replaced Boone in the 2021 NFL Draft, selecting RB Kene Nwangwu in the fourth round. Prior to training camp, the running back depth chart looks like this:
- Dalvin Cook
- Alexander Mattison
- Kene Nwangwu
- Ameer Abdullah
Although Boone never challenged Mattison for the backup running back role, Nwangwu has the chance to do so. While depth chart predictions will be created in the next few weeks, placing Mattison at RB2 shouldn’t be a given.
For starters, Nwangwu has a Relative Athletic Score of 9.88, which ranked 18th out of 1,463 running backs in the last 35 years. On the other hand, Mattison had a RAS of 6.85. Simply put, based on athletic abilities, Nwangwu is the better running back. While Nwangwu and Mattison are both elusive and twitchy, the biggest difference between the two backs is their speed. Plenty of times, Mattison has been chased down from behind. Nwangwu? He runs a 4.29 40-yard dash.
However, that isn’t everything.
Nwangwu has also received reps with the first-team offense in minicamps, which is a significant development. The Vikings aren’t the type of team to play later-round rookies unless they have to or unless the rookie is excellent and clearly beats out those above them on the depth chart.
Sure, none of this means that Nwangwu will end up being the Vikings’ backup running back. However, he has the talent to win that job. Backup running back is one of the more subtle training camp battles to keep an eye on when players start reporting next week.