Whenever I think back to this season, fourth and inches in Seattle stands out. While the Minnesota Vikings had pounded the rock for 201 yards, running back Alexander Mattison was unable to convert this meaningful fourth down that would have ended the game. Looking back at the replays, it’s clear Mattison missed a gaping hole slightly to his right that surely would have sealed the victory. While his physical style of running serves as a great change of pace from Dalvin Cook’s elusive and evasive approach, it might not be the best idea to keep him as Cook’s primary backup going forward.
This past offseason the Vikings extended Cook, giving the former FSU running back a five-year, $63 million extension. They have an out in 2023 that only costs them $6 million and saves roughly $27 million, but it was still viewed as a risky contract because running back extensions rarely work out — even more so when you factor in Cook’s injury history and that he had never played a full 16-game slate.
However, extending Cook paid off last season. He recorded nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage even though he missed two and a half games and remains the focal point of the offense. The Vikings are a run-first team; when Cook had to miss time, we saw the identity of the offense change.
Think back to the Atlanta Falcons game, a 40-23 loss that sent the Vikings into the bye with a 1-5 record. The Falcons had come to town fresh off firing head coach Dan Quinn and were playing Minnesota without Dalvin Cook due to an adductor strain he suffered in the third quarter of the Seattle Seahawks game.
The Vikings ditched their run-first system, and Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions before the end of the first half. They only handed the ball off to Mattison 10 times. That may have been due to them needing to play catch-up, but they could have utilized him more in the first half to allow Cousins to collect himself and give the offense some momentum.
The key question here is why the Vikings didn’t have faith in Mattison. He had a good rookie season as a change-of-pace back and recorded 462 yards. He infamously missed that hole in Seattle, but he also rushed for over 100 yards for the first time in his career. Mattison is a good runner who offers a contrast to Cook, but he doesn’t fit well with the zone blocking scheme because he doesn’t have Cook’s vision or ability to make quick cuts and get downfield.
He’s still a valuable member of the running back room, but I don’t think he could fully take on the responsibility of being a lead back in this offense. With Cook’s injury history and both Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone entering free agency, the Vikings should draft a running back.
Not in the first three rounds, mind you, but they should look for someone in the middle of the draft who could potentially serve as a fill-in for Cook if he is sidelined with an injury. Chuba Hubbard, Kylin Hill, and Pooka Williams are perfect scheme fits in the Vikings’ zone blocking offense.
Hubbard is perhaps the most well-known of the bunch. He was projected to be one of the top running backs in the draft class prior to last year when he saw a decrease in production as Oklahoma State shifted to more of a pass-first offense. In 2019 Hubbard ran for over 2,000 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, totaling 21 touchdowns with his patient style of running.
Mississippi State’s Hill can both run and catch the ball. He opted out on Nov. 3 and only had 15 rushing attempts this season, but he was previously a bright spot in the offense, totaling 1,350 yards on 5.6 yards per carry. He also had 23 receptions this season, showcasing his ability to be a threat on pass-catching downs.
Williams is also bound to fall in the draft after a horrible 2020 season where he ran for only 196 yards on 51 attempts. If you overlook this anomaly of a season, however, he’s a talented runner who scrambled for over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons at Kansas. He proved to be a capable threat when running and catching the ball, and he also has a patient style along with a quick lateral step that he uses to escape holes that are closing up — tailor-made for an outside zone scheme.
While Mattison serves as the in-between-the-tackles runner, one of these running backs can work outside the tackle and allow Mattison to get some rest. If the Vikings are to let both Boone and Abdullah walk in free agency, they should definitely look to add someone who could serve as a complement to Mattison’s style of running as a hedge in the case of a Cook injury.