Rick Spielman hasn’t seen much production from the Minnesota Vikings’ 2021 draft class this year. Out of the team’s four third-round picks, only Patrick Jones has played meaningful snaps thanks to injuries on the defensive line. In a year that seems as though it’ll end with some leadership change, that doesn’t spell good news for Minnesota’s current general manager.
The first half of the draft hasn’t been great for Spielman, but that’s not where he’s made his money. Instead, he’s been adept at finding value in the later rounds. This year, he may have uncovered another diamond in the rough.
Kene Nwangwu has been a revelation for the Vikings on special teams since he took over kick-returning duties Week 9. In just nine games, Nwangwu has averaged 35 yards per return on 13 returns and scored two touchdowns (which leads the NFL). Nwangwu likely would have made the Pro Bowl had he played a full season.
It’s a welcome sight for a team that hasn’t seen any consistency in the return game since Cordarrelle Patterson last played for Minnesota in 2016. Nwangwu scores a relative athletic score of 9.89 out of 10 with his combine performance, which was the 18th-highest recorded by a running back since 1987 (h/t @MathBomb on Twitter).
It felt like his performance on special teams was only a preview of what he could do for the Vikings. With both Alexander Mattison and Dalvin Cook going into the COVID protocol in the last couple of weeks, Nwangwu has gotten opportunities on offense. Still, nothing has materialized for the former Cyclone.
The truth of the matter is, Nwangwu is not ready to be an NFL running back. Luke Braun did a fantastic breakdown on why Nwangwu has struggled, and it all boils down to a lack of patience and vision. The downside to being fast is that he always wants to go fast. That’s not helpful when running in between the tackles. In fact, it’s painful to watch Nwangwu run straight into the backs of his offensive linemen.
With Cook off the COVID list, there’s really no reason in the world to see Nwangwu get any carries going forward. Given his skillset, though, Klint Kubiak still must find ways to get him the ball. You cannot have someone with that sort of game-breaking athleticism ride the pine.
With Adam Thielen on IR, the need to get Nwangwu involved intensifies even further. Kirk Cousins will still have Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn to throw to, but Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Dede Westbrook haven’t impressed thus far.
The best comparison to how Minnesota should implement Nwangwu is a J.D. McKissic-type role. The Washington Football Team has its traditional running back in Antonio Gibson but deploys McKissic as a receiving back to complement him.
McKissic runs over 17 routes run per game in Washington and even lines up in the slot on 8.3% of his snaps. Nwangwu wouldn’t get up to those sorts of numbers, but there’s no way he couldn’t do more than 1.3 routes run per game and not a single snap in the slot.
Minnesota loves operating through the slot, especially with elite options like Jefferson. So there’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t have a a package with Jefferson outside and Nwangwu in the slot.
If you’ve got Jefferson, Cook, Osborn, and Nwangwu on the field at the same time, Nwangwu would either draw a nickelback, leaving Cook or Tyler Conklin with a mismatch, or he’d have a linebacker who wouldn’t be able to match his speed.
It would be an adjustment. Nwangwu only had seven receptions in four years at Iowa State. But if Kubiak could implement a specific play or two, that could help Nwangwu immensely.
Even something as simple as a screen play could work. It’s just about getting Nwangwu outside of the tackle box in space. That’s where he has the potential to make one guy miss and run past everybody else.
Nwangwu is not ready for a full workload yet. But if Minnesota can get C.J. Ham a look every game, there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for Nwangwu.
Innovation is a word that’s been thrown around a lot this season when it comes to the Vikings, but always because it’s been something they’ve lacked. Kubiak’s offense has failed to innovate, putting highly predictable play calls in the face of opposing defenses.
One of the marks of a great coach is their ability to play to the strengths of their roster, something Kubiak and the Vikings haven’t done for Nwangwu this season. It’s time for Kubiak to stop using Nwangwu like any other back. Play to his strengths, get him in space, and maybe, just maybe, you can open up another dimension to the offense.