One of the highlights of the Minnesota Vikings’ preseason opener was the performance of their running backs. Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu displayed speed and vision while racking up 90 yards on 12 carries. Their explosive skillsets pair well with Dalvin Cook and give the Vikings three dynamic weapons for Kevin O’Connell to play with.
Then there’s Alexander Mattison.
You know that meme where two supermodels stand next to a girl in a 1960s swimsuit and a swimming cap? Yep, that’s Mattison. While Chandler and Nwangwu were making everyone salivate, Mattison plodded ahead for eight yards on three carries.
At first glance, one of these backs is not like the others. But a longer look reveals that Mattison can be an effective piece in a running back room that hasn’t been this deep since the 2017 season. Vikings fans love to go back to that year, and it’s fitting, considering it was the last time they had a rotation at running back. Cook was supposed to be Adrian Peterson‘s successor, but his torn ACL threw a wrench into that plan.
The Vikings went to work solving the problem by splitting time between Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. The result was a pair of fresh backs late in the season who helped Minnesota rank seventh in rushing yards and run to the NFC Championship game.
Mike Zimmer’s preference to run the ball and the hiring of Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator eventually centered the running game around Cook, who took the ball and ran with it. From 2019 to 2021, only Derrick Henry had more rushing attempts (900) than Cook (811). It led to some of the most productive seasons of his career. The trade-off was that Cook became a less effective runner as the season progressed.
Part of this was that the Vikings didn’t have a runner of Cook’s caliber. Mix in Zimmer’s trust issues, and it wasn’t surprising that Mattison didn’t see the ball unless Cook was hurt or the Vikings had a big lead.
Despite that, Mattison has proven himself to be a capable back. In six career starts, he’s generated 477 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while adding 23 receptions for 216 yards and a touchdown. A clip of four yards per carry isn’t sexy, but it’s also an established track record that Nwangwu and Chandler don’t have.
That’s not to say that Nwangwu and Chandler won’t get their opportunities. During Kevin O’Connell‘s two years with the Los Angeles Rams (2020 and 2021), four different running backs had 100 carries or more. While Cam Akers‘ Achilles’ injury played a big role in that split, the Rams were able to find other roles for Darrell Henderson Jr., Sony Michel, and Malcom Brown.
Meanwhile, the Vikings had just two backs with over 100 carries. Cook carried the ball 561 times during those two seasons, while Mattison carried it 230 times. The gap is even wider considering that 107 of Mattison’s carries (or 46%) came when Cook was out.
You may expect another running back to be on this list, but Kirk Cousins was the next closest player, who carried the ball 61 times. The next running back was Ameer Abdullah, with 15 carries. While nobody was screaming for Abdullah to get more carries, the Vikings have talent in the backfield they didn’t have two years ago.
Nwangwu is a burner with 4.3 40 speed who has already impacted the kick return game. With O’Connell’s Illusion of Complexity, his speed makes him a weapon anywhere on the field, including at receiver. Nwangwu isn’t ready to challenge Justin Jefferson as the best pass-catcher in the NFL, but it could give defenses something else to think about.
The same goes for Chandler. The dynamic back racked up over 1,300 yards during his lone season at North Carolina. His speed in the backfield gives the Vikings someone comparable to Cook, providing him the opportunity to take a breather without sacrificing any of his explosiveness.
When looking at the sum of the parts, Mattison’s dependability should fit in nicely — especially when you consider his trade value. With NFL teams treating running backs like Gremlins, nobody is giving up a backup quarterback or premium draft pick for a No. 2 back. When Kareem Hunt demanded a trade, the Cleveland Browns decided it wasn’t worth the effort to find a trade partner. In case you forgot, Hunt is a former NFL rushing champion.
This brings everything back to the running back room. If Mattison remains in Minnesota, he can play a pivotal role where all four running backs (and potentially fullback C.J. Ham) can eat. That gives the Vikings a slew of weapons and a chance to help the running game be one of the league’s best.