At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Kevin O’Connell had a typical press conference. He thanked the reporters for coming out, gave them some insight, and went on to sternly evaluate every quarterback in the draft.
If you weren’t paying attention, you might have seen a change in O’Connell’s demeanor when he was asked about the state of the offense – and particularly the running game.
“It comes down to efficiency,” O’Connell told reporters in a side session. “The home runs and long [runs] are great, but as a play caller, I’d love to be second-and-five. If you tell me I’m second-and-five, here we go. We’re in a position to do a lot of different things regardless of field position, score of the game, and personnel groupings.”
Three weeks later, Minnesota’s offseason has all the makings of an improved running game. The first free-agent signing announced was one of the NFL’s best run-blocking tight ends, Josh Oliver. The Vikings also held onto fullback C.J. Ham, who was a popular candidate to be a cap casualty after playing sparingly last season. Then they re-signed Alexander Mattison, which makes you wonder what’s going on.
Sources say that after Mattison’s return was finalized, O’Connell celebrated by placing a pinch of Red Man the size of a softball into his lower lip. Then he ordered a well-done steak and texted Kirk Cousins to let him know that he would be limiting his meeting time to 45 minutes over the course of the week.
Okay, I made that up. But you can forgive fans if O’Connell’s comments — and Minnesota’s offseason plan — looks like something Mike Zimmer would have drawn up. In reality, beefing up the running game is a way to get more out of the Vikings’ offense and could help them remain in contention next season.
To understand this, we need to look at some of O’Connell’s flaws from last season. A criticism of O’Connell’s first year as a play-caller was that he didn’t run the ball enough, and the numbers seem to back that up.
The Vikings ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing attempts last season. There were also times when O’Connell seemed to “galaxy brain” himself in short-yardage situations by doing just about anything other than running it one. These plays drew frustrations from fans as well as Cook’s agent, Zac Hiller.
This could lead some Madden experts to say I could call plays better than that… minutes before getting smoked by a nine-year-old online. But it’s important to call back to O’Connell’s comments at the combine to understand why that was happening.
Cook served as Minnesota’s bellcow last season and it was both a benefit and a curse to the offense. According to Football Outsiders’ metrics, Cook logged a success rate of 48% while facing a schedule that ranked 36th in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). This means that Cook wasn’t facing a murderer’s row of defenses, but he also wasn’t getting the consistent runs that O’Connell talked about in his combine presser.
So how do the Vikings fix that? By bringing in some ringers.
It starts with Oliver, who graded second among tight ends in PFF’s run-blocking grades last season. Vikings fans may have groaned over the three-year, $21 million contract (with plenty of Monopoly money) that they used to acquire Oliver. Still, it was a massive upgrade over T.J. Hockenson, who profiles more as a receiver, and Johnny Mundt, who graded 57th last season.
Adding Oliver could only mean better things for an offensive line that may struggle in pass protection but ranked fourth overall in run-blocking grades last season.
You may ask yourself why this matters in a league that is geared toward the pass. It’s because, while teams are looking to use younger and faster defenders, they give up size that leaves them susceptible to being run over by a gang of maulers.
Consider that the Philadelphia Eagles graded third as a team in run-blocking last season and fifth in rushing yards. While the Kansas City Chiefs ranked 20th in rushing yards, they graded sixth in run blocking, paving their path to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs also bolstered their ground games by occasionally using 13 personnel (one receiver, three tight ends), which bowled over opposing defenses.
If the Vikings can get a better push up front, it could lead to more consistency in the running game and could help whoever is in the backfield.
We already talked about Cook’s deficiencies, which is why his name is mentioned frequently on the trade block. But the Vikings are already forming the cheap three-headed monster that O’Connell saw Sean McVay use in Los Angeles.
Mattison isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he’s the affordable, reliable veteran who can anchor a committee. Ty Chandler brings an explosive element as a change-of-pace back; even if Cook returns, he can add another element thanks to his big-play ability.
But the Vikings are likely focused on bringing in another back, which could lead them into this year’s draft. Minnesota has too many holes to go all-in by drafting Bijan Robinson, but O’Connell also mentioned that he would like to have a running back who is also an elite receiver.
That puts someone like Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs on Minnesota’s radar, although the Vikings would likely have to trade down to not reach for him. Other running backs, such as Tyjae Spears (Tulane) and Deuce Vaughn (Kansas State), could also be in the mix.
Neither of those backs are perfect candidates, but neither was Isaiah Pacheco, who was selected in the seventh round of last year’s draft before becoming a key part of the Chiefs’ ground game.
It’s the kind of strategy that O’Connell wants to use to have a healthy ground game without employing the “run the damn ball” tactics that Zimmer used in Minnesota. If the Vikings are able to do that, the offense should be better, and it could be the difference between a contender and a team looking ahead to 2024.