Why Did Alexander Mattison Return To the Vikings?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

The NFL Draft provides clarity for teams as they begin their offseason program. While the Minnesota Vikings answered some questions in this year’s draft, one of the lingering uncertainties is what is going on in the backfield.

The backfield has been a surprising point of the offseason, as Kevin O’Connell has looked to improve the Vikings’ efficiency in the running game. While this likely spells the end for Dalvin Cook, the approach has been confusing with Alexander Mattison, Ty Chandler, and DeWayne McBride as the last men standing.

Even then, there were several moves that didn’t happen that could have re-shaped Minnesota’s backfield. So why is this such a mess? What does it mean moving forward? Is Mattison actually going to be the starting running back, and why did they draft McBride if that’s the case?

It starts with what the Vikings didn’t have on the ground last season. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars ran for zero or negative yards on first down more than Minnesota did last season, and Cook appeared to be the scapegoat.

While his agent will point out that Cook has been playing with a bad shoulder, there were other times when he ran into the back of his offensive line, trying to turn a small run into a big gain.

This strategy worked for Adrian Peterson throughout his career, and it had merits for Cook as well. Cook’s 3.16 yards after contact ranked 16th in the NFL, but the problem was that contact normally occurred behind the line of scrimmage. Whether that’s on Cook or the offensive line, that’s for O’Connell to decide. But it’s partly why Cook’s departure appears imminent.

However, there was one aspect of Cook’s game that Minnesota loved – his effectiveness in zone rushing. According to Pro Football Focus, 71% of Cook’s carries were on zone plays, and he ranked second in the NFL with 192 carries on zone plays. As a team, the Vikings ran just under 70% of their carries in a zone scheme. But that’s where things get interesting.

Mattison ultimately wound up re-signing with the Vikings, but he wasn’t their first target in free agency.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs, David Montgomery was rumored to be a target after logging 122 carries and just under 62% of his overall carries on zone plays with the Chicago Bears. Montgomery’s average of 2.9 yards after contact was worse than Cook’s, but his work in the passing game pushed him over the top.

Montgomery isn’t going to be confused with Austin Ekeler or Christian McCaffrey. That said, his 1.17 yards per route run ranked him 20th out of 62 running backs with a minimum of 70 carries (20% of the league lead). By comparison, Cook ranked 41st with 0.72 YPRR and Mattison ranked 50th with 0.58 YPRR.

In Montgomery, the Vikings would have had a running back who is two years older than Cook and a year older than Mattison. But Montgomery had everything the Vikings were looking for in a running back – until he signed with the Detroit Lions and the Vikings re-signed Mattison.

Mattison’s return to Minnesota was a bit of a surprise. His numbers didn’t indicate a back who was having success in O’Connell’s scheme. The Vikings didn’t use him as much as in years past. Mattison’s career-low 74 attempts were one way Minnesota’s coaching staff showed their reluctance, but so was a Week 18 game against the Bears.

After Cook went out with an injury in the first half, the Vikings threw Mattison into the game. Mattison had a respectable performance with 54 yards on 10 carries, but Minnesota returned to Cook in the second half. That was despite being firmly in control of a Bears team that was tanking for the No. 1-overall pick, and with the Vikings preparing for a playoff matchup with the New York Giants the following week.

Perhaps Mattison’s usage was due to Minnesota’s lack of efficiency in the running game, as constant third-and-long situations led to Minnesota ranking 27th with 404 rushing attempts. But it’s alarming that the Vikings didn’t find a way to use him more.

That caused confusion when Mattison signed a two-year, $7 million deal to return to the Vikings. Mattison could have competed for a starting job elsewhere. However, he chose to return to Minnesota, with Cook’s presence hovering over the roster and two talented backs waiting behind him.

Chandler was a preseason standout for Minnesota a year ago and could have made an impact on the roster as a change-of-pace back. A broken hand stunted his growth. But he carried the all-around game the Vikings are searching for with 1,308 yards from scrimmage with North Carolina following the 2021 season. He also averaged 1.25 yards per route run and 3.86 yards per contact.

That’s a great resumé to have, but it pales in comparison to what the Vikings found in McBride. At UAB, McBride led the FBS with 1,702 rushing yards and ranked third behind Blake Corum and Bijan Robinson with a PFF grade of 94.1. His 1,072 yards after contact ranked third in the nation behind Ball State’s Carson Steele and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim. McBride’s 4.6 yards per carry after contact was the highest in the nation among those with a minimum of 170 carries.

With Chandler and McBride, you can see the vision of what O’Connell wants in a running back. Both are willing to turn short runs into big games and both have experience in zone schemes.

Mattison may not have the same level of effectiveness. However, he’s a reliable veteran with NFL experience to carry over. If the Vikings had signed Montgomery, they would have been paying an extra $2.5 per season to see if McBride or Chandler could shoulder the load.

In this regard, Mattison’s return makes some sense, and it could lead to a changing of the guard in Minnesota’s backfield.

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