Minnesota Vikings: A Look Into the League’s Best Running Back Room

The running back position has witnessed a decrease in value in recent history, as teams have relied more heavily on their passers and replaced bell cow backs with a stable of viable runners. Even in today’s game, running the football remains a vital phase, making running backs more impactful than they are credited for. Never has it been more important to have depth at the running back position than now, and luckily for the Vikings, they do.

The Personnel
While depth is critical, every elite running back group is headlined by a game changing player. Many could argue that Dalvin Cook has been the Vikings’ most unstoppable player since he entered in the league in 2017. Despite injuries, Cook has earned Pro Bowl selections each of the last three seasons and cemented himself as one of the league’s best running backs. Only Christian McCaffrey has averaged more total yards per game than Cook since he was drafted. The biggest knock on Cook’s argument to be a top five running back is his injury history. Thankfully for Minnesota, the guy behind him has shined in his absence time and time again.

Alexander Mattison epitomizes a player who steps up when they are called upon. Fantasy football players are well aware of Mattison’s abilities, which have been highlighted when Cook is unable to play. Despite just six career starts, Mattison has contributed five games with over 100 yards from scrimmage for the Vikings. This includes two 150+ total yard performances in 2021 in Cook’s absence. Even when the Vikings lose one of their most crucial pieces, Mattison helps sustain the success of the team’s rushing offense. While his rushing totals have been constant, Mattison has seen an improval in his receiving numbers each of his three seasons. The young back will only continue to improve and is likely to see a role as a number one back in the near future. While he stays in Minnesota, the Vikings will keep capitalizing on his ability to complement Cook in the backfield.

The depth and versatility does not stop there, however. The last two drafts have supplemented the Vikings running back room with two more promising backs. Last year, they selected Kene Nwangwu of Iowa State in the fourth round. Nwagnwu was an instant impact performer in his rookie season, but not particularly as a running back. After years of struggles to replace Cordarelle Patterson at the kick returner position, the Vikings found a gem in Nwangwu. As a rookie, he led the league in both yards per kick return, at a spectacular 32.3, and kick return touchdowns with two. Despite these league highs paired with few returns under 20 yards and no fumbles, Nwangwu was shockingly snubbed from both the Pro Bowl and the Associated Press’ All-Pro team. Hopefully Nwangwu uses this disgraceful negligence to further motivate him and develop as a running back and returner. Although very early on, it seems as if the Vikings got another steal in this year’s draft in fifth round pick Ty Chandler from North Carolina. The former Tar Heel has been very impressive throughout Training Camp and into the first two preseason games. His speed and toughness have been on full display as he has excelled as both a runner and a returner in his minimal opportunities. While his future is unclear, Chandler has shown as good of signs as he could this early in his professional career.

With two starting caliber backs and two more promising players in the running back room, it seems as if it would be impossible to get much better. But the Vikings have one more weapon who allows for these backs to have so much success: fullback C.J. Ham. Ham has undeniably been one of the best fullbacks in the league in recent years through the way he paves lanes for Vikings’ running backs. In each of the past three seasons, he has played over a third of the team’s total snaps, nearly unheard of in the modern NFL for a fullback. This showcases Ham’s value to the Vikings’ offense, and the team’s rushing ranks signal how beneficial he has been. The former Pro Bowler must be considered when evaluating which NFL franchise is home to the league’s best running back group.

Is There Anyone Better?
The Vikings’ high end talent and potential within the running back unit is difficult to beat. In order to compete, a team should at least have a top ten running back and another with starting upside. The only other teams who surely meet this criteria are the Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers, and an argument can be made for teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Denver Broncos. For the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott has fallen from the upper echelon of the league’s running back, and for the Broncos, Javonte Williams is approaching it. But for now, neither of these teams have an elite lead back despite having two quality runners.

The emergence of Packers running back A.J. Dillon has made discussion regarding the better running back group between the Vikings and their rivals much more intriguing. The Packers are the only team in the league who have a case to have two top ten running backs with Dillon and Aaron Jones. While Dillon has a major advantage over Mattison at the RB2 position, Cook has a strong advantage over Jones at the more valuable RB1 position. Although there are less than a handful or running backs most would rank between Cook and Jones, it is certain that Cook is in another tier of runners. In thirteen fewer games played, Cook has almost 700 more yards from scrimmage than Jones. Cook has proven to have the ability to put the offense on his back and almost single-handedly lead the Vikings to victory. Jones is still a great running back, but he lacks the consistently game changing talent which Cook provides. Pair this advantage with the depth the Vikings have and it seems like the argument for the best running back unit in the NFC North should be settled. Considering the recent trend of decreases in running backs’ longevity, depth behind Cook and Jones will be critical moving forward. After Dillon, the Packers have a group of highly unproven players in Kylin Hill, Patrick Taylor, and Tyler Goodson. Most coaching staffs and front offices would be more pleased with the untapped potential the Vikings possess behind Mattison in the depth chart.

The battle for running back supremacy comes down to the Vikings and the Browns. Cleveland has a loaded committee with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, and Jerome Ford. Chubb has been one of the league’s most efficient rushers, with an astounding 4.1 yards after contact per attempt, Hunt was a former rushing title winner while playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Johnson had a top ten grade per Pro Football Focus (PFF) in 2021. Similar to Chandler and Nwangwu, Ford and Felton are first and second-year players respectively who have seen good results in minimal action. The Browns’ group seems far more talented than any other in the league, but there is one significant factor which has allowed for their running back production: the offensive line. It can easily be noticed that there is little to no dropoff in statistical averages among the Browns’ top three backs. When one is injured, another can perform equally well. Does this mean that the Browns have several elite backs or an elite offensive line and run scheme? The answer is much more likely the latter. Cleveland’s offensive line has consistently been one of the best run blocking units in the league, including a top ranked finish in 2020 according to PFF. While the Browns’ group of backs is far above average, many other running back rooms could look special behind this offensive line. Even though there is little dropoff in performance between Cook and Mattison, the Vikings’ lackluster offensive line cannot justify why this is the case. Besides Chubb, whose advanced stats convey he is an elite running back, the rest of the Browns’ backs are heavily overrated. In addition, their group lacks Nwangwu’s unique return ability and Ham’s blocking prowess. So to conclude, the Vikings have the most complete unit of running backs in the NFL.

How To Take Advantage
Throughout Training Camp and the preseason, Head Coach Kevin O’Connell has expressed his satisfaction with the running back room. He identifies the position to be a key strength for the 2022 Vikings, so he likely has a plan for how to maximize their potential. Although it is no question that the Vikings will shift their offensive philosophy to pass the ball more, they can still capitalize on the strengths of their running backs. Earlier in the offseason, it was reported that Cook would have an expanded role in the receiving game which would feature various alignments. Look for O’Connell to incorporate his talented backs through motions and creative formations. Nwangwu should see an increase in offensive snap share due to his electric speed, and Chandler should be an impact special teamer with occasional offensive contribution. The Vikings are lucky to have the most complete running back room in the NFL. Now they must take advantage of it.
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