Updated: July 1st, 2015 6:02pm
By: Daniel House
Last year, the running back position was flipped upside down following the suspension of Adrian Peterson in September. Matt Asiata became the primary running back, while Jerick McKinnon was thrust into an expanded role as a rookie. Both of them showed they can handle the load in the Minnesota Vikings offensive system. Asiata was a hard runner that was primarily used to run in-between the tackles. Not to mention, he was a safety valve and solid check down option in the passing game. Jerick McKinnon was learning the system and still managed to show his athleticism on the field. He provided the Vikings with a change of pace running back that could bring some explosiveness off the edge. McKinnon missed the final four games of the season after having lower back surgery. However, he gained valuable experience and continued to learn the system. In 2015, the running back room will be getting crowded with the best running back in the game re-joining the position group. However, this is never a bad problem to have in the NFL and it improves the Vikings offense significantly.
Adrian Peterson will provide the offense with another top-tier weapon that they were missing last year. Teddy Bridgewater can exploit defenses who attempt to stack the box. This threat opens the door for Peterson to experience less running against stacked boxes. He hasn't had this luxury in the past and it will certainly help the flow of the Vikings offense. With all of the drama behind him, Peterson can now focus entirely on football. He took the whole year off and was prepping his body to return. Many reports indicate Peterson is in phenomenal shape entering this season. He definitely will have a chip on his shoulder to make a statement throughout the league. Aside from Brett Favre, Peterson has never played with a high caliber quarterback in front of him. Teddy Bridgewater will help Peterson's game and he will make an infinite impact on Bridgewater's growth as a quarterback. Expect more passes to be thrown Peterson's way out of the backfield this season. We haven't seen much of this from Peterson in the past, but he has been working diligently to improve this aspect of his game. With Adrian Peterson back and the drama over, the Vikings offense will benefit by having a balanced attack in 2015.
Last year, Jerick McKinnon was thrown into the fire faster than anyone anticipated. Following Adrian Peterson's suspension, McKinnon became the second-string running back behind Matt Asiata. In fact, there were situations where McKinnon was the feature runner during some games. He proved he can provide a boost of electricity to the Vikings running game. In eight games beginning with week four against Atlanta, McKinnon had 108 carries for 531 yards, along with a 4.92 yard average. He also added 23 receptions for 121 yards before suffering a back injury. He didn't reach the end zone, but his ability to cut smooth and swivel his hips with a burst of athleticism helped him to elude potential tacklers. He will provide the Vikings with a change of pace as a third down running back in 2015.
Following the suspension of Adrian Peterson in September, Matt Asiata became the primary running back in the offensive system. He might not blow anyone away with his athleticism, but Asiata is a tough runner. He muscles for every possible yard and is a durable back. In 2014, Asiata rushed 164 times for 570 yards. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, but he did accumulate nine rushing touchdowns. Asiata also caught 44 passes on 58 targets, earning him another 325 yards and a touchdown. He was reliable in the passing game and picked up some huge first downs in several games through the air. Not to mention, he was again phenomenal in the goal-line sequence. While filling in for Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata managed to show his running style can apply in this system. His ability to pass protect and his understanding of the system will help him remain on this roster. Asiata can be used when the offense needs to succeed in short-yardage situations.
Joe Banyard has always seemed like the odd man out entering training camp. That doesn't seem to be the case and he has found himself on the roster over the last three years. Part of this has been attributed to his success in the preseason slate. In those games, Banyard has shown he can not only provide a solid yards-per-carry average, but he can also bring some life in the passing game, as well. Banyard needs work understanding the system and his passing blocking skills could be improved. He only carried the ball 21 times last season, but notched a 4.2 yards-per-carry average over that span. Banyard runs very hard and has good vision in the second level of the defense. He is a different style of runner that the Vikings will need behind Peterson, Asiata, and McKinnon. Nonetheless, the battle won't be easy in training camp. Banyard will be competing with free agent signee DuJuan Harris for the final running back spot. They both provide different skill-sets and the coaches will need to decide which one meshes best with the other running backs ahead of them on the depth chart.
DuJuan Harris is most known for his time with the rival Green Bay Packers. After the depth chart became packed in Green Bay, the Packers had limited use for Harris. He spent time in 2012 as a third down runner for the Packers, but accumulated just 34 attempts on the season. However, Harris took advantage of that time and notched 157 yards and two touchdowns during that span. Harris is a small and elusive runner who can make tacklers miss in the second level of the defense. He didn't see an abundance of passes out of the backfield, but he has continually been praised for this trait in his skill-set. He is a better fit as a third down rusher than Banyard, but doesn't provide a different style of running from the other running backs ahead of him on the depth chart. It will all come down to what type of runner the coaches are searching for to complement Asiata and McKinnon. The door is open, but it appears it will be a battle between Harris and Banyard for the final spot in the running back position group.
Dominique Williams is the 'scat-back' on the Vikings running back depth chart. The diminutive running back from Wagner spent time on the practice squad last season. He has shown some excellent pass catching ability and flashed his speed in several preseason game last year. It will be a steep battle for him, but he is worth watching in training camp.
The running backs will have one of the more underrated roster battles in training camp this year. There is a high level of talent in the middle tier of the group and if one player can impress the coaching staff, it could change the entire outlook for the position.
With Adrian Peterson returning and some young blossoming talent behind him, the sky is the limit for the Vikings running game.