To count down the days until Vikings rookies, quarterbacks and select veterans report to Mankato on July 23, we will reveal our ranking of the 17 most important Vikings players heading into the 2017 season. Look for the next player on our list every weekday morning at Access Vikings.
This list, created by Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer, is not a ranking of the best players on the team, though sheer talent is obviously an essential factor. It is a ranking of the players whose upcoming season will have the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it’s in 2017 or beyond.
Coming in at No. 17 on our list is running back Latavius Murray.
Latavius Murray, who signed a three-year deal worth $15 million with the Vikings this offseason, might not lead the team in carries this year, not after they traded up in the second round of April’s draft to select speedy Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. But even if Murray is technically a backup, he figures to assume a critical role for the Vikings offense.
In 2016, there were 25 occasions when the Vikings ran the ball on third or fourth down within three yards of the first-down marker, according to Pro Football Reference. They converted on only 13 of those plays, averaging a pathetic 1.36 yards per carry. The struggles continued inside the 5-yard line, as they scored touchdowns on only a third of their rushes.
The team’s well-documented short-yardage struggles were in large part the result of poor blocking from an offensive line that was decimated by injuries. But some of the blame still belonged to Adrian Peterson when he appeared in three games and Matt Asiata, his short-yardage replacement.
Enter Murray, a possible bruiser listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.
In 2016, his final season in Oakland, he scored a dozen touchdowns, nine from inside the 5-yard line. In those short-yardage situations on third and fourth down, he converted on 13 of 18 tries, averaging 4.9 yards. Sure, the Raiders have one of the NFL’s top offensive lines. But they didn’t just pick Murray up on their shoulders and carry him where he needed to go.
Murray’s straight-ahead running style and respectable speed will at the very least make him a major upgrade over both Asiata and the 2016 version of Peterson, who ran tentatively before suffering his major knee injury.
Throw in his pass blocking, for which Pro Football Focus handed him the NFL’s third-best grade among running backs in 2016, and Murray, if fully recovered from March ankle surgery, will likely play plenty of important snaps this season, even if Cook ends up getting the most carries.