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The 17 most important Vikings in 2017: No. 17, RB Latavius Murray

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.

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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.

Vikings defensive line: More hands on deck, key opening to fill

The Vikings defensive line may still be without the talented Sharrif Floyd, a 2013 first-round pick, but the strength of last year’s third-ranked defense — the line — has more hands on deck to fill the void.

Due to offseason additions, one of the more difficult omissions in Matt Vensel’s early 53-man roster projection was Shamar Stephen, a former seventh-round pick who has been called into larger roles for injured teammates during his three NFL seasons.

Stephen and veteran pass rusher Tom Johnson filled critical roles after Floyd went down in September, but the Vikings added three new faces in free agents Datone Jones and Will Sutton as well as fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson as insurance for the trenches. Tom Johnson, who turns 33 in August, is coming off a torn hamstring that ended his 2016.

A committee will continue to fill Floyd’s role, but who will make the cut? Tom Johnson lined up alongside Linval Joseph for the Vikings base defense throughout the spring. What was clearer regarding roles is the Vikings intend to continue, if not accelerate, their rotations at every spot with Brian Robison taking on a substitution role both inside and outside. Even Everson Griffen is returning to his roots by also lining up as an interior pass rusher during practices.

Training camp will sort out the actual 53-man roster, but here’s what we’ve learned so far about the new group.

Datone Jones (6-4, 285): Signed from Green Bay, Jones is changing positions yet again with the hope of sticking as a defensive tackle for the Vikings. The former first-round pick was a rotational defender for the Packers, starting just seven of 67 games played with a career high of 3.5 sacks as a rookie in 2013. He can be a solid run defender, but when signed the Vikings wanted him to bulk up for the move inside. Jones is expected to push for a rotational role after receiving a $1.6 million signing bonus on a deal worth up to $3.75 million. The Vikings are open to eventually moving him around the line as well, according to head coach Mike Zimmer.

“There’s a chance,” Zimmer said during minicamp. “When a guy is coming to a new system and a new thing, you want to kind of leave him alone. We’ve got lots of time in training camp to figure that all out. But we’re trying to teach him the techniques and the things that we do at the three-technique. I don’t think it would be good to, now he’s playing a different technique because he’s a defensive end or something like that. We’re just trying to get him comfortable with the things that we teach.”

Jaleel Johnson (6-3, 316): The Vikings see more versatility potential with Johnson, the Iowa product taken with the second pick of the fourth round. He impressed the Vikings with his ability to rush the passer, leading all Big Ten defensive tackles with 7.5 sacks last fall. Johnson has the potential to play both defensive tackle and nose spots, which could help him stand out in a crowded defensive line room.

“The Senior Bowl he had was outstanding,” General Manager Rick Spielman said after the draft. “The way he showed he can rush the passer. I think he ended up with maybe three or four tackles and a couple assists in the game and you got to see him go against some pretty good guards in that game. So he had a great week of practice down there and we felt that he gives us some flexibility and some pass rush ability in the line.”

Will Sutton (6-0, 297): The Vikings don’t believe Sutton’s play for the Bears the previous two seasons, which includes 24 solo tackles and no sacks in 21 games, was indicative of the 25-year-old’s potential. Chicago moved to a 3-4 defense after his rookie season, shifting Sutton from the guard’s inside shoulder to his outside. The Vikings hope moving Sutton back closer to the football will create a surge for him, not unlike Tom Johnson when he resurrected his career by moving away from the Saints’ 3-4 defense.

“We felt like when [the Bears] went to a 3-4, it was probably not a real good fit for him,” Zimmer said last month. “His game is based on quickness and acceleration and penetration, so we’ve kind of had our eye on him for a while.”

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