Latavius Murray is a good running back who topped 1,000 yards in 2015 for the Raiders. Adrian Peterson is a future Hall of Famer who led the NFL in rushing that season with the Vikings and who in 2012 came within nine yards of setting a new single-season rushing record.
And I’m here to argue Murray wasn’t just a good signing by the Vikings but to offer five reasons why he’s a definite upgrade over bringing back Peterson. Matt Vensel and I talked about some of this on this week’s Access Vikings podcast, but here are a few more numbers to think about:
1) Murray has fewer negative plays. Let’s build this around the premise that the modern NFL running game is a secondary complement to the more essential passing game. It’s great to be able to run the ball because it keeps defenses off-balance. At the end of the day, though, most championships are won with good defense and elite quarterback play.
It’s nice to have a running back with big-play potential — such as Peterson — but an overlooked thing is having a running back who doesn’t put you in bad down-and-distance situations.
To that end, let’s look at recent first down plays for both Peterson and Murray. I won’t even include Peterson’s disastrous, injury-shortened 2016 season. Instead, I’ll only look at 2015 for Peterson while looking at the last two years for Murray.
On first down plays, Peterson in 2015 rushed for negative yards or no gain on 24.1 percent of his carries (53 out of 220). So roughly one of every four times on first down, he put the Vikings into 2nd-and-long — an obvious passing situation that puts even more pressure on an offensive line.
Murray, on the other hand, rushed for negative yardage or no gain on just 18.2 percent of his first down carries in 2015 and 2016 combined (44 of 242 attempts) — fewer than one of every five.
So even though Murray ran for a lower overall average (4.0) those seasons compared with Peterson (4.5) in 2015, he more consistently set up a better situation on second down — critical for any offense and particularly for the Vikings with their short passing attack that is predicated on staying ahead of the chains.
2) Murray is much better in pass protection. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talked about Murray on KFAN Tuesday and seemed particularly excited about his new running back’s blocking ability — noting that it means the Vikings won’t have to take Murray out on third downs as they often did with Peterson, who was not a good blocker.
3) Murray is better out of the shotgun. Murray has a career rushing average of 4.0 yards per carry out of the shotgun, compared with 4.3 yards per carry from snaps originating under center. So he’s slightly better under center, but the difference isn’t that great.
Peterson, on the other hand, has a wide disparity between shotgun runs (3.7 yards per carry) and under center carries (4.9 yards) in his career. It was even more dramatic in 2015 (1.6 yards in shotgun, 4.9 yards under center) when the Vikings had to scrap what they wanted to do in order to focus more on Peterson’s preference and strengths.
4) Murray has better ball security. Murray has averaged one fumble every 95 offensive touches in his career. Peterson has averaged one fumble every 68 offensive touches.
5) Murray is five years younger — 27 compared with 32. This is not ageism. This is historical data. Running backs as old as Peterson don’t tend to fare well. In fact, as of two years ago there were exactly three running backs in NFL history who had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season at age 32 or older: Mike Anderson, Emmitt Smith and Ricky Williams, all of whom were 32. Murray is in the prime of his career. Peterson is not.
The two biggest caveats in this are 1) that Peterson ran behind a substandard offensive line with the Vikings, while Murray had strong run blocking in Oakland … and 2) Peterson has proven doubters wrong before, so we can’t always look at predictors such as age or injury to determine his future performance.
That said, there are plenty of reason to believe Murray is simply a better fit for the Vikings — and better, period — than Peterson in 2017.