The Vikings were in a similar situation at running back last year heading into training camp. They had one of the best running backs in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, along with two backups that could fill niche roles, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
As we all know by now, that formula only worked for one game. Once Peterson was placed on the Commissioner’s List and eventually suspended, the Vikings had a huge hole to fill for the remaining 15 games.
But once the Vikings return back to Mankato next Saturday to report for training camp, the running backs position will actually look better than it did last year. We continue our training camp preview by analyzing the running backs.
SAFE BET STARTER: Adrian Peterson, Zach Line
The return of Peterson was without question the Vikings’ biggest offseason move. There were questions whether Peterson would report to mandatory minicamp, or even training camp, but the 2012 NFL MVP came back to Winter Park during OTAs after his suspension was uplifted by the NFL. Peterson has transitioned back with the team seamlessly, and he’ll be the focal point of this offense again despite quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s emergence during the final five games of his rookie season.
We’ll see if Peterson, 30, will need to participate in a preseason game after his suspension, but everyone around the organization expects him to have a huge year. He won’t have Jerome Felton, who signed with the Bills, around as his fullback. Zach Line, in his third season, will likely exit camp as the starting fullback.
BACKUPS: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, DuJuan Harris, Dominique Williams, Blake Renaud
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: It’s clear who the Vikings will use as their starting running back, but McKinnon and Asiata will compete for the backup role. Peterson is a workhorse, so McKinnon and Asiata will be fighting for the leftover snaps on a weekly basis. They bring two different styles to the offense, with Asiata as a short yardage back and McKinnon as a change-of-pack back. They were inconsistent last season, but McKinnon and Asiata gained some valuable experience filling in for Peterson.
THE BURNING QUESTION: It’s evident that Asiata can be used as a short-yardage back, particularly around the goal line, but what will be McKinnon’s role? For a college quarterback, McKinnon’s transition to running back was better than expected before his back injury. He’ll still need to improve as a pass protector and his vision, but the Georgia Southern product is a very versatile weapon on offense.
We expected to see Peterson used more in third down situations last year, and Peterson believes that will be the case again this year in his return. That would cut into some opportunities for McKinnon to see the field. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will have to get creative to find a role for McKinnon, either on third downs or two running back formations with Peterson. It’ll be a tough adjustment for McKinnon, who started six games as a rookie last year, but he’ll get the chance to learn under Peterson for an entire season this time as he continues to learn the running back position.