Vikings training camp preview: Running backs/fullbacks

Vikings star Adrian Peterson will no doubt be motivated after his level of domination dropped off slightly in 2013, when he rushed for 1,266 yards and 4.5 yards per carry.

Bruce Kluckhohn

 

This is the second in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 25 start of camp.

TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS/FULLBACKS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8

Projected starters: Adrian Peterson (eighth year), fullback Jerome Felton (seventh year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, *Jerick McKinnon, Dominique Williams, fullback Zach Line

Vikings Positional Preview Series

The breakdown: Peterson is aging, coming off a down year and isn’t the best back in the league anymore. Yeah, we’ve heard all of those beliefs. They’re all a stretch. Peterson is still one of, if not the, best back in the league. Yes, he slipped to 1,266 rushing yards last season following his MVP, 2,000-yard campaign. It wasn’t the follow-up he wanted, but coming down from perhaps the best season ever by a running back had to be expected, even if Peterson fanned the flames with talk of rushing for 2,500 yards.

Reality is, Peterson still was second in the league in yards rushing per game. LeSean McCoy, who led the league in total rushing yards and claimed during the offseason he is the league’s best back, led all backs with an average of 100.4 rushing yards per game. Peterson was second, averaging 90.4 yards per game. Peterson’s 4.5 yard-per-carry average was the second-lowest of his career, but still ranked seventh among all backs with at least 200 carries.

Peterson was fifth in the league in rushing, despite playing just 14 games. Most backs would call Peterson’s "down" year a career-high season. And with the change to Norv Turner at offensive coordinator, there’s reason to believe Peterson’s in line for another big year. Turner has always had strong running games to coincide with deep passing attacks. Turner has seen league-leading seasons from Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Peterson will also be used more as a receiver out of the backfield, something which has the 29 year-old excited. Peterson had 29 catches last season. His career-high is 43 catches in his third season. He could have a chance to break that mark this year and show the complete game like McCoy, Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles.

Minnesota has to replace Toby Gerhart, who took his first chance at free agency to cash in with the Jacksonille Jaguars where he should be an every-down back for the first time in his career. The Vikings can be confident in an early down backup in Asiata, who showed his ability when given the chance late last season. With Peterson and Gerhart sidelined, Asiata was the main ball carrier for Minnesota in two games. He ran for three touchdowns in one game and then ended the season with 14 carries for 115 yards against Detroit.

Gerhart’s role as the third-down back and pass-catcher out of the backfield is likely to go to rookie Jerick McKinnon. The Vikings took the speedy 5-foot-8, 173-pound McKinnon in the third round out of Georgia State. He played mostly option quarterback in college, but coaches — and Peterson — are excited about McKinnon’s potential as a runner and receiver. He’s another weapon for Turner to get creative with, similar to smaller pass-catching backs Turner’s used in the past.

Fullback could be an interesting spot. Turner’s offenses will go without a fullback often times. But Turner has talked about the need for having a blocking fullback for games later in the season outside, possibly in poor-weather when teams will want to establish the run. Do the Vikings stick with the reliable Felton, decide to go young with Line, or maybe go without a true fullback, using tight end Rhett Ellison to fill a role as a lead blocker?

Felton was suspended for the first three games last year, but showed his impact when he led the way for Peterson’s MVP campaign. Minnesota is also intrigued with Line, a second-year player who filled in for Felton early last season.

Best position battle: Filling in for Gerhart and his many roles will be the most intriguing aspect of camp at running back. Likely, Asiata and McKinnon will each take their turns filling in as Peterson’s backup and each taking on specific roles. Asiata hasn’t been asked to be much of a receiver, but he’s a big, strong back who could handle a bigger workload, if needed, or handle carries on tough running downs.

McKinnon’s size would likely mean he wouldn’t be asked to fill a heavy role, but could be used in spots as a runner or receiver, and maybe he becomes the third-down back, which was Gerhart’s main route to playing time. McKinnon hasn’t done much receiving or blocking, but the Vikings are confident that he’ll be able to handle the job as he showed a willingness to block leading into the draft and the team believed he had good receiving skills, as well.

Peterson’s never been much of a blocker, but he’s sure to catch more passes this season. Whether that means he stays on for third downs or in obvious passing situations remains to be seen. Joe Banyard has been with the team off and on for two seasons and will try to break through and earn a roster spot, but the depth chart is likely set at running back.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Packers; 4. Lions. Peterson still reigns as the best back in the division, but the rest of the North has improved and the conversation behind Peterson is a lot more interesting these days.

On the surface, Forte is the biggest name with the best production. He gets the nod as the next best back in the division, thus leading Chicago to the second ranking. Forte is coming off his career-best season, actually outrushing Peterson and finishing second in the league with 1,339 rushing yards. Peterson did best Forte in yards per game.

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Forte added a career-best 74 catches for 594 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He complements the Bears’ pass-first offense very well and is the total package. Surprisingly, Forte is only one year younger than Peterson. Michael Bush didn’t do much in his short time in Chicago and is gone, replaced by rookie Ka’Deem Carey, a fourth-round draft pick who will look to spell Forte.

Green Bay jumps up ahead of Detroit here after the big rookie season by Eddie Lacy. Lacy was everything the Packers hoped after he was selected in the second round last year. Lacy finished eighth in the league in rushing with 1,178 yards and is the power back needed to go along with Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. Fullback John Kuhn is still around and Green Bay has a capable backup in James Starks, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season.

In Peterson, Forte and Lacy, three of the top-7 backs in total carries reside in the North. The three also were in the top-8 in total rushing yards. Lagging behind, in part due to Detroit’s reluctance to run, is Reggie Bush and the Lions. But Detroit also has a strong 1-2 punch in Bush and Joique Bell.

Bush had the second 1,000-rushing yard season of his career. In his first season with the Lions, Bush was the perfect fit for the team’s offense, adding more of a rushing threat but also catching 54 passes. Bush was 13th in the league in rushing with 1,006 yards, despite playing in just 14 games. Bush’s average of 71.9 yards per game ranked 10th in the league.

Peterson said: "The young guy, Jerick, the running back, he’s been pretty impressive and there’s not too many guys who impress me like that, especially rookies coming in. He’s been able to do some real good things in the offense, picking it up well and just his running style. He has some great intangibles. That’s definitely one guy that’s impressed me."

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