If rehabbing starter Adrian Peterson isn't ready to go on time, Toby Gerhart is a quality fill-in.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
This is the second in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 27 start of camp.
July 10: Quarterbacks July 11: Running backs July 12: Wide receivers July 13: Tight ends July 16: Offensive linemen July 17: Defensive linemen July 18: Linebackers July 19: Safeties July 20: Cornerbacks July 23: Specialists July 24: Coaches July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp July 26: Fans' guide to camp
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Matt Asiata, Derrick Coleman, Ryan D'Imperio, *Jerome Felton, *Toby Gerhart, Lex Hilliard, *Jordan Todman.
The breakdown: The running back position — and to an extent the entire offense — stops and starts with Peterson. While the rest of the league has placed more of an emphasis on the passing game, Minnesota is one of the few teams whose offense starts with the run and Peterson is the bell-cow in the attack.
To understand Peterson's importance to the Vikings, look no further than the seven-year, $100 million contract he received from Minnesota during training camp last season, the richest contract ever given a running back. The question is whether Peterson can return to the same dominant runner he was before tearing his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in a December game last season.Before 2011, Peterson had topped 1,200 rushing yards in each of his first four seasons.
A tireless worker, Peterson has set his sights on returning for the Sept. 9 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars and appears to be on schedule. But the Vikings want to be careful with their franchise back. Peterson had surgery a week after the injury and was running four months later. He's rehab has gone so well that Peterson believes he might even be able to participate in part of training camp. Peterson says the only thing he has left to do is continue to build up strength in the leg. He feels he can run and cut, but noted during an appearance at minicamp last month that he's "just not there yet."
If Peterson isn't ready to go, Gerhart will assume the full-time role. Gerhart isn't the dynamic runner Peterson is, but he has proven capable of being the lead back. In his second season after being a second-round pick in 2010, Gerhart averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year. Filling in for Peterson, he ran for more than 90 yards in three different games. He had his first 100-yard game, including a 67-yeard run, after Peterson was hurt at Washington in Week 16, including a career-best 67-yard run.
Gerhart says he's always tried to prepare as if he will be asked to carry a full load, but he admittedly worked hard this offseason in case Peterson isn't ready. He tried to increase his speed and looked noticeably stronger while in town for organized team activities and minicamp. Coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman say they have complete confidence in Gerhart's ability, and Gerhart's presence should help the Vikings give Peterson the proper recovery time.
For depth, Minnesota has Lex Hilliard, a four-year veteran who is more of a power runner, and Jordan Todman, a 22-year-old speed threat who has yet to appear in a regular-season game. The decision between Hilliard and Todman will likely come down to the type of abilities the Vikings are looking for. Todman did flash some ability and speed during OTAs and minicamp. Rookie Derrick Coleman, who has a hearing problem and wears hearing aids while playing, could find his way on to the practice squad.
Best position battle: If Peterson is healthy, the depth chart stacks up pretty easily. Peterson will be the starter and Gerhart the backup. In that case, Todman and Hilliard will likely be battling for the final spot. But the biggest competition among players who have a better chance to see the field is at fullback. Minnesota's two-tight end offense leaves one likely fullback spot on the roster. Felton, signed as a free agent in the offseason, would appear to have the lead over Asiata and D'Imperio, who was the lone fullback at the end of last season. D'Imperio can play special teams, so Felton will have to prove his versatility. But the Vikings like Felton and kept him around even after a DWI in June. One possible exception is rookie tight end Rhett Ellison, who could fill Jim Kleinsasser's hybrid fullback/tight end role and could save Minnesota a roster spot if the team chooses to go without a full-time fullback. Most likely, though, is Felton sticks as a fullback and Ellison makes the team as a tight end and maybe sees some snaps at fullback.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4 Lions. With Peterson's status yet unknown, the Bears and Matt Forte narrowly squeak ahead of Minnesota. Peterson at full strength is, without question, the best back in the division. But the Vikings are also the only team in the division that could be considered run-first. Michael Bush backs up Forte and is a capable runner. Green Bay and Detroit rely on their Pro Bowl quarterbacks and running the ball is a secondary thought. Green Bay has had success at times with James Starks. Detroit really is a pass-all-the time team, and injuries are a big reason. Jahvid Best hasn't been able to stay healthy since he was drafted in the first round in 2010. Mikel Leshoure missed his rookie season after being taken in the second round last year. Veteran back Kevin Smith still keeps coming around for the Lions in their place.
Frazier says: "Watching Toby at the end of last season, prior to his injury, really gives you some confidence that, if for some reason Adrian is not ready to go in Week 1, we have a really solid back at that position. Toby did a great job in Adrian's absence. We're not shaking in our boots afraid if Toby has to start for us against Jacksonville. We know he's more than capable. We just have to make sure we have some quality depth at that position, but we're all optimistic that Adrian is going to make it back."