2016 Minnesota Vikings positional evaluation: Running backs

How did the Minnesota Vikings running backs fare during the 2016 NFL season and what kind of grades did they earn for their efforts?

Honestly, the running game for the 2016 Minnesota Vikings was bad. Really bad. As a unit, they were ranked dead last in nearly every statistical category when it came to their ground game, and the numbers for the individual running backs shows just how rough it was.

Big injuries on the offensive line were a big reason for the struggles, but there were also times when the team made questionable play calls or the running backs themselves were struggling to stay healthy.

Still, evaluating these players can be a real challenge. The numbers themselves don’t tell the entire story of what their value is to the team or what it might be in the future, but there were definitely some players who had better performances than others in 2016.

Let’s take a look at all the running backs who were on the active roster for the Minnesota Vikings during the 2016 NFL season starting with a practice squad player who earned a spot on the main roster toward the end of the year.

Sep 1, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham (30) carries the ball against the Los Angeles Rams during a NFL game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 1, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham (30) carries the ball against the Los Angeles Rams during a NFL game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

C.J. Ham

As a late addition to the Minnesota Vikings 53-man roster, Ham never saw the field for an offensive snap and found himself on the sidelines as an inactive for much of the time away from the practice squad.

His elevation to the main roster was a bit of a surprise, but the young running back had an impressive preseason where he showed a nice combination of power, speed, and agility the team needed to evaluate further.

Ham’s promotion shows the Vikings main roster proves even further that Minnesota has some plans for the future which could involve seeing him with even more time on the practice squad or possibly the main roster.

As far as 2017 goes, Ham’s status will greatly depend on what the Vikings do with Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata. However, if the team moves on from one of both of these veterans, there could be room for Ham to take on a bigger role.

Grade for C.J. Ham in 2016: Incomplete

Aug 15, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings fullback Zach Line (48) catches a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 26-16. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 15, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings fullback Zach Line (48) catches a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 26-16. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Line

While Line is a fullback, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get some opportunities on offense to run with the football or catch passes out of the backfield. However, that doesn’t mean that his duties in pass and run blocking aren’t the biggest reasons to have him on the field.

Sadly, the Vikings poor run offense was due in a large part to the poor blocking of the offensive line and the fullback. Line’s inability to make holes for the ball carriers doesn’t rest entirely on his shoulders, but the number of times Line got thrown backwards instead of pushing forward was disturbing.

Line didn’t get a lot of touches on offense this season. He only carried the ball 7 times for 15 yards and did not reach the end zone. In addition. he was targeted by quarterback passes 3 times, but failed to catch any of them.

Improving the offensive line during the offseason will help Line be a better contributor in blocking, rushing, and receiving, but for now he has to be one of the most disappointing players to take the field during the 2016 season. Expect him to bounce back in a big away in 2017.

Grade for Zach Line in 2016: D-

Nov 24, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata (44) celebrates after a touchdown during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 24, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata (44) celebrates after a touchdown during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Asiata

If Matt Asiata was an inanimate object, he’d be a bowling ball. As soon as the ball is in his hands, he plows forward and picks up any yardage he can. The problem is that there wasn’t a lot of ground for him to travel before he came in contact with an offensive lineman or defensive player.

The most frustrating part of Asiata’s season was how many times the Vikings gave him the ball in goal line or short yardage situations only to have him fail to pick up the necessary distance. The running back started 6 games and finished his season with the lowest yards per carry average in 4 seasons.

Asiata found the end zone 6 times on his 121 carries for 402 yards in the running game. However, a solid amount of yardage came in the passing game, where he caught 32 of his 38 targets for 263 yards and enjoyed his highest yards per reception average of his career while being the team’s pass blocking halfback.

The future is cloudy for Asiata. The Vikings hesitation to sign him back to the team after becoming a free agent means the team likely wants to find a replacement or more effective player, but Asiata’s solid skills could make him an appealing player to bring back on another one-year deal.

Grade for Matt Asiata in 2016: C

Oct 9, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) catches a pass against the Houston Texans in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 9, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) catches a pass against the Houston Texans in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Jerick McKinnon

Despite coming in as the backup for Adrian Peterson, the hope was that Jerick McKinnon could serve as a great rotational running back to use his great speed and elusiveness. After Peterson’s injury, McKinnon’s role got much larger, but sadly his production did not.

As expected with the injuries to the offensive line, McKinnon struggled to gain solid chunks of yardage. He may have led the team in rushing, but his 3.4 yards per carry were the worst of his career and his contributions to the running game was moderately disappointing at 5.9 yards per catch.

McKinnon ended the year with 539 rushing yards on 159 attempts and 255 receiving yards on 43 catches, reaching the end zone a total of 4 times through the air and on the ground. Quarterback Sam Bradford did seem to enjoy getting the ball to him, as he enjoyed career highs in catches and targets.

Under contract through the 2017 season, McKinnon should be considered a lock to return to the Minnesota Vikings. A down year also shouldn’t put too much of a damper on his future potential or past accomplishments. As said multiple times already, improving the offensive line will make all these players look better.

Grade for Jerick McKinnon in 2016: C-

Dec 20, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) runs in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 20, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) runs in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Peterson

12 million dollars. That’s the sum of money the Minnesota Vikings paid Adrian Peterson during the 2016 NFL season. Sadly, that money is more based on his football past and accomplishments rather than his recent production and future potential.

Peterson only played in 3 games this season because of an injury to his knee, but even when he was healthy, he was largely ineffective. With an abysmal 1.9 yards per carry and 2.7 yards per reception, good things did not happen when the ball was in their star player’s hands.

72 rushing yards and 8 receiving yards with 0 touchdowns and one fumble lost is not a great statistical line for the running back who will be 32 for the Vikings 2017 season. However, Peterson was never really able to get going this season to see if those numbers could have been greatly improved with a larger sample.

The debate about whether or not Adrian Peterson should return for the 2017 season is one that will be heavily debated. His $18 million price tag can be removed with no penalty by the Vikings if they cut him by March 11th. The big question is just how much gas the Vikings think he has left in the tank.

Grade for Adrian Peterson in 2016: D-

Jan 1, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) celebrates his touchdown with running back Matt Asiata (44) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 1, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) celebrates his touchdown with running back Matt Asiata (44) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Overall running back evaluation

Sadly, football is a team sport and these individual grades are all lower than they should be based on the talent of the individuals being evaluated. If these players had a better group of blockers, they would likely be much more successful.

But this could be the final time the Minnesota Vikings ever have Adrian Peterson suiting up. Add in the team’s hesitation on bringing back Matt Asiata last year, and you have a team that could see some new faces in the backfield for the 2017 season.

Thankfully, there are young and talented players on the roster. Both Jerick McKinnon and C.J. Ham give hope for the future, and there are always capable players in the NFL Draft or free agency who can help to fill in the gaps if some players don’t return.

With how historically awful the Vikings pass rush was during the year, it’s actually kind of generous to give a passing grade to the unit as a whole. Since their success is so dependent on those players making holes for them, they can get a pass for their performance as a whole.

Overall running back grade for 2016: D

What did you think of the performances of these running backs? Are the grades fair? Do you project a different group of ball carriers for the team during the 2017 NFL season? Let us know in the comments below. Up next in this series, the Minnesota Vikings tight ends will be evaluated.

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