Vikings strong and deep at running back

Today is the fourth day of two weeks of Minnesota Vikings coverage leading up to the April 25 beginning of the NFL Draft.

April 12: Five best draft moments in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst draft moments in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
Today: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
April 21: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
April 24: Rick Spielman’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round picks

TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS/FULLBACKS

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 1

On the roster

There might not be anything more that Adrian Peterson can do to surprise. Coming back from major knee surgery in record time — and apparently playing the final month with a sports hernia — Peterson won the MVP, breaking the quarterback position’s hold on the award, with the second-most single-season rushing yards in NFL history. Once a topic of debate, there is no longer any question if Peterson is the league’s best back.

The Vikings are as set at the running back position as a team possibly can be set. Behind Peterson is Toby Gerhart, an unusual luxury in the NFL that could likely start on many other teams in the NFL. Gerhart proved his ability when he started for an injured Peterson in 2011. Gerhart doesn’t get much work, and he hasn’t caused waves while sitting behind Peterson, despite his talent and his status as a second-round pick in 2010. Gerhart is Minnesota’s third-down back, partly because the team doesn’t have a natural blocking and pass-catching option. Matt Asiata played mostly special teams last year as the third running back on the roster after winning the job in training camp.

The Vikings are one of the few teams that employ a fullback with regularity and Jerome Felton was a free-agent revelation last year. Felton, signed in the offseason, earned his first Pro Bowl nod and was a second-team All-Pro, helping lead the way for Peterson’s big season and providing many key blocks. Asiata also has experience at fullback and tight end Rhett Ellison likely could even play the spot if needed.

Last five running backs/fullbacks drafted

2010: Toby Gerhart, Stanford: second round (51st overall) — still with the Vikings
2007: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma: first round (seventh overall) — still with the Vikings
2005: Ciatrick Fason, Florida: fourth round (112th overall) — released August 2007, out of the NFL
2004: Mewelde Moore, Tulane: fourth round (119th overall) — signed with Pittsburgh Steelers, March 2008; currently a free agent after playing last season with the Indianapolis Colts
2003: Onterrio Smith, Oregon: fourth round (105th overall) — released, April 2006, out of the NFL

Philosophy at the position

Minnesota is one of the few run-first teams left in the NFL. Of course, they have good reason. Peterson is the league’s best back and Gerhart might be one of the best backups in the league. Peterson is durable and is a workhorse back unlike few backs in the NFL. As the rest of the league continues its move towards being defined by passing games, the Vikings remain steadfast in believing they can win by running the ball with Peterson, limiting mistakes and making the occasional big pass play. The philosophy paid off when Peterson had his epic late-season run to get Minnesota into the playoffs last year. The Vikings have invested in the position with high picks of Peterson and Gerhart and re-signing fullback Jerome Felton this offseason and likely hope to not have to make any changes for some time.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Eddie Lacy, junior, Alabama (5-11, 231). As teams have become more pass-oriented, running backs have become devalued in the draft. Lacy is a perfect example. Lacy is generally considered the best back in the draft and he could slip entirely out of the first round. Lacy, continuing the string of Alabama running backs, is the only back even being talked about as a first-rounder. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram slipped before being taken with the 28th pick in 2011.Alabama’s Trent Richardson broke the mold last year, going third overall. Lacy is more likely to have a similar experience to Ingram. Like Ingram, Lacy is another big back with power and is hard to bring down. Becoming the lead back for the Crimson Tide last year, he gained 1,322 yards at a 6.5 yards-per-carry average. He added 22 catches and 19 total touchdowns, but detractors wonder if he was a product of Alabama’s standout offensive line, which will likely have two players drafted in the first round and another on Day 2. He does have some elusiveness, but doesn’t have great speed.

Lacy says: “Well, I mean, I was able to show up in the big games on the big stages and in the NFL, every game is a big game no matter what. So if I was able to perform well in those games, you know it should be an indication that I can do the same thing in the NFL.”

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Montee Ball, senior, Wisconsin (5-10, 214). Ball is coming off a record-setting career at Wisconsin and no one in the draft can match Ball’s production. Ball has good, but not great, size. He has decent speed (4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash) but won’t be a game-breaker. Besides Lacy, Ball is probably the most complete back in the draft. Ball has good instincts, is a hard runner and has a nose for the end-zone (55 touchdowns the past two seasons). He averaged 6.3 yards-per-carry in 2011 with 1,923 yards and was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but decided to return to school. He slipped to 5.1 yards-per-carry last season with 1,830 yards. He’s reliable, durable, can catch the ball and could eventually become a starter in the NFL.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Johnathan Franklin, senior, UCLA (5-10, 205). Franklin is coming off a highly productive senior season at UCLA in which he had 1,734 yards rushing, a 6.1 yards-per-carry average, caught 33 passes for 322 yards and had 15 touchdowns in Jim Mora’s offense. Franklin is a smaller runner, who could fit in well with the offenses in the NFL these days, with the ability to run and catch. He’s considered a one-cut runner with the speed to explode through the holes. He ran a 4.49-second 40 at the combine, the fourth-best mark among all running backs. He’s said to be highly-competitive, doesn’t avoid contact — possibly a bad thing at his size — and runs very hard. While he cleaned up fumbling issues last year, it is a concern after he had six fumbles in just 175 touches in 2011. Not considered a great blocker. Likely a third-down or change-of-pace back in the NFL.

FOXSports.com’s draft expert Taylor Jones says:

“I don’t think Eddie Lacy’s the clear-cut best prospect at running back, as people think. One of my favorite running backs in this class is Jonathan Franklin from UCLA. To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s a huge gap between him and Eddie Lacy. I don’t like the fact that Eddie Lacy is one-dimensional. I don’t think he catches the ball that well out of the backfield. I compare him a little bit to Jamal Lewis.

“He’s a put-your-head-down-and-gain-what-you-can, one-cut runner, and that doesn’t provide you a multi-faceted threat out of the backfield that a lot of these teams are going to be looking for, particularly if you’re going to spend a high pick on them. Combine that with the fact that the running back position as a whole hasn’t been all that valued outside of Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram was up there two years ago and really hasn’t lived up to a first-round pick. I don’t know that anyone’s really going to be high on any of these backs, particularly because you name some of these guys — Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball, Johnathan Franklin, (North Carolina’s) Giovani Bernard, (Clemson’s) Andre Ellington, (Oklahoma State’s) Joseph Randle, (South Carolina’s) Marcus Lattimore, depending on health, (Stanford’s) Stepfan Taylor — all these guys, you could make a case that there’s not much of a difference between all of them.”

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.