If the NFL combine is good for one thing, it's for developing "athleticism" scores for prospects. While some teams seem to place a premium on combine performances (looking at you Oakland Raiders), in my opinion, these athleticism scores should be just one small part of the scouting process. They can be used as a way to confirm (or call into question) what a player has accomplished on the field. For example, if a player seemed dominant on film, but has a low combine performance, it would necessitate a reevaluation of the tape and perhaps a look at the on-field competition would be in order. Maybe the player only looked good, because the level of competition was so poor. Conversely, if a player looks dominant and also has a great combine performance, that makes them a relatively safe pick and that dominance on the field can likely be attributed to superior athleticism. It's also a chance for NFL teams to have unparalleled interview access to the best prospects, all in one location. There was an article from 2012 were Rick Spielman spoke about the importance of those combine interviews. So while the media will make a big deal about 40-yard dash times and the total number of bench presses for all these players, most NFL teams are focused on gathering a complete picture of a player and to get a better sense of their personality through interviews. Vikings.com recently released an interview video with their new Director of Scouting Jamaal Stephenson where he talked about their interview process during the combine.
One of the best resources for combine data is the website Mock Draftable, and if you've never heard of it you should head over there and check it out. You can search for just about any draft prospect, and their database archive goes all the way back to the 1999 combine. What's so neat about it is that they've come up with "player comps" in that not only does it show what the raw combine scores are for the player in question, but it shows you the 10 other players since 1999 with most similar combine scores. They also have a positional averages resource to give you a better idea of what kinds of scores each position group is posting at the combine. So, using all of this information I'm going to be honing in on a few possible draft targets for the Vikings as we get closer to the draft.
The first one I'm going to highlight is former UNI running back David Johnson. As an alum of the University of Northern Iowa, this guy has a special place in my fandom and while you might chalk this up to bias, hear me out. Running Back David Johnson not only broke all kinds of rushing records at UNI, he tore it up the combine. Here is his web score from Mock Draftable:
You can see that overall his web is just enormous. This is a very well-rounded athlete who is in the most elite percentiles in broad jump, vertical jump, 3-cone drill and bench press. But, aside from the 20-yard shuttle, and perhaps "arm length", he's dominant. He's above average for a running back in nearly every statistic, and within the standard deviations in the few statistics where he falls below the average. Despite the generally good showing overall at the combine, the reason I wanted to highlight David Johnson, is because of his comps. Check out the list of players with similar combine scores:
Do you notice any interesting names on this list? Three of them were or are Minnesota Viking running backs! I think it's incredible that this guy has similar athleticism scores to Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate and Adrian Peterson. If there was a "running back archetype" for the Minnesota Vikings, then surely this guy fits the bill. And if you watch his highlight reel below he does some things on the field that remind me of Adrian Peterson. He has a sort of upright running style like Peterson, and he'll make one, maybe two, moves or cuts, and then he's gone. It remains to be seen what the Vikings do with Adrian Peterson now that he's rumored to have requested a trade to the Dallas Cowboys, but if the Vikings wanted to find a potential replacement, this could be their guy. I haven't taken an in-depth look at running back in the Consensus Rankings, but CBS and Mike Mayock give David Robinson a 3rd round grade and ESPN has him ranked 138th overall (essentially a 4th or 5th round grade), likely because of his Division II status. This is a guy the Vikings could potentially get in the mid-rounds of the draft that I believe has the potential to be an every-down running back, but could at the very least be an excellent option to pair in a committee with Jerrick McKinnon.
As you can see in the highlight reel, David Johnson catches a lot of passes out of the backfield. In fact, that is a significant part of his game and why I think the Vikings should be taking a strong look at him. One of the things that many of us were excited about with Norv Turner's offense was the potential for receptions out of the backfield, especially for Adrian Peterson in fantasy football! Alas, that may never come to fruition. Johnson played receiver in high school and even racked up 203 receiving yards against the Iowa Hawkeyes last season. When you consider that Vikings running backs combined for 80 receptions in 2014 (the most since 2009), it seems obvious that Turner's scheme places a premium on running backs that can catch passes.
David Johnson grew up in small town Iowa and despite totally dominating in high school, he was overlooked by most colleges due to his lanky size as a receiver. Well, he put on 35 pounds and converted to a running back and had excellent success at UNI. If he's like a lot of young folks from Iowa (I know, I was one), this is a very underrated and talented guy that never left his home state and is therefore not known by a lot of the big media circles. Our SB Nation neighbors over at Bleeding Green Nation put up a great interview with David Johnson that you should go check out. The way he talks about UNI is exactly the kind of mindset of a lot of young Iowa kids have when looking at colleges (myself included)...and there's almost a certain naiveté displayed there.
John Barchard: Coming from a smaller school, what made you go to Northern Iowa as opposed to Iowa or Iowa State?
David Johnson: Going in for a visit, I felt that UNI was a great fit for me. I talked to a guy that was on my high school team and he introduced me to a lot of guys [on the team]. I went for an official visit and it just felt like a good atmosphere. Just meeting some of the players and meeting some of the coaches and just interacting with those guys. I talked to one of the group leaders in our Christian bible study and he was just a great guy. I just felt like it was a 'home away from home' so to speak. That was probably one of my biggest choices and I believe I made the right choice.
Johnson also sounds like a team-guy first and foremost, and not a "me-first" guy.
MK: John and I have watched your tape and you're proficient in pretty much everything. As we mentioned before you have good hands, you ran for over 4,500 yards, score 49 rushing touchdowns and you even took on kick returning as a senior and excelled. Is there anything you won't do?
DJ: [Laughs] I just try to do anything to my best [ability]. Whatever coach asks me to do, and whenever I can be on the field as many times as I can and where ever I can help [I will]. [I will do] whatever I can to help the team. It's fun being versatile and having the ability to do so many other things. It's a fun thing to just have more experience at everything, especially if I make the league. A lot of teams actually talked to me [at the Senior Bowl] about being more versatile and they can ask me to do more stuff on the field. I mean, [any] way that I can get on to the field, I'd love to try it. If I do good at it, it helps me a lot just being on the field and just being effective for the team.
Craig Peterson over at Vikings.com wrote a little nugget about David Johnson after the Senior Bowl that is even more encouraging.
Former Northern Iowa Panther David Johnson also showed an ability to multitask. Johnson scored a 19-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game, shedding a tackle attempt by Danny Shelton with a nifty cut and strength and picking up a block downfield by former Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett. Johnson added an impressive 37-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter after navigating through traffic.
With relations seemingly tense between the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, there are going to be plenty of running back options available to them in the draft and free agency should they decide to go after a replacement. And former UNI running back David Johnson could be an excellent option, especially without having to burn a 1st round pick.