Yesterday the Vikings signed running back Bishop Sankey to the practice squad, a name familiar to most draftniks and diehard NFL fans. But Sankey is someone who many Vikings fans may not know. With a historically awful Vikings running game this season that is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry, does Sankey offer any light at the end of the tunnel? The short answer is: probably not. But here is his story so far.
Bishop Sankey attended the University of Washington from 2011-2013 where he ran for 3,495 yards as a 2-year starter, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. The Huskies ran a “pro-style” offense and coming into the 2014 draft his strengths were blitz pickup and pass blocking, good lateral agility in jump cuts and he was viewed as a durable compact runner. His weaknesses had to do mainly with a lack of explosive talent on film, which showed that he failed to consistently break tackles. The most common NFL comparison in terms of skillset was Giovanni Bernard. He had an outstanding combine with a freakishly athletic spider web chart and consequently he shot up draft boards, despite some concerns that he might be over-drafted based on the lack of quality film to back it up. The Titans drafted him as the 54th player overall in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft and he was the first running back taken that year.
During Sankey’s rookie campaign, Shonn Greene was the favorite to lead the rushing attack with Dexter McCluster handing 3rd down duties. Sankey struggled with fumbles during the Preseason and then-coach Ken Whisenhunt blamed Sankey’s issues on problems with his footwork and technique. But he ultimately emerged as the #2 running back behind Greene by week 2 of the regular season. Everyone expected Sankey’s role to grow over the course of the season with him eventually over-taking Greene as the lead-back. But Whisenhunt kept mentioning Sankey’s “footwork” during the season as something holding him back, despite him proving to be productive on limited carries during the first few weeks of the season. By Week 6, Shonn Greene was limited with a hamstring and Sankey was forced into a starting role and handled the bulk of the running back carries for the remainder of the season. He had a few bad drops and mental mistakes during the season and finished the year with 592 yards on 152 carries, good for a 3.7 yard-per-carry average. He also tacked on 18 receptions on 23 targets. He was criticized for not being quick enough, or running with much power or aggression. Whisenhunt also criticized Sankey at the end of the season saying he, “does a pretty good job physically pass-blocking, but has been inconsistent with assignments and recognizing defenses.” Many believed Sankey’s rookie season was “underwhelming” including Titans beat writer Jim Wyatt.
Heading into his sophomore year in 2015, the Titans had Sankey add about 10 pounds to his 5’10” frame to bring him up from 209 to 215-220 pounds, hoping to give him a bit more power and ability to finish runs more aggressively. But the writing was on the wall when the Titans drafted David Cobb in the 5th round and signed Antonio Andrews as an undrafted free agent. The three of them battled in training camp for the rights to be the lead back with Dexter McCluster handling third down duties. While the coaching staff publicly praised Sankey during the off-season for making improvements, the Titans ended up going with a running-back-by-committee approach when none of the three options emerged. The Titans even traded for Terrance West about a week before the regular season, evidence that they weren’t happy with any of the four running backs on their roster. Sankey played sparingly during the first 6-7 games and eventually became a healthy scratch by Week 11. The Titans fired Whisenhunt mid-season and Mike Mularkey took over as interim head coach. At the end of the year Sankey accumulated only 193 yards on 47 carries, good enough for a 4.1 yards-per-carry average.
Heading into the 2016 season, the Titans completely overhauled the running back position by bringing in DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry. Sankey was given plenty of action in the Preseason with the expectation that a team might trade for him, but he ultimately did not make the final Titans roster. The Patriots signed Sankey to their practice squad, and on November 1st the Chiefs signed Sankey off of the Patriots practice squad to give them added depth when both Spencer Ware and Jamaal Charles were out. The Chiefs waived Sankey a few weeks later and the Vikings decided to give him a shot on their practice squad.
In 2 years in the NFL Sankey has accumulated 762 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 199 carries, good for 3.8 yards-per-carry average. At the end of the day, will Sankey give the Vikings any hope at improving the running game? Based on what we’ve seen from him so far with the Titans, probably not. And because he couldn’t stick with the Patriots or Chiefs, the odds that he could be elevated to the 53-man roster at some point this year for the Vikings is slim. But with Jerick Mckinnon having dealt with injuries several times already this season and the recent release of Ronnie Hillman, the Vikings could find themselves in a situation to have to rely on only Matt Asiata at running back. But I wonder if C.J. Ham, who is already on the practice squad and presumably knows the playbook, might give them a better option if Mckinnon or Asiata should miss time because of an injury? Still, it certainly can’t hurt to give a former 2nd rounder a look, even if he did disappoint earlier in his career. After all, the running game is as bad as it’s ever been.