After a brief delay, it's time to continue on with our look at the Minnesota Vikings' roster leading up to free agency. We continue that look with another position that, on the surface, doesn't appear to need much tweaking. . .the running back position.
The Best: Adrian Peterson
After a year off, Peterson came back and won his third consecutive rushing championship, becoming the third-oldest back in NFL history to do so. It came courtesy of another season where Peterson also led the NFL in carries with 327. . .almost 40 more than Doug Martin, who finished second to Peterson in both attempts and yardage. Peterson has now logged 2,381 regular season carries in his career, and at the risk of stirring up the absolute storm of fecal matter that comes about just about any time someone suggests this, it's probably time to start seriously looking at finding his replacement.
Is Peterson the best pure running back in the National Football League? Sure, he is. His cap figure for this year is also a fairly manageable $11 million. For the 2017 season, however, that number jumps to $18 million. That would be twice as much as the next-highest cap figure at the running back position in 2017 (DeMarco Murray at $9 million). That's a lot of money to give a guy that will be 32 years old and. . .let's be honest. . .can't (or won't) run out of the shotgun, can't (or won't) pass block, and absolutely can't be trusted to not put the ball on the ground at the worst possible time.
I have no doubt that the Vikings are going to try to wring as much as they can out of Peterson in 2016. . .and they should. He's the best player at his position in the National Football League. The Vikings won't be trading him this offseason or releasing him, and after last offseason and what he did on the field in 2015, they shouldn't. But the folks that think that he can just keep going on indefinitely are fooling themselves. We're closer to the end of the Adrian Peterson era in Minnesota than the beginning, and whether a replacement is drafted this year or is already on the roster, it's time for this team to start preparing for when that time comes.
Next: Jerick McKinnon
Speaking of a potential replacement already being on the roster. . .enter Jerick McKinnon. He got some opportunities as a rookie before a back injury ended his season, but was limited to just 52 carries this past season while caddying for Peterson. In his limited opportunities, he's shown his abilities as both a running back and a receiver, and given the opportunity could be much more than a "change of pace" back at the NFL level.
Obviously, the Vikings would have to go to a different style of offense if McKinnon were to become the primary running back. The Minnesota offense is structured the way it currently is because of Peterson's running style, and McKinnon might not be able to just plug into the offense the same way. On the other hand, McKinnon's versatility would allow the Vikings to do a few things that they, frankly, can't do with Peterson on the field.
There's one thing I can say for sure, though. . .whatever the role is, Jerick McKinnon needs a bigger role in the Minnesota Vikings' offense in 2016. Good things happen for the Vikings when McKinnon is on the field. Whether that's done in concert with or independent of Peterson's presence, it has to be done.
The Forgotten Man: Matt Asiata
Asiata, having lost his propensity for scoring touchdowns in threes, didn't get a whole lot of run in the Vikings' offense in 2015. He carried the ball just 29 times, caught 19 passes, and didn't find the end zone at all. Granted, he's the guy a lot of Vikings fans scream for when they want to minimize the risk of a turnover (in 240 career carries, he's fumbled just twice), but if the Vikings do go the draft route this April to look for Peterson's replacement, there's a very good chance that Asiata is going to be the odd man out.
Though he's been pigeonholed as a modern-day Leroy Hoard. . .if you need a yard, he'll get you three, and if you need five yards, he'll get you three. . .he's actually been a pretty solid option for the Vikings when he's been called upon. He's a good receiver out of the backfield, he's good in pass protection, and he's a good short-yardage option. Teams need guys like Matt Asiata, but as I said. . .if the Vikings are keen on finding Adrian Peterson's replacement in April's draft, we may have seen the last of him in Minnesota.
The Fullback: Zach Line
After a couple of rough years, Line finally became the Vikings' full-time fullback after Jerome Felton was not brought back last offseason. Like almost every other NFL team, the Vikings are using a fullback less and less, and depending on what direction the Vikings' offense trends, Line's usage could diminish even further.
It's not that Line is a bad player necessarily, because he's not. That's just the way things are going in today's NFL. If the Vikings are going to keep a fullback around, there's little reason to believe that Line won't be the guy, but it remains to be seen just how big a role he's going to have going forward.
That's what the Vikings have at the running back position as it stands right now. Since there's really no chance that the Vikings are going to pursue a running back in free agency. . .nobody of any note, in any case. . .we'll likely skip the look at free agent running back and go straight to the rookie prospects.