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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation Part VI: Running Backs

Looks like a new lead back for 2024

Minnesota Vikings vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the sixth installment of my Vikings Offseason Evaluation series, I’ll breakdown the Vikings’ running back position group. Previous installment links are here:

Part I: Offensive Overview

Part II: Quarterbacks

Part III: Special Teams

Part IV: Defensive Overview

Part V: Wide Receivers

The Evolving Vikings Running Back Room

The Vikings began this season with Alexander Mattison as their bell-cow back. Over the first month of the season, Mattison was getting about 80% or so of the carries, with Ty Chandler getting the rest, which was less than a handful per game. Then the Vikings acquired Cam Akers from the Rams, and Akers took over the RB2 spot from Chandler, and over the next month or so got about a third of the carries, with Mattison getting the rest. Then, beginning in mid-November after Akers was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, there was some back-and-forth between Mattison and Chandler each game as to who got more carries. One week it was Mattison, the next it was Chandler. Then in the Bengals game week 15, when Mattison was injured, Chandler had a monster game- 23 carries for 123 yards and a TD rushing, and 3 receptions for 25 yards on 4 targets receiving. After that, and with Mattison back healthy, Chandler became the lead back- effectively switching roles with Mattison from the beginning of the season.

It was a bit surprising (at least to me) that Mattison was given the role of bell-cow back to start the season, given that Ty Chandler had shown a lot of promise in training camp and in preseason. But Chandler was given just a token role early on. Kevin O’Connell had made it a focal point of his offseason plan to improve the running game- although not necessarily running the ball more- and the addition of top blocking tight-end Josh Oliver was a move in that direction.

But Alexander Mattison had an up and down beginning of the season, so when Cam Akers became available, the Vikings were quick to pick him up and slide him into the RB2 spot- and giving him more carries than they did Chandler. For whatever reason, the Vikings weren’t willing to give Chandler a larger role earlier on, and it was only after injuries to both Cam Akers and Mattison that Chandler had the opportunity to really prove himself against the Bengals. And he did.

At the end of the season, Chandler had a 4.5 yards per carry average, while Mattison averaged 3.9. But there is also a lot of nuance and detail that doesn’t come out in average yards per carry. After all, in an extreme example, a back can have one run go for 80 yards and 19 go for zero yards, and still sport a decent 4.0 yards per carry.

A Deeper Look into Mattison vs. Chandler Running the Ball

When you look at the difference between Mattison and Chandler, one significant difference is the percentage of carries that went for lost yardage. Mattison had a total of 180 carries this season, and 25 of them went for negative yardage. That’s a 13.9% rate. Chandler had a total of 102 carries, but only 6 went for negative yardage. That rate is less than half of Mattison’s at 5.9%. If you add in rushes that went for no gain, the overall run-stuff rate for Mattison was 21.1% this season, while for Chandler it was 13.7%. Overall, Mattison had 38 stuffed runs on 180 carries while Chandler had 14 on 102 carries. When it comes to staying ahead of the chains- or at least not falling back as far- the run stuff rate can have quite an impact on drive success and more/less favorable conditions for the passing game.

Overall, when you add up the circumstances for each rushing attempt and the result, including fumbles and touchdowns, which the Expected Points Added or EPA metric attempts to quantify, Alexander Mattison had a total rushing EPA for the season of -25.01, while Ty Chandler had a rushing EPA of +6.47. Positive is better. Breaking it down per rushing attempt:

Alexander Mattison: -0.139 average EPA per rushing attempt

Ty Chandler: +0.0634 average EPA per rushing attempt

That’s a dramatic difference that goes beyond the difference in yards per attempt. Mattison had two fumbles that contributed to an EPA of -8.76, so even stripping out the effect of the two fumbles (Chandler didn’t have any fumbles), the difference is still dramatic at a total EPA of +6.47 vs. -16.11. That equates to an average EPA/attempt of +0.063 vs. -0.091.

For comparison, here are the EPA/attempt numbers for Christian McCaffrey, D’Andre Swift, and Kyren Williams, who were named to the Pro Bowl this season for the NFC:

Christian McCaffrey: +0.119

D’Andre Swift: +0.036

Kyren Williams: +0.172

Also Cam Akers: -0.019

Overall, Ty Chandler is the only back for the Vikings with a decent average EPA/attempt, and better than that of Pro Bowler D’Andre Swift, and so he should be the lead back for the Vikings next season, and maybe even the bell-cow. Chandler and Mattison graded equally in pass blocking according to PFF, but neither graded very well at just under 50.

As an aside, it’s interesting that Chandler had a roughly 50/50 split between zone and gap/power runs according to PFF, while Mattison had a 2:1 split in favor of zone runs. Cam Akers had a similar split as well. Overall, the Vikings ran zone runs about 60% of the time and gap runs about 40%. It may be that Chandler and/or the Vikings felt he was better in gap/power runs than zone, so they altered the mix slightly.

Comparing Running Backs as Receivers and Pass Blockers

The other aspects of the running back position is receiving and pass blocking. These are both important skills for an all-down back and can really add value to the team.

As receivers, Cam Akers had the highest yards per route run as a receiver among the three at 1.59 (albeit on just 44 receiving snaps), followed by Ty Chandler at 1.30, and lastly Alexander Mattison at 0.69. A big factor in this is drop rate, as neither Akers nor Chandler had a drop but Mattison is credited with six- leading to a drop rate of 16.7%. Chandler led the group averaging 7.6 yards per reception, followed by Akers and Mattison each averaging 6.4.

From an EPA per target standpoint, the three backs compare as follows:

Cam Akers: +0.26

Ty Chandler: +0.22

Alexander Mattison: -0.13

Lastly, blocking is an important skillset as backs are sometimes held in to pick up a blitzer or otherwise help on in pass protection on passing downs. They may serve as an outlet receiver as well, but having the vision to spot where help is needed in pass protection is often as important as making the block. On that score, PFF pass blocking grades are as follows:

CJ Ham: 74.8

Cam Akers: 70.6

Alexander Mattison: 49.5

Ty Chandler: 49.3

CJ Ham is the only back that had any significant reps as a run blocker and graded out at 59.5 this season.

Overall, both Mattison and Chandler, as the two backs with the most reps this season, need more work improving their pass protection. Mattison’s PFF grade actually declined this season compared to last season, while Chandler had only two pass blocking reps last season.

Bottom Line

The Vikings may have found a solid running back in Ty Chandler, if a little later than hoped for, who can serve them well next season. The issue is that Alexander Mattison, who declined to be interviewed by beat writers at the end of the season, has underperformed his contract but still has $4 million guaranteed to him in 2024. That’s a lot to pay an RB2, if that is what indeed he becomes next season. I’m not sure if the Vikings will be looking to trade Mattison, and if so if they’ll have any trade partners, or if they’ll simply hang on to Mattison next season and hope he improves. The issue with Mattison is that he’s averaged under four yards per carry the past three years and under one yard per route run as a receiver the past two seasons. Mattison hasn’t had problems with fumbles prior to this season, but the three he had this year proved costly- as they almost always do. He probably isn’t happy having lost his lead back job to Chandler over the past four games as well.

It’s unclear how things will play out with Mattison, but whether they keep Mattison or trade him if possible (I doubt they’d release him given they’d only save $600K by doing so), the Vikings will need at least one more running back and most likely two. They have Myles Gaskin and DeWayne McBride set for the practice squad, and Kene Nwangwu remains on the roster, but these are all long shots to get significant snaps next season.

Bringing back Cam Akers, who’s a restricted free agent, is a possibility- although a running back coming off a torn Achilles injury is a higher level of risk compared to a pocket passer, for example. Akers has an injury history beyond the Achilles injury as well. As a RFA, the minimum salary on a right of first refusal tender for Akers is $2.8 million, which added to Mattison’s $4.6 million cap hit, Nwangwu and Chandler’s combined $2.3 million cap hit, and CJ Ham’s $3.3 million cap hit, runs up the salary cap hit for this group, which is already over $10 million for 2024.

There is quite a roster of running backs set to be free agents: Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jones, Tony Pollard, D’Andre Swift, and Austin Ekeler among them. But these would all likely be too expensive for the Vikings budget- even with the discount the league is now applying to running back salaries.

The Vikings may be better off using a mid- to late-round pick on a running back or look a little further down the free agent list, to pick up another back that could serve in a backup or rotational role.

Lastly, while I’ve argued in the past that paying 30 year-old CJ Ham $3+ million/year seems more like a luxury than a necessity, he has proven himself a team captain on special teams that they depend on in that role probably more so than as a fullback, and extended him last year, so Ham’s place on the roster seems pretty secure at this point, even if this was his worst year as a special teamer by PFF grade, and his worst as a fullback in five years too. At some point they’ll need to move on from Ham, and either draft his replacement or not, but that’s probably not this year. Next year makes more sense from a salary cap standpoint.

Overall, the Vikings running back room, coached by Curtis Modkins, seems a bit tenuous heading into next year. Ty Chandler has performed well late in the season when finally given more reps, but he still hasn’t played all that much yet. Alexander Mattison is coming off a down year after being named the lead back, and Cam Akers is a RFA rehabbing from an Achilles tear. The rest of the backs on the Vikings roster are not likely to step into a major role next year and are mostly unproven. Things could work out well next season for the Vikings and Ty Chandler, but if he went down to injury the depth is definitely an issue at this point. Maybe Mattison will show improvement next season, or maybe a new acquisition can help solidify the depth behind Chandler, but at the moment this is a position group in flux.

Poll

Should Ty Chandler be considered the Vikings’ lead running back heading into next season?

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  • 91%
    Yes
    (768 votes)
  • 8%
    No
    (75 votes)
843 votes total Vote Now