Vikings loaded at running back, from top to bottom
With starter Dalvin Cook, backup Alexander Mattison, third-stringer Kene Nwangwu and fullback C.J. Ham, it remains to be seen what new coach Kevin O’Connell might do to spread the wealth
EAGAN, Minnesota — Chuck Foreman and Dave Osborn were among 18 former Minnesota Vikings players invited to take in a spring practice last week. They liked what they saw.
The two former Pro Bowl running backs are intrigued with the Vikings’ backfield. An argument could be made that they have more depth at running back than ever before.
The starter is Dalvin Cook, who has made three straight Pro Bowls. Behind him is Alexander Mattison, whom Foreman calls the best backup in the NFL. Then there’s Kene Nwangwu, who didn’t get much of a chance last season to carry the ball but returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a rookie and is a player Cook says has “no ceiling.”
In addition, Minnesota picked up Ty Chandler, who rushed for 1,092 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season at North Carolina, in the fifth round of the draft. And they also have one of the league’s top fullbacks in C.J. Ham.
“They’ve got a lot of depth,” said Foreman, who made five Pro Bowls playing for Minnesota from 1973-79. “That’s a good thing to have because as the season goes on, guys are going to get a little banged up. I think the best teams out there have great depth, and that’s one position where they don’t have to worry about it.”
Osborn said how effective the running backs are in 2022 will depend a good bit on the offensive line. But he’s impressed with what he sees as the Vikings prepare to conclude spring drills with a mandatory minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday at the TCO Performance Center.
“They’ve got some good backs,” said Osborn, who played for the Vikings from 1965-75 and made one Pro Bowl. “I like the way Cook runs. He’s hard-nosed. He’ll turn it up when he has to go through a hole. He’s not a dancer, he’s a hard runner and runs with quickness.
“I like Mattison. He reminds me of Bill Brown (a four-time Pro Bowl selection who played for the Vikings from 1962-74). He gets the tough yards.”
Cook has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons and can join Adrian Peterson and Robert Smith as the only backs in team history to have four in a row. Cook rushed for 1,159 last year despite sitting out four games. In the games he missed, Mattison had more than 100 yards in two games and 90 in another.
“Having that depth and having that next guy up ready to go, next-guy-up mentality, and to have the guys ready to go produce, that’s always important,” said Cook, entering his sixth season.
Mattison, entering his fourth season, rushed for a career-high 491 yards in 2021. But with a healthy Cook getting the bulk of the work, he had eight games in which he had five or fewer carries under former head coach Mike Zimmer.
Overall, Cook finished last season with 249 rushing attempts, Mattison with 134. The only other runners to carry the ball were Nwangwu with 13 (one on a fake punt), since-released Ameer Abdullah with seven and Ham with seven.
It remains to be seen what new coach Kevin O’Connell might do to spread the wealth. Nwangwu is expected to get a lot more work. And after Chandler was drafted, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said he has “explosiveness” and can be a “weapon” in the passing game.
For now, Mattison is excited about what the Vikings have in the backfield.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s awesome to have a good group of guys that we can all push one another. We’re going to learn from one another. That skill set everybody brings to the running back room, it’s very unique. And we don’t like to say we have the best back in the league or the best one-two punch in the league, we want to have the best group in the league. So we hold that standard in the room.”
The ability Minnesota’s running backs have on the field has impressed Foreman, but something else has as well. Foreman had previously met other Vikings backs, then last week met Chandler for the first time.
“They’re all always respectful,” Foreman said. “It’s great to see guys with talent, but it’s even better to see guys with talent who are good people, and that’s what I see when I see the group of running backs with the Vikings.”
After the practice last week, Foreman chatted with the runners and took some photos with them. With coronavirus pandemic restrictions lifted after two seasons, he’s looking forward to seeing a lot more of them.
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