The Minnesota Vikings have one of the best running back rooms in football. This was clearly showcased during their first preseason outing against the Las Vegas Raiders, as the team ran for 115 yards on 22 carries in the loss. The team as a whole averaged 5.2 yards per carry and accrued multiple double digit carries from various backs on the depth chart.
With superstar Dalvin Cook sitting out, and veteran mainstay Alexander Mattison only garnering three carries, second year back Kene Nwangwu and rookie fifth round pick Ty Chandler both were given the majority of the load on Sunday afternoon and made the most out of their opportunities.
Nwangwu totaled seven carries for 41 yards on the ground and showcased much improved vision and patience in between the running lanes, while still having a great first step to get into the second level with his quickness.
Chandler came to play, showcasing his versatility in multiple areas. Not only did he have five carries on the ground for 50 yards, including multiple carries for double digit yardage, he also added a 56 yard kickoff return in the third quarter. Like his counterpart Nwangwu, Chandler also showed the coaching staff that he has NFL caliber burst and vision to find holes and get between them quickly both on the ground and in the return game.
A few things could come from both Nwangwu’s and Chandler’s performances this past weekend. The first, and most likely, reaction should be it is just the first preseason game; we have to wait to see how the upcoming weeks go and how the second wave of cuts will shake out. It is still very early, and things can change before the final cut date on August 30th.
Secondly, the Vikings could keep four NFL caliber running backs on the roster and keep all four rostered throughout the season. Very few positions face as many injuries and as many durability concerns as the running back position, and although Dalvin Cook has been relatively healthy the last few seasons, he has had his fair share of nagging leg injuries. Keeping all three backs on the depth chart behind him could provide a sense of insurance and stability to the position if an injury were to occur.
The most intriguing possibility is veteran Alexander Mattison being on the roster bubble. Mattison, although fairly productive during his three seasons in Minnesota, is in the final year of his contract with the team. He’s had his fair share of issues with vision and lacks the same explosiveness and burst that the other three backs have. That’s not to say that Mattison isn’t fast or can’t reach the second gear, because he can, but both Nwangwu and Chandler have similar dynamic speed and vision skill sets that pair and align similarly to those of Dalvin Cook. Having three backs that all play similarly all on the roster would allow first year coach Kevin O’Connell to really open up his playbook and creativity no matter which back was aligned in the backfield.
What would Minnesota do with Alexander Mattison? The most likely option is that they keep him on the roster. He has totaled at least 400 yards each of his first three seasons in Minnesota and has proven as one of the more capable backups in the league. However, with training camp and preseason injuries already piling up, if a running back needy team were to call the Vikings about the availability of Mattison, he very well could be available if both Nwangwu and Chandler keep performing at the level they did this past weekend.
Is the scenario unlikely? Yes. But it is something to consider, with both of Mattison’s backups shining behind him. If he hasn’t done enough to separate himself, Alexander Mattison may not be in purple and gold for much longer.