Vikings position analysis: RBs, FBs

The Adrian Peterson debacle threw the backfield into a season-long loop of uncertainty. We look back, and ahead, in a player-by-player analysis of the Vikings backfield.

Matt Asiata
Asiata just finished his third season in the NFL after the Minnesota Vikings signed him to their practice squad after he went undrafted in 2011. He was later released from the practice squad, but re-signed in 2012. Asiata then earned a spot on the 53-man roster as the Vikings’ third running back.

Because of the suspension to Adrian Peterson in 2014, and Jerick McKinnon being placed on the injured reserve, Asiata became the featured back by the end of the season. He played in 525 offensive snaps, which was the most among running back by far. During the course of the season, Asiata had 164 rushing attempts for 570 yards and nine touchdowns.

That meant he was only averaging 3.5 yards a carry. Pro Football Focus even rated him with a -10.0 overall grade at the end of the season, which put him at No. 56 among running backs in the NFL out of 57. Asiata was rated above a 1.0 only one time during the season and that was Week 15 against the Detroit Lions when he had 11 carries for 36 yards and a touchdown. But he also had seven receptions for 51 yards in that game.

Asiata will never be a game-changing back that breaks off long touchdown runs. He does not have the top-end speed required to do that, but he is more apt grind out a few hard yards every time he gets the ball. It is the short-yardage situations where he seems to thrive – especially along the goal line.

In 2015, Asiata could remain with the team but he is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, meaning the Vikings have the option to bring him back on a relatively inexpensive one-year contract. He appears to give 100 percent on every play, and you can tell head coach Mike Zimmer likes the way he plays. His role for next year is still up in the air though. He likely won’t be the lead back for the entirety of the year, but more likely that he will be a short-yardage back for the Vikings.

Joe Banyard
Banyard finished up his second year in the NFL, and his second with the Vikings. He originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, and also spent time with New Orleans and Minnesota during that year. Then in 2013 he was promoted to the Vikings’ active roster and made his debut on Dec. 15.

The preseason is where Banyard really showed what he was capable of as a running back, and the Vikings activated him from the practice squad for their Week 2 matchup against the New England Patriots. With all the questions surrounding the running back position during the 2014 season it was surprising that Banyard did not get more of a chance than he did.

Throughout the season he was only on the field for 99 offensive snaps and recorded 21 carries for 88 yards – wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had more rushing yards in a single game.

Zimmer hinted that Banyard was struggling with pass protection as a reason for his low snap count. Banyard has shown a lot of promise both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, but until he can do the little things right and protect his quarterback from a blitz, his role will continue to be on a limited basis.

Jerome Felton
Felton just finished his seventh year in the NFL and his third with the Vikings. He was originally selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the Detroit Lions. After playing in Detroit for three years, he spent time with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts in 2011. Then in 2012 he joined the Vikings and helped Adrian Peterson rush for over 2,000 yards.

Since joining the Vikings, Felton has been thought of as one of the better fullbacks in the NFL, and 2014 did not change that. PFF gave him a 3.7 grade at the end of the year, ranking seventh among fullbacks in the NFL.

This makes it more surprising that the Vikings offense did not seem to have a place for him much on the field. He played 181 offensive snaps during the 2014 season, which averaged out to just over 11 snaps a game.

It was clear Felton was not happy with the amount of playing time he was receiving, and at the end of the season he said he was going to enact his option and test the free agent market. For that reason, it’s not likely that he will be wearing purple at the start of the 2015 season.

Henry Josey
Josey just finished his first year in the NFL after the Vikings claimed him off of the Jaguars’ practice squad on Dec. 24. Before he was with the Jaguars, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent, but the Eagles later released Josey.

Since the Vikings’ final game of the season was on Dec. 28, there was no time for Josey to learn the playbook and he was inactive for the season finale. He is a player that the Vikings clearly have interest in if they were willing to bring him in, and they will be able to get a closer look at him once OTAs start up again.

Zach Line
Line just finished his second year in the NFL after signing with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He was the only undrafted free agent from the 2013 class to make it on the Vikings’ opening-day roster.

He was used very sparingly in the 2014 season, as he was only active for the Week 17 matchup against the Chicago Bears, and even then he was only used on special teams. He could, however, see his role greatly increase next year if Felton is no longer on the team.

If Felton takes his talents elsewhere for the 2015 season, that leaves the starting fullback position vacant, and with Line being the current backup he will be the most likely candidate for it. He says that he is ready for the opportunity, and after receiving playing time in 2013 he knows what to expect.

Jerick McKinnon
McKinnon just finished his rookie year with the Vikings after they drafted him out of Georgia Southern in the third round. In college, McKinnon was the quarterback of a triple-option offense, so it was not exactly clear what his role would be in an NFL offense. It was speculated that he would be a change-of-pace back for Peterson, but all that changed once Peterson was placed on the reserved/suspended by the NFL.

At first, McKinnon was used as the backup to Asiata, but after a few games went by it was clear that he had more athleticism than Asiata and more of an ability to make a big play. By the time the Vikings’ Week 6 game against the Lions rolled around, McKinnon was handed the starting job.

During his time on the field, McKinnon had 113 rushes for 538 yards, and 27 receptions for 135 yards. He was also able to rush for over 100 yards on two separate occasions. PFF gave him a -1.6 grade overall, ranking him the 29th-best back in the NFL out of 57. While McKinnon did do a lot of things well, he wasn’t always an effective pass blocker, partially because of his small size and partially because he did not have very much experience in that aspect of the position, something even experienced college backs struggle with as NFL rookies.

The 2014 season was cut short for McKinnon after suffering a lower back injury and being placed on the injured reserve on Dec. 6. He missed the final four games.

He will now have the remainder of the offseason to rehab and get healthy for the 2015 season. McKinnon doesn’t seem to have the size necessary to be an every-down back, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been able to utilize smaller athletic backs like McKinnon in the past, so he will be able to continue to make an impact for the Vikings.

Adrian Peterson
Peterson just finished his eighth year in the NFL after the Vikings selected him out of Oklahoma in the first round of the 2007 draft. Since he first arrived in the NFL, Peterson has proved to be one of the best backs in the league, if not all-time.

At the start of the season everything seemed fine as he played in the Vikings’ Week 1 win against the St. Louis Rams, but everything changed once he was indicted on child abuse charges in Texas and eventually pleaded to a lesser charge. He was inactive for the Vikings’ Week 2 game, and then was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List.

Once his exemption was finished in Week 12 of the regular season, Peterson was suspended for the remainder of the year.

It is unclear what the future holds for Peterson, as he is turning 30 years old and is scheduled for a $15.4 million salary-cap hit in 2015 with $31 million more over the final two years of his contract. The Vikings will either try to renegotiate his contract, see if there are any willing trade partners or simply release him. Given the public relations baggage his situation carries, if they keep him it will almost certainly be at a reduced rate.

Running Backs/Fullbacks Overview
Once Peterson was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List it has been a carousel of running backs for the Vikings. They have tried multiple backs that were already on their roster, and even brought in multiple backs as free agents or off other teams’ practice squads.

One of those players was running back Ben Tate, whom the Vikings signed after he was waived by the Cleveland Browns. Tate was with the Vikings for five weeks until they decided to part ways with the running back and released him.

It is still not known what will happen to the Vikings’ running back situation this offseason and what it will be like going into the 2015 season. Many are hoping that Peterson returns to the team, but if he does not something is going to need to be done.

The Vikings will either have to address the running back position in free agency or in the draft. The pieces they currently have on the team proved to be decent options, but not the preferred full-time ones. With so much still clouding the Peterson scenario, it may be a while until the future of the Vikings’ running back spot is sorted out.

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