The first thing the Vikings will need to figure out is what Peterson’s role will be with the Vikings in the future, but unfortunately for them they cannot discuss anything with him directly until his suspension is over in April. Would he be willing to renegotiate his contract or not, bringing down his $15.4 million salary cap number for 2015? If not, then the Vikings front office will need to decide whether or not they will want to part ways with the All-Pro running back.
If Peterson is not back with the team next season, the Vikings need to decide what they are going to do moving forward for the running back position. One option that they could do is continue to use the running backs already on their team, but after trying that for a year already it seems as though there is just something missing.
Jerick McKinnon came in as a rookie last season and many were expecting him to be a change-of-pace back for Peterson – much like Darren Sproles was in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system in San Diego. But once Peterson was no longer playing with the team, McKinnon slowly saw his carries increase, and eventually found himself in the starting role. McKinnon ran the ball 113 times during the 2014 season for 538 yards, and was unable to get the ball into the end zone. At the end of the season Pro Football Focus gave the young back a -1.6 rating, the highest among running backs for the Vikings.
McKinnon’s season was ended early last year when he was placed on injured reserve with a back injury after the Vikings’ Week 12 game against the Green Bay Packers. His small size was a concern coming into the NFL, and it showed that he was not quite able to bare the brunt of a full work load throughout the course of the season.
Matt Asiata was the other running back that the Vikings featured in Peterson’s absence. He is not the splashiest back but always seems to fall forward at the end of runs. On the season, he had 164 carries for 570 yards and nine touchdowns. The biggest knock on Asiata was that he does not have the top-end speed required to make a big play, and that was shown in the fact that his longest run of the season was for 19 yards. The inability of Asiata to make big plays really hurt him in the PFF ratings, as he was rated a -10.0 at the end of the season, which was the second lowest in the NFL.
Although the Vikings’ running game was serviceable in 2014, it was not where they wanted it to be. If Peterson is not back with the team next season it is very possible that they will look for his replacement in free agency. There are a few talented running backs in the offseason, but fewer when you also factor in their age.
FREE AGENTSDeMarco Murray: The top free agent back this offseason is Murray after earning a 15.2 PFF rating at the end of the 2014 season. Murray spent last year with the Dallas Cowboys, and he had a career season – rushing 392 times for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. Murray is 26 years old and just finished his fourth year in the NFL, and there is still a good chance that he tests the free agent market. The Cowboys have already noted that they will use a franchise tag on Dez Bryant if a deal does not get done with him, which means if a deal does not get done with Murray the Vikings might have a chance of signing him.
Justin Forsett: The second-highest rated free agent running back, according to PFF, is Forsett with a 11.5 rating. He was with the Baltimore Ravens last season and recorded 235 carries for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns. A downside with Forsett is that he is starting to get older as he is 29 years old and just finished his seventh year in the NFL. If the Vikings bring Forsett to Minnesota they will need to also think about what they will do in the future for the running back position, as running backs don’t often produce as well once they reach 30.
Mark Ingram: After those two players there is a bit of a drop-off, and if the Vikings are hoping to find a long-term replacement it is reasonable to think that they will look for younger running backs instead of one who is closing in on 30 years of age. Another possible candidate the Vikings could go after would be Mark Ingram. Ingram was ranked a lowly 1.2 by PFF, but part of that may have played into the fact that he missed four weeks at the start of the season with an injury. Last year Ingram recorded 226 carries for 964 yards and nine touchdowns while playing with the New Orleans Saints.
DRAFTThere is also the possibility that the Vikings will look to the NFL draft to bring in a new running back. Year in and year out teams seem to find talented running backs late in the draft. This year, there are the high-end choices like Tori Gurley and Melvin Gordon, but also some solid second- and third-day prospects like Ammer Abdullah and T.J. Yeldon.
No matter what happens this offseason with the running back position, it will all start with Peterson. There has been speculation surrounding what the Vikings should do with him since Week 2 of the season, and as the offseason continues on it might become more and more clear what the Vikings will decide to do with him.