Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports

Assessing the metrics for Minnesota Vikings running backs

In a season that saw the offensive line in flux, the running backs were rotating liberally with each of them displaying different strengths, as the net yards over average, grades and playing time show.

Adrian Peterson’s first game with Sam Bradford at quarterback was also his last game for three months.

A meniscus injury for Peterson and the numerous injuries on the offensive line were the start of the audibles required in the Minnesota Vikings offensive backfield. A season with high hopes was quickly flushed away after a 5-0 start ended with an 8-8 record, Peterson only able to play three games and a running game that struggled most of the season.

Peterson played in less than 8 percent of the offensive snaps and his 1.9-yard average per carry when he did play wasn’t going to cut it. None of the Vikings’ running backs were able to generate even a 3.5-yard average in a season of frustration behind an offensive line that patched together eight different starting lineups because of injury.

If there was a bright spot, it would be Jerick McKinnon. With Peterson out for 13 games, McKinnon ended up playing in almost 50 percent of the offensive snaps, the highest among the group, and was the only running back on the roster that had positive net yards above NFL average.

For that statistic, the NFL uses the net yardage gained by the team while the player was on the field over a rolling six-year NFL average factoring in field position, down and distance. Example: for the 2011 season the league average gain for first-and-10 on the offense’s 20-yard line was 5.99 yards. If the player participated in a play at first-and-10 on his own 20 that gained 8 yards he’d earn 2.01 net yards over the league average. The defenders on that play would each earn minus-2.01 net yards over the league average.

McKinnon was 0.2 yards above the net average in rushing plays and 0.02 in passing plays. None of the other backs on the roster – Peterson, Matt Asiata, FB Zach Line or short-lived free-agent acquisition Ronnie Hillman – were in positive territory in both rushing and receiving.

Hillman, in his 57 snaps played before he was cut, and Asiata were slightly better than McKinnon in rushing differential for the net yards above average category. But both of them were below the league average in net yards when they were on the field for passing plays. Line made a bigger difference in the passing game, but the Vikings were 1.15 yards below average when he was on the field for rushing plays.

The most interesting aspect of the net yards category comes when looking at Peterson’s effectiveness. The Vikings were 1 yard below the league average when he was on the field for rushing plays, but they were 2.4 yards above average on passing plays when he was on the field. Perhaps that’s a function of teams focused on him getting the ball and selling out to stop him, and teammates have often backed that sentiment.

Even so, Peterson had the lowest grade from Pro Football Focus among Vikings running backs in 2016. Asiata was slightly ahead of McKinnon – 68.6 to 66.1 – and Line was given was the highest grade at 75.9.

So, what does it all mean?

While Peterson isn’t likely to see his scheduled $18 million for 2017, he does still hold value, but perhaps more because of a defense’s perception of him than what he actually produced in 2016. But as a group, the Vikings running backs were pretty average, which gives further credence to the idea that they will need to upgrade the position in a draft that is expected to be pretty deep there from the second to fourth rounds when the Vikings have five picks in that range.

(Viking Update will be assessing the running backs and other positions this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.)


  Snap counts
  Off Off % Def Def % ST ST %
Players 1053   1035   429   Rush Diff Pass Diff PFF Grade
J McKinnon 511 48.53% 0 0.00% 4 0.93% 0.2 0.02 66.1
M Asiata 407 38.65% 0 0.00% 115 26.81% 0.24 -0.28 68.6
Z Line 210 19.94% 0 0.00% 129 30.07% -1.15 1.85 75.9
A Peterson 84 7.98% 0 0.00% 0 0.00% -1 2.4 47.7
R Hillman 57 5.41% 0 0.00% 0 0.00% 0.27 -0.03

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