With Latavius Murray signed in free agency and Jerick McKinnon returning, the Minnesota Vikings don’t have to press to select a running back early in the draft later this month, but with a deep group of backs in the class it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Vikings take one in the middle rounds.
Murray has a three-year contract that could be opted out of after one year without too much dead-money damage to the salary cap, and McKinnon is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after 2017. Behind them, the Vikings have two largely unproven backs in C.J. Ham and Bishop Sankey.
One of the draft prospects that is expected to be a mid-round value is Kareem Hunt, who is reportedly set to be part of the team’s predraft visitors, but don’t tell him he is expected to last into the third round or later.
“I think I fit in right with the best of them, at the top. And I’m going to keep competing,” he said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “That’s what I do; I love to compete. I’m going to show up and be there every day.”
Hunt certainly showed the ability to compete in the Mid-American Conference, where he started 33 of 44 games and rushed for 4,945 yards and 44 touchdowns over four years. He also improved as a receiver and ended up with 73 catches for 555 yards.
While he doesn’t have great speed – he ran a 4.62 at the Scouting Combine – he was fifth among running backs in the vertical jump (36½ inches).
“I feel I’m a guy who is very explosive,” he said. “I run faster than people think and I believe I’m going to jump and test well. That’s what I do.”
Actually, what he did best on the football field was make initial would-be tacklers miss.
He has only average speed but can be elusive, as he broke 42 percent of the “first contact” tackles he encountered, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked second. He caused a whopping 76 missed tackles in 2016 and 176 over three years, according to the analytics site.
He listed his elusiveness as his best attribute.
“My ability to set up defenders; I catch them off-balance. I have great balance myself,” he said. “I feel I’m able to make guys miss. I can tell which way their body is leaning. I can see little things like that, setting them up. I see stuff before it honestly happens.
“I bring a tough, physical back. I’m a guy who can make a lot of guys miss, I believe. Pretty explosive and I like to think that I can just help a team at any point in time and be a game-changer.”
In addition to a lack of long-range speed, another question with Hunt will be the level of competition he faced in the MAC. That’s why producing a solid week at the Senior Bowl helped his draft stock.
“I feel like it helped me out a lot,” he said. “It showed I could really play with some of the best of the best. Honestly I get a lot of stuff about ‘Toledo don’t play tough enough competition’ sometimes and I came in with something to prove and I’m going to keep a chip on my shoulder.”
In addition to keeping the chip on his shoulder, NFL teams can be fairly confident he will keep the ball in his possession. He didn’t fumble once in 782 carries in college.
“I take pride in that. I don’t like having anything taken from me, and I’m not going to let anybody take the ball from me, or anything important to me. And the football’s important,” he said. “You can’t get the yards that you want without the ball, and if I fumble on first down, that’s two other downs I could’ve got the ball and I’m missing out on every opportunity.”
For the Vikings, there is a lot to like and to consider if Hunt is still available late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 of the draft. But when exactly they pull the trigger on a running back, if they do at all, remains to be seen, but Hunt is a fit that intrigues them, based off their interest in having him visit after talking with him at the Senior Bowl.