Since McKinnon arrived in Minnesota as a third-round pick in 2014 after the Vikings were impressed with his versatility, he has always had Adrian Peterson, when available, in front of him on the depth chart. And, at times, Matt Asiata was ahead of him. Until this year.
With Peterson signing with the New Orleans Saints and Asiata with the Detroit Lions, it opened the door, at least temporarily, for McKinnon to take on a larger role. But the Vikings signed Latavius Murray in free agency and drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round.
Still, McKinnon increased his drive this offseason, working out far more often than he ever had at Peterson’s training facility in Houston, Texas. McKinnon had been there for a few days in past offseasons, but this year he devoted 10 weeks to Peterson-style workouts.
“The guy who runs the training program down there is really good. We do a lot of mobility work,” McKinnon said. “He does everything, from footwork to everything, hand-eye coordination. He’s really good.”
McKinnon was used fairly generously in his rookie season after Peterson played only one game because of legal issues stemming from child abuse allegations.
After getting 113 carries and winning the starting job after a few games with Asiata as the Peterson replacement, McKinnon’s role was reduced in 2015 when Peterson returned to lead the NFL in rushing. Last year, with Peterson playing only three games, McKinnon received his most extensive action, carrying 159 times for 539 yards, but averaged only 3.4 yards behind an offensive line that lost starters on a regular basis.
Peterson owns O Athletik and his trainer, James Cooper, runs the NFL offseason training program.
“It’s just good to be down there with those type of guys. There’s a lot of guys down there who made the Pro Bowl,” McKinnon said. “It’s good to work out with competition.”
It seems to have paid off for McKinnon already. Whether or not he is able to carve out a significant role in a backfield that is expected to feature mostly Cook and Murray, McKinnon has become visibly more muscular with thicker chest and arms.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” McKinnon said. “I feel like I was already strong, but with having the weight, I feel I can push more weight. It’s not as heavy as it was when I was 198, 200.”
These days, he’s 211 pounds and said it “feels good.”
His experience behind the Vikings’ offensive line last year likely contributed to his desire to get stronger in an effort to break more tackles. Vikings running backs – it wasn’t limited to McKinnon – were brought down in the backfield far too often in 2016.
“Just being more explosive and you have the weight. I have my legs under me this year and breaking tackles, so I think that’s what will help me the most improve from last year,” he said.
Since leaving Houston to rejoin the Vikings at the start of the offseason conditioning program, McKinnon hasn’t communicated much with Peterson. Both have their own focuses now – Peterson with the Saints and McKinnon with the Vikings.
But, having seen Peterson’s extensive and grueling workouts before, McKinnon decided offseason training with him for 2½ months would benefit his own career. Peterson’s workouts and stamina have become legendary and led to him earning the nickname “All Day” before he even entered the NFL.
McKinnon admitted he reached the point of complete exhaustion on some days.
“Definitely. It’s a long day down there, from start to finish. You’ll be at the gym for about four-plus hours,” he said. “Over time, your body is going to wear down and wear down, but as a pro athlete you’ve got to take care of your body. As you start to come back, you have to let off so your body can get back up to tempo and stuff like that.”
McKinnon has one more week of organized team activities and then the mandatory three-day minicamp in Minnesota from June 13-15. After that, it’s time for a break to recuperate in time for the start of training camp in late July.
At that point, he’s hopeful that all of his offseason training pays dividends.
“I think it’s going to pay off tremendously,” he said, “so I’m excited to see it.”