With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the running back position on the Minnesota Vikings.
2018 cap hits of top returnees:
Latavius Murray -- $6,350,000
Dalvin Cook -- $1,443,934
C.J. Ham -- $555,000
Pending free agents: Jerick McKinnon
Key stat: The Vikings ushered in a new era for the run game last season, transforming a unit that ranked dead-last in yards per game in 2016 (75.3) into the seventh-best rushing attack in 2017 (122.3). Before he tore his ACL four games into the season, Dalvin Cook was on pace to be among the league's top all-around running backs, averaging 4.8 yards per rush and 8.2 yards per catch. From Week 5 on in Cook's absence, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon split the rookie's load, notching 1,824 yards from scrimmage, which combined for the second-most scrimmage yards in the NFL.
Money matters: The quarterback position is the top priority in Minnesota. Once it's determined whether the Vikings will land Kirk Cousins ($$$) or choose to bring back any of their three current QBs and/or pick up a rookie in the draft, the amount of money Minnesota will have to spend on free agents at other positions will then come into play. There are more than 30 running backs on the cusp of free agency. With needs on the offensive and defensive lines and an already stacked backfield with Cook and Murray, the Vikings will likely find their No. 3 running back in the draft if McKinnon departs in free agency. But before that, Minnesota has until March 16 to make a decision on Murray's deal and whether or not to restructure it. At that time, $5.15 million of his $6.35 million cap hit becomes guaranteed, which might put the Vikings in a bind financially if they have to shell out for Cousins.
Big picture: After the Vikings season ended in the NFC Championship Game, McKinnon said that he wants to take on a bigger role next season. Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer discussed Minnesota's run game at the NFL combine, but only in terms of the Cook-Murray tandem. It feels evident that McKinnon will move on in free agency, and the Vikings shouldn't have a problem finding his replacement in a loaded draft class of running backs. There's no reason to believe Cook won't reclaim his role as a featured back if he's healthy while Murray will continue to provide the Vikings' physical edge and explosive runs. Finding a running back who can impact the passing game like McKinnon did in 2017 is the recipe for another successful season on offense.
The game plan: A bunch of options could be available in the middle rounds of the draft. The Vikings don't currently have a fourth-round pick but could either use a third-rounder on a running back or devise some creativity via a trade to get into the fourth round. Some candidates to keep an eye on at that phase of the draft are Kalen Ballage (Arizona State), Akrum Wadley (Iowa) and Mark Walton (Miami). All three have demonstrated pass-catching ability and can fit in as a rotational back in this deep group. Depending upon what happens elsewhere for the Vikings in free agency, they could also look to go after free agents such as Benny Cunningham (Chicago), Kerwynn Williams (Arizona) or Kenjon Barner (Philadelphia).
After Cook went down in Week 4, McKinnon averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 140 rushes (544 rushing yards) and totaled 381 yards receiving on 43 catches. If everything stays in place between Cook and Murray, the expected load for the No. 3 rusher won't be that heavy. It's certainly a benefit for Minnesota, though, to have ample depth in the backfield in case of injury and if Murray moves on to another team (due to possible cap issues) in 2019.