The Vikings Have an Alexander Mattison Problem
Alexander Mattison was handed the bell cow running back position at the start of this season.
The Vikings had moved on from perennial Pro-Bowler Dalvin Cook after six seasons, which in and of itself was a good enough decision – Cook signed a 1-year contract for a cool $7 million ($5.8 mill guaranteed) with the New York Jets, and has averaged just 16 yards per game as a mop-up running back on a 4-7 Jets team that is hemorrhaging on the offensive side of the ball.
The Vikings Have an Alexander Mattison Problem
Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, the Vikings brought back Mattison as a free agent and signed him to a 2-year $7 million contract – representing a 50% discount. The contract is backloaded, however, with $6.35 million guaranteed over the two years, and two-thirds of the cash ($4.6 million) payable in 2024.
The Vikings, of course, imagined Mattison would more than earn these dollars, having established himself over the last 4-years as a highly dependable backup to Cook. He averaged over 4 yards/carry over his first four years (Cook was just over 4.5), and he topped 100 yards on the ground in four of the six games he replaced Cook for injury reasons during that time. Given the heavy reliance the Vikings were already planning to commit to during 2023, a slight reduction in production seemed perfectly acceptable in exchange for some much-needed salary relief.
The reality has been much less positive. Mattison has had three strong games on the ground, gaining 93 yards in week three against the Chargers, 95 the following week against the Panthers, and last week when the Broncos allowed him to scamper for 81 rushing yards.
In those three games he has averaged 4.9 yards per carry. In the remaining eight contests, his totals have been 273 yards on 93 carries, for a 2.9 average yards/carry. He has been swallowed up at the line at an alarming rate, and yes, a good part of the blame there goes to the offensive line, who have been much stronger in pass- than run-blocking as a group this season.
But Mattison has shown little ability to elude a tackle, having broken just 3 tackles over 148 rushes for the season – for a 2.0% rate. Coming into 2023, he broke tackles on 10.1% of his rushes, 41 times in all over four seasons.
There have been more woes. Two lost fumbles this season, part of a team-wide turnover epidemic. An utter inability to crack the end zone, with zero rushing scores two-thirds of the way through the season despite owning the lion’s share of goal line rushing attempts.
As a receiver, he’s had 7 dropped passes against 38 targets, meaning 18.4% dropped; in his career before this season, he had dropped 3 of 84, for a 3.6% rate. As a pass-blocker, he grades at a mediocre 62.3 according to Pro Football Focus. His overall PFF grade of 58.6 ranks him 51st out of 57 qualifying NFL running backs. On the Vikings alone, his grade is lower than fellow backs Ty Chandler (71.7), Cam Akers (69.7) and Kene Nwangwu (62.5).
And therein lies the problem. Mattison has performed poorly in 2023. Cam Akers would likely have surpassed him already in the depth chart if not for a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon.
Chandler, a fifth-round pick in the 2022 draft, has outperformed Mattison when given time on the field to the tune of 4.8 yards/carry. There’s some hesitancy on the part of the Vikings brass to out-and-out supplant Mattison, however. First Akers, then Chandler, have earned some significant playing time due to Mattison’s woes, but Kevin O’Connell and company appear set on featuring Mattison with 60%+ of the running assignments.
Why? The contract comes into play: he’s here through next season, at a significant pay rate. It could be the organization is in the awkward position of simply willing Mattison to return to form, in order to fulfill the expectations they had when signing him to the two-year deal.
Another more significant reason: Mattison may be a bad pass blocker, but Chandler has been dreadful, with a PFF grade of 26.9 (on a 1-100 scale) season-to-date. Suddenly, Mattison’s 62.3 grade doesn’t seem quite so bad. There’s no way to hide Chandler as a blocking back, and in today’s pass-happy NFL, a back who can’t block is a back who won’t see high snap counts, plain and simple.
Which means, Mattison is going to be the 60 in any 60/40 split the rest of the way, much to the chagrin of those looking for a change. Make no mistake about it: if the Vikings are going to complete their playoff aspirations, and see some kind of success once they get there, Alexander Mattison will need to dig deep and find a way to return to the form he showed in his previous four seasons as a runner and as a receiver.
If he can’t, it’s a good bet he’ll be one of the highest-paid second-string running backs in the NFL come 2024.