Free Agency is Teeming with Talent, Offering Stars Aplenty at Glaring Vikings Need

NFL: New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency has appeared on the horizon (March 11th). Do the Vikings venture into the ample talent at running back?

Last offseason, Kevin O’Connell talked about being more multiple on offense. Doing so would keep defenses guessing while leading to more manageable third-down scenarios. Keeping Kirk Cousins from getting hit so often and Justin Jefferson from getting so much attention would similarly prove helpful. The addition of tight end Josh Oliver and extension for C.J. Ham seemingly corroborated the upcoming balanced offense.

Jun 7, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell looks on during mandatory mini camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

How did things play out in reality? Less than stellar, folks.

Minnesota finished the season at 29th in the NFL in total rushing yards. The 1,553 total yards works out to an average of roughly 91 yards per game. The 393 attempts were 28th overall. The 4.0 yards-per-carry average was given a boost by Joshua Dobbs and Ty Chandler, but the total is still in a tie for 24th in the NFL. Does the addition of one of free agency’s marquee options change the water on the purple beans?

Free Agency and The Vikings’ Need at Running Back

No matter what happens at quarterback, a dynamic runner will help. True, Kirk Cousins has proven capable of handling a major passing load, but he would very much welcome some help at running back.

Similarly, the defense will only benefit from Minnesota improving the rushing attack. Seeing Brian Flores get a true CB1, retain Danielle Hunter, and then add a few more pass rushers would be wonders for that defense. So, too, would a running game that helps tilt the time-of-possession battle in Minnesota’s favor. Playing defense is pretty easy when a team’s own offense is churning out first downs.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham (left) hugs running back Alexander Mattison (2) after losing a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, these are the runners attached to Minnesota’s roster:

  • Alexander Mattison (25)
  • Ty Chandler (25)
  • Kene Nwangwu (25)
  • DeWayne McBride (22)
  • Myles Gaskin (26)

Kicking things out a bit further would mean bringing Ham, a fullback, into the mix. The veteran thumper is 30. Going even further would mean including Cam Akers (24). Keep in mind, though, that the former Ram isn’t under contract for next season.

Oct 23, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Cam Akers (31) runs with the ball against the San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Now go ahead and consider some of the top players available in free agency:

  • Saquon Barkley (26)
  • Josh Jacobs (25)
  • Tony Pollard (26)
  • Derrick Henry (30)
  • Austin Ekeler (28)
  • D’Andre Swift (25)

Anyone in that list capable of helping in Minnesota? Consider a relatively extreme example: Saquon Barkley. True, he won’t come cheap, but let’s follow this one through.

The 2nd overall pick in 2018, Barkley is coming off of an underwhelming season. He played in just 14 games, picking up 247 carries, 962 yards, and 6 touchdowns. The 3.9 yards-per-carry average mirrors Mattison’s. Keep in mind that Barkley also had 41 catches for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Jan 1, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (97) celebrates a defensive stop with running back Saquon Barkley (26) during the second half against the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

At his best, though, Barkley is one of the top running backs that the NFL has to offer. In 2022, Barkley helped his squad get into the postseason behind his 295 carries, 1,312 yards, and 10 TDs. No one on Minnesota’s roster has ever soared to those heights, especially not when we remember that he also had 57 catches for 338 yards.

The Vikings will remember him well. At U.S. Bank Stadium on January 15th, 2023, Barkley had his 9 carries go for 53 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His half dozen targets got turned into 5 catches and 56 yards. His Giants pulled off the upset, winning 31-24.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the point isn’t that Minnesota needs to aggressively pursue the Giants’ runner (though that could end up being a wise move). Rather, the point is that the players who are marching toward free agency are ones who have established excellence at various points.

Tony Pollard would seem like a nice fit given his age and ability to do damage via land and air. Ditto for Ekeler, though there are a few more concerns about him being a touch older. Swift isn’t lacking in talent and adding Henry has its merits. Numerous others could prove to be nice adds for a running game that needs to improve in a hurry.

Very wisely, Kevin O’Connell is going to continue leaning on a pass-first philosophy. The talent at receiver and the structure of the modern NFL certainly justifies the approach. But, crucially, the Vikings cannot be complacent about their rushing attack.

In March, there’s likely going to be a pile of talented runners hit the open market, so look for the Vikings to take action in their pursuit of following through on the promise to become more multiple.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Spotrac helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.