Should the Vikings Look to Draft a Running Back? A Look at a Few Prospects Who Can Fit Minnesota’s Scheme

Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright (0) misses a pass during a football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

The NFL Scouting Combine is an event where college football players showcase their physical, mental, and interview abilities in front of coaches, general managers, and scouts of National Football League teams. It provides a standardized setting for NFL teams to evaluate upcoming rookies. 

Finding cost-effective labor at running back is essential to team building in the modern NFL. The Minnesota Vikings are not in a position to spend money or significant draft capital on a running back. However, they should consider taking a chance on one towards the end of the draft. Alexander Mattison was one the least efficient running backs in the league in 2023. Ty Chandler showed promise in spurts but failed to grab the pole position.

Offensive Run Schemes

Running Back
Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Ty Chandler (32) runs with the ball against the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Zone Blocking

Zone blocking is based on the premise that each offensive lineman is responsible for an area on the field rather than an individual defender. In zone blocking, the offensive linemen will take their initial steps in unison, and if a defender is lined up in their area, the linemen will block that defender.

If there isn’t a defender in their area, the individual lineman will work his way downfield to the next defender or will chip in on a double team. The goal is to create a crease in the defense that the running back can exploit.

The running back has an aiming point on zone runs, but they also need to be aware of over-pursuit by the defense. A good zone runner will take advantage of the crease by cutting back. This is where running backs coined the term one-cut back.

Gap Blocking

Gap blocking is a blocking scheme where the offensive linemen block down toward the inside gap to create a hole for the running back to run through. The blocking scheme is designed to create a numbers advantage at the point of attack and uses pulling guards to create this advantage.

In gap blocking, the offensive linemen facing the play block down the line of scrimmage, making it look like they’re blocking away from the gap where the ball carrier is running. While the rest of the line shifts their focus, a pulling player will come across and block the solo defender crashing on the run direction. This will create a hole for the running back to burst through.

Vikings Scheme Preference

Nov 5, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (2) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah (1) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In the last two seasons under Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings have rushed out of a zone scheme 63% of the plays. As the lead backs, former Viking Dalvin Cook was at 68% zone, and Mattison at 65% zone.

2022: 67% Zone, 33% Gap;

2023: 59% Zone, 41% Gap.

If you are still trying to figure out what a zone run or gap run is, the Eagles’ legendary offensive line coach, Jeff Stoutland, breaks it down in this video.


Dec 10, 2023; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell reacts during the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A. The minimum requirement for a running back’s 40-yard dash should be 4.55, with a projected SpeedScore above 100.

B. For this article, the Vikings are not looking to spend a draft pick before the sixth round, so the projected draft capital should be round six or later.

C. Running backs need to weigh at least 200 pounds and have a BMI above 29. This is slightly less than most evaluators’ benchmark when scouting running backs. However, late day three guys with that profile are scarce. They get drafted early.

D. The running back should primarily be a zone scheme rusher to fit Kevin O’Connell’s preference.

Top cost-effective running backs at the Combine

Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright (0) runs the ball during a game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Jaylen Wright, Tennessee 

  • 63% Zone Runs
  • Projected Weight: 210 Pounds
  • Projected BMI: 29.29
  • Projected 40-Yard Dash: 4.31

Jaylen Wright is a physical runner with an impressive burst. While he lacks natural agility and vision, he can sneak up on defenders and outrun bad angles in the open field. He’s projected to be a rotational change of pace ball-carrier and a possible return man due to his long speed.

Isaiah Davis, South Dakota State

  • 63% Zone Runs
  • Projected Weight: 220 Pounds
  • Projected BMI: 29.83
  • Projected 40-Yard Dash: 4.52

Isaiah Davis is a talented running back with excellent ball security and exceptional vision. He is a one-cut and slashing-style runner with quick feet. However, his long speed and pass protection technique need improvement. Overall, Davis has the potential to become a developmental starting running back in a zone scheme.

Jase McClellan, Alabama

  • 55% Zone Runs
  • Projected Weight: 212 Pounds
  • Projected BMI: 29.56
  • Projected 40-Yard Dash: 4.5

McClellan is a versatile running back who has shown to be at his best as an inside zone rusher, with good patience and vision. However, his athletic ability is a concern, as he needs more top-end speed to pull away from defenders consistently. Overall, he is best served on a committee where he can fill various roles as a running back.

Overall, Vikings fans saw during the 2023 season how a constricting rushing attack can limit an offense. If the Vikings were to have some consistency on the ground, they might have weathered the storm and reached the playoffs. Even if it’s a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent, the Vikings must make a cost-effective addition to the running back room.

Editor’s Note: Run Scheme Percentages provided by PFF. BMI projections are my own. Scouting report is my own. NFL Draft Buzz was used for 40-yard dash projections.