Following the signing of former Raider RB Latavius Murray, many headlines have come out labeling the deal as a “replacement” for Adrian Peterson. The idea is pretty simple upon a cursory glance at the team. The face of the Vikings for a decade was a running back, he’s gone, and the Vikings signed a new running back. However, while Adrian Peterson and Latavius Murray are both popular fantasy players with “RB” next to their name, they do not play the same position. “Running back” isn’t as straightforward a position as it was in the mid-90s, or in Madden games. Some running backs are downhill thumpers, some are shifty pass catchers. Many teams have a variety of styles on their roster, and then they decide how often to use them. The Browns have Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell, the Titans have DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and so on. Some teams even throw a third in the mix, like the Patriots with Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and James White.
The Vikings had such a trio for two years with Peterson, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. They all played specific roles – Peterson as the “main course” bell cow, McKinnon as the pass-catching, shifty change of pace and Asiata as the 3rd-down pass blocking goal line thumper. In 2015, these roles were filled with mostly healthy iterations of those players. Here’s how those players were used, in terms of total snaps and how they divide up:
Each back was used for their own distinct purpose – Peterson ran over half the time he was in, McKinnon was targeted more often per snap than the others, and almost 3/4 of Asiata’s snaps saw him doing other stuff (“other” could be blocking, play action decoy, or running routes that weren’t targeted).
When he played, Peterson’s role seemed to be adjusting, but with only 84 snaps, it’s hard to tell for sure. His injury caused interesting adjustments to McKinnon and Asiata, however. While Asiata took more of a pure rushing role, rising to replace Adrian, McKinnon took more of the “other” snaps- blocks, unused outlet routes, play action, etc. Peterson’s responsibilities were split deliberately between the two, further defining their roles and the abilities the Vikings trust them with.
We can clearly split the previous Vikings RBs into three distinct roles – a pure rusher, (Peterson), a receiver (McKinnon) and a utility back (Asiata). Now they’re down Peterson and Asiata, and plus one Latavius Murray. So which was Murray closest to last year?
While Murray rushed the most often, the Raiders were far more even in their distributions. Murray was the least relied upon receiving back, which makes sense for the Vikings since McKinnon is the only other RB on the roster. But Murray wasn’t the “pure” rusher that Peterson was, also showing an ability to fill that utility role. Murray’s role (and DeAndre Washington, incidentally), was more like a hybrid of Peterson’s and Asiata’s. The Raiders never had a pure “rusher” like Peterson has been – and the Vikings are headed to a world where they don’t, either.
It may not be too inspiring to pay $15 million for a Matt Asiata upgrade (~$4 million if we cut him after 2017), but many teams employ a strategy that leans on their (infinitely better) versions of Matt Asiata. Take these examples of popular running backs:
These backs enjoyed an even mixture of rushes and “other”, with varying pass-catcher roles depending on the back and offense. Perhaps the Vikings could draft a pure rusher like D’onta Foreman, allowing Murray to fill whichever role he needs to. Regardless, the weighting of these roles will change in 2017. The Vikings have a receiving back and a “utility” back, but what about the pure rusher? What if the Vikings add a pure rushing rookie that takes the team by storm? They’d have a formula similar to New York’s or New England’s, which look like so:
In both cases, the pure rusher is the most used back, with some variance between the pass catcher and the utility guy. This provides a decent window into what the Vikings would look like in the extremely unlikely hypothetical of re-signing Adrian Peterson. Likely, this won’t be the case, though a pure-rushing draft pick isn’t out of the question. Recent podcast guest Jordan Reid, Arif Hasan and draft guru Matt Miller all have the Vikings drafting running backs in 2017. That said, a running back selected in the 3rd round could take over entirely- it will be interesting to see what the Vikings are willing to invest.
It’s difficult to picture the Vikings entrusting the lion’s share of their rushing game with a mid-round rookie. The Vikings’ division of labor between RBs could look a lot like Oakland’s in 2016- Murray taking the biggest role, McKinnon serving a pass-catching role, and a mystery back coming in for relief as sort of a mini-Murray.
Keep in mind that these snap count analyses are not a comparison of skill level. Latavius Murray obviously doesn’t hold a candle to Le’Veon Bell or Ezekiel Elliott. Rather, they’re a comparison of style and role, and a look into how coaches have decided to use their resources. As for the Vikings, don’t expect a rushing offense that looks anything like we’ve seen in the last decade. The time for pure rushers has come and gone, and the time of utility backs, like Latavius Murray, is here.
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