Roster Analysis, Part III: Offensive backs

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Time is short before training camp begins for the 2017 season, and there are a few more positions to examine. That said, let’s look at the Vikings quarterbacks and running backs that will be showing up in Mankato.

Quarterback: This shouldn’t take long. Incumbent starter Sam Bradford leads the way for the Vikings this season, and his position on the depth chart won’t be moving anytime soon. Bradford has earned this status and the only question on him coming into training camp is when the Vikings will extend his contract.

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Bradford performed well last season (tops in some accuracy calculations) and he did so under trying circumstances (a struggling offensive line). Bradford will have his first OTAs and training camp with the Vikings under his belt as he prepares for his second season in the Vikings offense, and the word out at Winter Park is that he has looked better, more confident and is starting to build some chemistry with his stable of receivers. All good signs going forward for the 29-year-old, seven-year pro.

There was some early wishful thinking around about Teddy Bridgewater coming back from his catastrophic knee injury of last pre-season to compete with Bradford for his former starting slot, but when one looks at everything ever said by the principles of the Vikings staff, the language has always been couched with a modicum of guarded optimism. The fact that he is working out right now with his receivers is a great sign, but Bridgewater has a long way to go—evidenced by his tweet of July 7:

“Progress is slow, but it’s worth the wait,” Bridgewater said on Twitter.

Behind this pair of former starters is free agent acquisition Case Keenum, who came over from the Los Angeles Rams this spring. Keenum will be battling Taylor Heinicke for the backup spot, while rookie Wes Lunt (Illinois) should just hope to make the practice squad.

Best Guess: Bradford starts and talks begin on an extension. (Which may come sooner than later as general manager Rick Spielman has made it a habit of getting some big extensions done right as training camp gets underway.) Keenum, who started nine games last season as a Ram, should get the backup spot, with Heinicke once again relegated to third string and a healthy scratch on game days (his lack of good health last season cost him a chance to move up a notch in 2016 and contributed to the need to trade for Bradford when Teddy went down).

There is talk of one of these two being cut, but that all depends on how well Lunt performs. Well, actually it doesn’t, in my eyes. Keenum’s contract calls for $1 million dollars in dead cap money if he were cut, compared to $3,334 for Heinicke. The interesting battle, rather, is between Heinicke and Lunt. If the Vikings put Bridgewater on injured reserve, which I think they will, that gives them the flexibility to keep three other quarterbacks on the roster.

Running Back: This position has gone through some major renovation from where we were a year ago. The case could be made that it is fairly straight forward, but there is plenty of uncertainty heading into camp.

Adrian Peterson is gone (as is Matt Asiata) and that opened things up this spring for a new era at running back. The Vikings and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur appear intent on making the Vikings offense a more pass-friendly unit, which is to say we’ll see a lot more throws to players out of the backfield. To that end, the Vikings signed former Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray and drafted Florida State standout Dalvin Cook with their first pick in the draft. Both players are adept receivers and Murray is very good pass protector. Unfortunately for Murray, he had surgery on his ankle shortly after he signed with Minnesota and is out until training camp.

The pair joins Jerick McKinnon, who has been in the system (and in the shadow of Peterson) for three seasons and is just itching to finally make a bigger name for himself. Also on the roster is another three-year man in Bishop Sankey, who didn’t get on the field last for the Vikings. Terrell Newby, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska, fills out the position.

Best Guess: Due to Murray’s rehab, Cook moved up quickly on the depth chart and should share the lion’s share of reps with McKinnon early in camp. Head coach Mike Zimmer likes to break in rookies slowly, so McKinnon may come out of camp with the starting role—at least in the early going. But Cook will get plenty of run right out of the gate, while the team brings back Murray a little more slowly. Once Murray is up to speed, he should get the short yardage and goal-line carries and then start seeing more regular carries as the season wears on. But Cook throws a wrench in everything and may be too good to keep off the field.

Meanwhile. C.J. Hamm finds himself as the only fullback on the roster and will likely get a chance to prove his worth in the position. He could be a game-day player or scratch depending on what the Vikings want to do against a particular offense they face. The good news here is that the depth at the running back position is better than it has been for some time—and the players are all versatile in their skillsets. It will be fun to see how Shurmur puts them all to work.

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  1. You make a compelling point, but as I stated above, Spielman often does this. He locks up players before they get to free agency where they can potentially cost him more. I also think there are some “sides” you haven’t considered: the potential upside of Bradford finally surrounded by a good team and the potential downside of Bridgewater–whose situation offers no guarantee that he will ever fulfill that formerly promised potential or that he might even play again. Just because Teddy is throwing passes to his receivers on an open field doesn’t guarantee he will be back to NFL-starting caliber in 2018. I certainly hope he is, and if so, he still comes with some potential injury concern going forward that the Vikings would be negligent not to consider when re-doing his contract. I like the idea of them somehow bring both players along on shorter deals that gives the Vikings the flexibility to make the right call going forward. I don’t know how that money would work (and it certainly would be difficult to do), but if both are NFL starters, you suddenly have some decent trade bait as well. With all deference to the defense, it would be nice to see the Vikings solidify the most important position in football for the first time in a long time.

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