The strength of the Minnesota Vikings' offense remains the running game, a facet of the offense that ranked fourth in the National Football League in 2011 despite star running back Adrian Peterson suffering through his worst season as a professional. Peterson amassed only 970 yards rushing, but the Vikings still managed to average 144.9 yards per game last season. With quarterback Christian Ponder still growing and developing, the Vikings' rushing attack will continue to be the focal point of the offense, despite Peterson's late-season ACL tear.
From all indications, Peterson is on pace to come back. . .whether anyone likes it or not. . .in time for the season opener on September 9 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Peterson is still one of the NFL's top running backs, and while his injury is likely to slow him down a little at first, he should slowly round into form over the early portion of the season. He will set the Vikings' team rushing record very early in the 2012 season (he's currently 66 yards behind Robert Smith for the all-time team mark), and will continue to be the focal point of the Vikings' offense.
While Peterson had his problems with injuries in 2011, Toby Gerhart showed that he was more than capable of carrying the load, at least in short spurts. The second-year back out of Stanford averaged nearly five yards per carry in 2011 (531 yards on 109 carries) and showed some decent ability in the passing game as well, hauling in 23 passes and finding the end zone via the air three times. If Peterson does get off to a slow start in 2011, expect to see a lot of Gerhart. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Gerhart is one of those backs that tends to get stronger with more work.
One of the interesting battles to watch during training camp will be for the third running back spot, a position that will get a decent amount of work if the team wants to bring Peterson along slowly. The top two candidates for the job appear to be Hilliard and Todman, and the two of them offer an interesting contract. Hilliard, at 5'11" and 235 pounds, offers very good blocking skills and a bit of power at the position, and offers the versatility to play fullback as well. Todman, on the other hand, is much smaller at 5'9" and 195 pounds. He would bring a lot of quickness to the position and would be an interesting change of pace from the pounding, physical style of Peterson and Gerhart. Todman could also potentially figure in as a returner as well.
The last of the tailbacks in camp is Derrick Coleman, an undrafted free agent out of UCLA. Coleman has a wonderful back story, as he has overcome significant hearing loss to reach the ultimate level of professional football. A bigger back at 5'11" and 240 pounds, he could offer more of the power running style that the Vikings seem to want to build the offense around. However, he has his work cut out for him to make the roster, and will likely fall victim to a numbers game. He doesn't appear to offer quite the versatility that either Hilliard or Todman could potentially offer, and without that, he's going to have a tough time making the team.
The battle for the starting fullback spot. . .what use the Vikings make of it. . .will come down to Felton and D'Imperio. D'Imperio, the converted linebacker who saw a decent amount of playing time last season, is one of the Vikings' core special teamers, spending time on the #1 coverage units on both kickoffs and punts. With his knowledge of the offense, he would appear to have the edge over Felton. Felton, who got into some trouble this off-season for a DUI, is already on his fourth NFL team in four years, is someone that the Vikings attempted to acquire last year, but were blocked by the Indianapolis Colts on the waiver priority list. The odds are very good that both of them will make the team, but if Peterson's comeback goes more smoothly than expected, Felton could find himself out of a job again, as the Vikings could go with Hilliard as a combo tailback/fullback, and free up a roster spot at another position of need.
Matt Asiata has spent a couple of seasons on the Vikings' practice squad and, barring an amazing showing in camp, appears to be headed in that direction again.
I think that the Vikings will end up keeping six backs coming out of camp. . .again, just to see how Peterson's comeback goes. It's possible that Peterson could begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List, meaning that one more person could make the squad. At this point, however, that appears to be a long shot.
Making the cut: Peterson, Gerhart, Hilliard, Todman, D'Imperio, Felton
Not making the cut: Coleman, Asiata
Positions on the 53-man roster accounted for: 9 out of 53
Tomorrow, we move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, where there should be some significant competition in training camp for roster spots.