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4 ways the Minnesota Vikings can improve their running game in 2024

Alexander Mattison's release could just be the beginning of an overhaul in the backfield.

The Minnesota Vikings surprised many when they decided to release Alexander Mattison on Thursday night but the message was loud and clear. 

After struggling to run the ball over the past two seasons under Kevin O'Connell, the Vikings are looking to improve the efficiency of their running game and it could require an overhaul to do it.

"As you go through the cut-up evaluation process after the season, you can really kind of gauge things that worked well, things you need to improve on and things that I could do better as a coach," O'Connell said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "But then you see some of the individual performances that maybe don't always jump out on the stat sheet but it was a critical player here and there and then we've got some young players in the room as well."

O'Connell's comments represent several options to improve a running game that ranked 23rd in yards per carry (4.0) and 29th in total rushing offense (1,553 yards) last season. While a new back to the room, the Vikings could also do some things schematically to revive the ground attack.

Here's a look at some of the options and how they could impact the Vikings in 2024.

1. Install Ty Chandler as the lead back

Fantasy football players sang with joy when Mattison was released because it cleared the path for Chandler to be a lead back in 2024. 

Chandler ran for 461 yards and three touchdowns while catching 21 passes for 159 yards last season and O'Connell complimented the former fifth-round pick for the progress he made throughout the year.

"I think the way Ty finished the season was a real positive," O'Connell said. "Going into year two, year three will be a huge opportunity for him to continue his growth. ... I thought seeing him really come on there and really start to assert himself was a real positive for our team."

While Chandler had plenty of positives, there are some areas of his game he needs to work on. 

Pro Football Reference logs success rate to determine when a running back gains at least 40 percent of yards required on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down. While Mattison posted a 45 percent success rate that ranked 38th out of 48 qualifiers last season, Chandler wasn't much better with a 45.1 percent success rate over 102 carries.

If Chandler can't improve, the Vikings still have internal options on the roster including Cam Akers – who seemed to send a message to the Vikings ahead of his pending free agency on Instagram – and 2023 seventh-round pick DeWayne McBride, who the Vikings had a starter grade on during their pre-draft process.

But if the Vikings don't make any external moves, Chandler could become the starter and have a massive opportunity in front of him next season.

2. Add a running back in free agency

The diminishing value of running backs has had a trickle-down effect on free agency as several big names are available in this year's class.

The high-end group includes Derrick Henry, who is coming off his fifth 1,000-yard rushing season in the past five years with the Tennessee Titans, and Saquon Barkley, who has battled injuries during his six seasons with the New York Giants.

But both backs along with former Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs are expected to get over $10 million in free agency according to Pro Football Focus, potentially leaving the Vikings to look into the next tier.

Tony Pollard could be a target as part of a committee but his $8 million price tag could be too much to swallow. Austin Ekeler could provide value on the ground and through the air but will turn 29 in May.

D'Andre Swift ranked sixth among running backs with a 54.1 percent success rate last season but will also cost about $6 million – the same price the Vikings balked at paying David Montgomery in free agency last year.

Perhaps a bargain signing such as J.K. Dobbins, A.J. Dillon or Zack Moss could be used to provide depth but the Vikings will have options if they decide to add in free agency.

3. A change in philosophy

The Vikings could enhance the talent in the running back room but it doesn't completely fall on the shoulders of who is in the backfield. Minnesota's rushing concepts have been flawed under O'Connell and it could lead to a few changes elsewhere to establish the run.

The Vikings' offensive line ranked 10th in PFF's run-blocking grades last season but there were a few weak links. Pending free agent Dalton Risner ranked 46th out of 54 qualifying guards with a minimum of 736 snaps in run-blocking grade last season and Ed Ingram ranked 32nd despite seeing a modest jump.

Garrett Bradbury also ranked 19th among 31 qualifying centers in run-blocking grade, which could signal the need for some new faces up front.

But the Vikings could also need to fix things from the sidelines. The Vikings ranked 28th with 393 rushing attempts last season and their zone-based scheme might need to be switched out for one with more power.

A similar move took place with the Los Angeles Rams as O'Connell's mentor Sean McVay switched to a gap scheme. The change helped Kevin Dotson become PFF's No. 2 guard last season and unleashed Kyren Williams, who ranked second among running backs with a 59.6 percent success rate last season. 

Dotson is the top free agent guard available in this year's class and O'Connell's connections with McVay could make for an easier transition. If the Vikings upgrade their line and their scheme, it could increase their efficiency on the ground.

4. Draft a running back

The most likely scenario sees the Vikings take another back in the draft. Although there isn't a prospect like Bijan Robinson or Jahmyr Gibbs, who were taken in the first round of last year's draft, there are several prospects that could provide a boost thanks to their yards after contact.

This was an area the Vikings struggled in last season as Mattison averaged 2.76 yards after contact (38th among 59 qualifiers) and Chandler averaged 2.86 (32nd among qualifiers). By comparison, Gibbs, who the Vikings were linked to last spring, averaged 3.0 yards after contact (18th) and Robinson had averaged 3.1 yards after contact (14th) in their rookie seasons.

Tennesse's Jaylen Wright (4.35 yards after contact), Oregon's Bucky Irving (3.99 yards after contact) and Notre Dame's Audric Estime (4.27 yards after contact) could be an improvement in this area and would come under a cheap rookie deal that allows them to fill out a committee.

This has been the way NFL front offices have operated over the past couple of seasons, opting to find the next Isaiah Pacheco than pay for a back in free agency. With the Vikings looking to maintain flexibility, it wouldn't be a surprise if they used a pick on a back and tried to revamp their running game next season.

Ty Chandler

Ty Chandler