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Matthew Coller: Mattison released amidst stocked free agent RB market

A new running back will start next season but will Ty Chandler totally take command of the RB1 spot?

ON A FLIGHT BACK FROM INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to the 2023 season Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said that he always admired Alexander Mattison’s game even before landing the GM spot in 2022. It’s not hard to see why. The hard-nosed runner had quality numbers.

Before 2022 Mattison ran 330 times for 1,387 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and caught 55 passes for 7.9 yards per catch. That’s a quality full season for a bell cow back. Despite the fact that his yards per carry mark went down in 2022, Mattison produced a 47.3% success rate on 74 rushes, which was on par with Cook’s 2021 and 2022 seasons.

So the idea was to have Mattison and a young stable of recent draft picks in Ty Chandler, Kene Nwangwu and DeWayne McBride and let the youth battle it out for rotational spots behind the veteran. Except nobody turned out to be ready yet and Mattison entered Week 1 as the lone trustworthy running back — a role that he hadn’t had since he played for Boise State.

Mattison’s first impression was rough, gaining just 34 and 28 yards in his first two games. The Vikings were forced to acquire Cam Akers early in the year to give Mattison any type of relief and during the middle part of the season there were moments of quality play from Mattison, who averaged a solid 4.0 YPC between Weeks 3 and 13. But he was riddled with drops and rushes that seemed to have issues following blocks or anticipating where the defenders were going to be. And one particular unfortunate moment turned the tides in the wrong direction for the entire season when he fumbled against the Denver Broncos in a game the Vikings appeared to be en route to winning.

Mattison got hurt in one of his best games of the year against Vegas and Ty Chandler blew up against the Cincinnati Bengals to the tune of 132 yards and never gave the job back to Mattison. Chandler finished with 102 carries for 461 yards (4.5 YPC).

The Mattison experiment had its merits when the Vikings decided to see if he could take over full-time duties. It was thematic with a team that gave a lot of unproven players like Josh Metellus and Ivan Pace Jr. opportunities to sink or swim. Mattison simply did not work out.

The fantasy football world is now asking: Is Ty Chandler RB1?

That depends on how much progress he can make from Year 2 to Year 3. The Vikings’ coaching staff talked at length last year about waiting until Chandler was ready to handle the offensive scheme, in particular pass blocking assignments, before he could take on a full workload. The results were mixed with several blocking assignments going sideways on notable pressures down the stretch and he had several plays where he wasn’t on the same page as the quarterback or offensive line.

However, if those things are sharpened the Vikings could have a playmaking RB to add a new dimension to their offense that was lacking in 2023: Speed.

Chandler ran a 4.38 40-yard dash coming out of college and proved that it wasn’t just track speed when he got in the open field during actual game play. His physical play and instinct added with his quickness gives Chandler the tools to be excellent.

The Vikings can’t assume he will reach the peak of the mountain though. They are more likely to go into 2024 with Chandler and another experienced running back to pair him with similar to the McKinnon-Murray duo that took the Vikings to the NFC title game in 2017.

This year’s free agent market features some star level players that the Vikings could try to chase in order to break the streak of struggling on the ground as the franchise has since O’Connell arrived. Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and Derrick Henry are all up for the highest bidder.

Would the Vikings be willing to go all in on a proven RB1 in the backfield? It doesn’t fit with a general manager whose background is in numbers, which have always shown that RBs rarely thrive during their second contracts (see: Cook, Dalvin). The question is how desperate they will be to get the ground game going. Who isn’t at least intrigued by the idea of Barkley and Justin Jefferson in the same offense?

If they are practical and prefer a role player then the RBs down the free agency list should be attractive. Former Charger Austin Ekeler, Viking killer D’Andre Swift, ex-Raven JK Dobbins, former Texan Devin Singletary and ex-Colt Zack Moss could be on the Vikings’ wish list when free agency opens in two weeks.

Whether the Vikings give the lion’s share of responsibility to Chandler or not is yet to be seen but we know that O’Connell has a lot to prove when it comes to the rushing attack. Regardless which quarterback is under center, it’s not easy to win ranking in the bottom five in key categories.

Will the QB decision impact the backfield? Possibly. If Cousins exits stage left the Vikings could be more inclined to sign a contract for a quality RB because they will have cap space opening up in 2025. With the veteran QB on the roster that space would need to desperately be allocated to the defensive side.

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs onto the field before a wild card game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs onto the field before a wild card game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.