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Kene Nwangwu? A.J. Rose Jr.? Kerryon Johnson? Analyzing Vikings' Backup RB Options

The Vikings will lean on Alexander Mattison with Dalvin Cook injured, but they'll need some other options.

With Dalvin Cook expected to miss at least two games due to a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum suffered against the 49ers, the Vikings' offense will have to survive without one of its best players for a bit.

As is always the case when Cook goes down, Alexander Mattison will step into his role as the lead running back. In two starts earlier this season — victories over the Seahawks and Lions — Mattison averaged 33 touches and 162 yards from scrimmage as a central part of the offense. 

Despite that lofty production, the 2019 third-round pick hasn't actually been all that efficient this year. He's averaging just 3.6 yards per carry for the season and ranks 55th out of 59 qualified running backs in PFF grade. Mattison is a physical runner with some burst, but his vision and elusiveness are nowhere near Cook's level.

C.J. Ham will also be involved in the offense, but the Vikings are going to need someone else to step up at running back, too. Ameer Abdullah is in Carolina, so it remains to be seen who the No. 2 RB will be while Cook is out. That player ideally would be used for a handful of touches while also being ready in case anything were to happen to Mattison. 

Let's run through the options.

Kene Nwangwu

It's going to be very interesting to see how much offensive work the Vikings' electrifying rookie running back gets in Cook's absence. It's no secret at this point that Nwangwu's speed and athleticism are extraordinary. We saw it back in training camp before he got injured, and he's now shown it to the world with two kickoff return touchdowns on just eight attempts.

On Monday, I tweeted that I'd like to see the Vikings give Nwangwu 8-10 touches as a change-of-pace option for Mattison.

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The only barrier to that dream is that it's unclear if Nwangwu is ready to see significant work as a true running back just yet. His first offensive touch was a seven-yard carry in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss, but a few plays later, he lined up on the wrong side of Kirk Cousins in a shotgun formation. This is a guy who saw just 150 touches in four years at Iowa State while backing up David Montgomery and Breece Hall, and likely has some catching up to do on the playbook after spending the first half of this season on injured reserve.

“You know, with most young backs, [pass] protection is always the toughest thing," Mike Zimmer said on Monday. "It’s not really running with the ball ... it’s protections, it’s understanding your route concepts, where you have to be on certain routes and things like that. He’s still learning some of the run game ... they call it where the dot is, and then trying to get to stretch that dot and bring it back the other way or continue to go to the perimeter. Just continue learning. He’s doing a good job."

Zimmer said after Sunday's game that he thinks "there’s a chance [Nwangwu] may end up getting some more playing time." But if he's not up to speed on everything he needs to do in pass protection and as a receiver, the Vikings aren't going to throw him out there and have him be a liability.

A.J. Rose Jr.

The third and final healthy running back the Vikings have, Rose is a candidate to be elevated from the practice squad this week. The Vikings didn't elevate him earlier in the season when Cook was out, but that was before they lost Abdullah to the Panthers. If they don't feel like Nwangwu is quite ready, having Rose available could make sense.

Rose had 371 collegiate touches at Kentucky, more than double Nwangwu's total. And he strutted his stuff in the preseason this year, racking up 189 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 40 touches. Rose looked like a legit NFL RB in August. Another thing working in his favor is that he's been healthy and practicing with the team all season, so he should know the offense pretty well.

Kerryon Johnson?

Perhaps as an indication that they're not fully satisfied with their current options at running back, the Vikings worked out Johnson on Tuesday. The 24-year-old was a 2018 second-round pick out of Auburn by the Lions, but his career didn't fully pan out in Detroit. He recorded 1,752 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns in three seasons, but his production decreased every year after a solid rookie campaign. Johnson was waived in May and has spent time with the Eagles and 49ers this season, most recently bouncing around for visits with RB-needy teams.

We'll see if the workout leads to a signing or if the Vikings were merely exploring their options.

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