Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Vikings Off-season Report: RB's

What Happened in 2005: Injuries, suspensions and inconsistency again forced the Vikings to use a backfield by committee. Mewelde Moore, Michael Bennett, Ciatrick Fason and Moe Williams combined for a total of 1467 rushing yards, 26th best in the NFL. That total was behind five running backs’ individual totals. Moore led the team with 662 yards, but traded playing time and nagging injuries with Bennett. The rookie Fason scored 4 goal line touchdowns, but was misused as a short yardage back.

Where they stand now: After an inconsistent career the free agent Bennett is not expected back, while Moe Williams will probably retire due to injuries. Onterrio Smith will rejoin the team after a year long drug suspension to compete with Moore and Fason for playing time. Smith is the closest thing to a feature back, but still not a cinch to start. The trouble is keeping all three is redundant. All are the same size, no one has true big play skills and susceptible to nagging injuries.

The Plan: Bennett and Williams will move on, and considering Smith’s repeated off-field problems, he might join them. The Vikings drafted a running back the last three years and that will continue again this year. With a decent pool of backs, it makes sense to use a first or second rounder on a potential feature back. Deangelo Williams, Lawrence Maroney or LenDale White should be available at 17. All three have a better chance to excel as a starter than the current lot. It still is valuable to keep good depth at such an injury prone position, especially with Moore’s receiving skills. Moore would fit into Moe Williams’ 3rd down role nicely, especially in the West Coast offense that requires RB’s to catch the ball.

Another need that gets overlooked is a short yardage back. This does not necessarily require a big, bruising back, but often is just a back that hits a hole quickly and can surge for the needed yardage. Leroy Hoard and Moe Williams weren’t big, but were effective due to their running style. Fason takes too long to hit a hole, and failed many more times than he succeeded. Whether this means Jimmy Kleinsasser is used as a fullback more, or a true goal line back is found, it is worth exploring. If they choose to draft someone, an interesting pick may be former Cretin and Notre Dame back Rashon Powers-Neal. He's listed as a fullback, but is truly a short yardage back.

The other way to address the need is a more expensive and short term solution, but is more of a sure thing. Ahman Green, Chester Taylor, DeShaun Foster, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, Shaun Alexander, Ron Dayne and Najeh Davenport all will be free agents. Obviously some will resign, but James and Alexander were on the trading block last year.

Outlook: Since Robert Smith retired the Vikings have one season (Bennett in 2002) with a 1,000 yard rusher. With the quarterback position unknown, a consistent and effective running game is even more critical. A better running back is a start, but the offense must do a better job establishing the run. The Vikings were fifth worst in total attempts, despite a decent 3.9 yards per carry. Regardless of how pass-happy a team is, a solid running game is still a prerequisite for the Super Bowl.