Vikings give their backfield to Mattison, seeking efficiency on the ground and against the cap

Published 8:40 am Wednesday, August 2, 2023

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EAGAN, Minn. — The market devaluation of running backs across the NFL moved this summer from a trend to a bitter clash between the best players at this punishing position and the clubs unwilling to commit to them.

The Minnesota Vikings recently stepped out of the contract conflict zone by releasing Dalvin Cook, his four consecutive Pro Bowls cast aside for salary cap savings.

Alexander Mattison harbors none of the hard feelings that have become so prevalent across the league among his more accomplished peers.

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Being back with the Minnesota Vikings after briefly becoming a free agent, now promoted from reliable backup to unchallenged starter, has simply been “a blessing,” as the fifth-year player has often said this offseason.

“It’s my job now to go out there and prove their decision right,” said Mattison, who signed a two-year, $7 million deal in March. “I’m extremely honored that they trust and believe in me.”

The most recent time the Vikings played a season without a Pro Bowl running back on the roster was 2006, the year before they drafted Adrian Peterson seventh overall. After 10 seasons with the franchise’s career leading rusher, the Vikings added Latavius Murray as a bridge of sorts to Cook after he was selected in the second round in 2017.

Cook’s injuries limited him to a total of 15 games over his first two years, making Murray the de facto featured ball carrier until Mattison was drafted in the third round out of Boise State in 2019. Cook only missed eight games over the past four seasons, though, and didn’t miss any time in 2022. The sample size of Mattison’s work, thus, is still small.

“I think he’s proven it over his career that when he’s gotten opportunities, he’s been a very productive back,” offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. “He always knows what to do. He’s very intelligent as far as our scheme, our system, pass protection, and then he’s a talented back when he’s running. He’s always going forward. He’s got more wiggle than I think some people give him credit for.”

Mattison has been given 20-plus carries in five games over his career, once in 2020 and four times in 2021 when Cook was injured. The results were not insignificant: a total of 522 yards and two touchdowns on 114 rushes and 207 yards and two scores on 22 receptions.

Among running backs with 250 rushing yards or more last season, according to Sportradar data, Mattison ranked fifth in the NFL by converting a first down on 28.4% of his attempts.

Cook had three of his eight career gains of 50-plus yards from scrimmage in 2022, showing his explosiveness still exists, but he averaged a career-low 4.4 yards per rush as the Vikings struggled with their efficiency and consistency on the ground.

Though Mattison has only 10 rushes of 20-plus yards in his career, the Vikings are more concerned this year about avoiding those drive-killing tackles for loss in the backfield. Cook had 33 negative runs last season, one behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry for the second most in the NFL, per Sportradar data.

The Vikings also envision using Mattison more as a receiver than Cook last season. He caught 47 of 57 passes that went his way over the past two seasons, an 82.5% rate. Cook’s catch rate (73 of 105) over that period was 69.5%.

Mattison is also just 25, three years younger than Cook in a role that’s never been built to last, leaving the Vikings with another reason to believe they can rely on him to keep the ground game going in Minnesota while Cook looks for another team. He visited with the New York Jets over the weekend.

Better blocking by the interior offensive line would sure help, too. Center Garrett Bradbury was re-signed after the best season of his career, but incumbent guards Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram have no guarantees of staying in the starting lineup. Free agent Dalton Risner, a four-year starter for the Denver Broncos who was not re-signed, visited with the Vikings on Tuesday.

Unrelated to his promotion, Mattison said he’s aiming to provide more vocal leadership for the Vikings this season to stretch his quiet nature and accept his status. Coach Kevin O’Connell was impressed during a full-team drill when he turned to direct the substitutes far enough back from the line to make room for the play and saw Mattison already barking those orders.

Before practice on Tuesday — when Mattison appeared to suffer a minor injury and was limping afterward — he joined wide receiver Justin Jefferson in slapping hands with a local high school football team watching from the sideline and waving their arms to fire up the crowd in the stands next to the field.

“I’m going into year five now. I’ve been around the block a few times,” Mattison said. “The things that I’ve learned that have helped me throughout my process of not only the grind, but the studying, everything that comes with the game, if there’s anyone I feel like I can reach out to help my teammates, that’s a role I want to be in.”