Livescore Thursday, April 25

The Vikings are making a major change to their backfield. Dalvin Cook, who has been the team’s top running back since being selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, has been released. 

Cook and the Vikings had been heading toward a split for a long time. Rumors of a potential exit from Minnesota began in the early stages of the NFL offseason and carried on through the 2023 NFL Draft.

But with June 1 in the rearview mirror and the Vikings owing Cook just $2 million after releasing him, the team decided it was time to move on.

Alexander Mattison is expected to be the Vikings’ top option at running back, but what does the team have aside from him at the position? Here’s what to know about Minnesota’s running back room as Cook exits from it.

MORE: Dolphins, Vikings reportedly were working on a Dalvin Cook trade

Vikings RB depth chart

1. Alexander Mattison

There’s little doubt that Mattison is going to be the Vikings’ lead back with Cook out of the equation. Minnesota extended the 24-year-old — who was a third-round pick by the team during the 2019 NFL Draft — during the offseason on a two-year, $7 million extension.

That isn’t the only way that the team has expressed confidence in Mattison. Coach Kevin O’Connell also spoke about Mattison’s ability to be a workhorse back on eve of Cook’s release.

“It’s been really good to see Alex Mattison take a few more reps [this offseason] and really show that all three-down kinda ownership that he’s been capable of for a long time,” O’Connell told reporters at the end of May.

Indeed, Mattison has shown that over the years as Minnesota’s primary backup behind Cook. He has made six starts in place of the veteran and has 79.5 rushing yards in those contests while recording three touchdowns on the ground. And for his career, Mattison has run for 1,670 yards and 11 touchdowns on 404 carries. That’s good for a respectable 4.1 yards per carry average.

Some may scoff at the notion that Mattison can effectively replace Cook with an increased workload, but it looks like the Vikings are going to give him a chance to handle a bulk of the carries in 2023. That could make him one of the league’s most productive backs, especially if teams expend more energy attempting to guard Justin Jefferson and first-round pick Jordan Addison at receiver than they do preparing for Mattison.

2. Ty Chandler

The backup job behind Mattison will likely be settled by a training camp and preseason competition. That said, Chandler would hold the upper hand in that battle as he enters his second season with the Vikings.

Chandler was a fifth-round pick in 2022 NFL Draft out of UNC and played sparingly for the Vikings as a rookie. He logged just 12 offensive snaps and racked up 20 rushing yards on six carries across three games.

Even so, Chandler’s 3.3 yards per carry average — while not impressive — is better than the 1.6 figure Kene Nwangwu sported last season. Add in the fact that Chandler has a year of experience under his belt, unlike 2023 draft pick DeWayne McBride, and he would seemingly be ahead in the race for the No. 2 job.

That’s not to say that Chandler is guaranteed to back up Mattison, who he is actually a year older than at age 25. But don’t be surprised to see the 6-0, 210-pound back get the first chance to lock down that role.

MORE: Recapping the Vikings’ 2023 draft class

3. DeWayne McBride

McBride probably has the best chance to unseat Chandler from the backup job. The 2023 seventh-round pick was a star at UAB and ran for 1,713 yards and 19 touchdowns in his final year with the Blazers on 233 carries. This came after his 204-carry, 1,371-yard, 13-touchdown season in 2021.

McBride, 21, is 5-10, 209 pounds and sports good athletic traits as well. His biggest issue is that he has next to no experience as a receiver, having logged just five receptions over his three years at UAB. T

hat will make it hard for McBride to state his case as a three-down backup. That’s part of what gives Chandler — who had 73 catches for 681 yards and four touchdowns during his five-year college career — the upper hand in this backup battle.

4. Kene Nwangwu

Some will be confused as to why Nwangwu is the lowest-ranked back on Minnesota’s depth chart. That’s a fair question, as the 2021 fourth-round pick is one of the most explosive return men in the NFL and has a higher draft status than both Chandler and McBride.

That said, there is a reason for this: Nwangwu averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in 2022. Granted, that was on just nine totes, but that’s still not a very good number. And his 3.4 career yards per carry average is just about on par with Chandler’s despite Nwangwu having a larger sample size.

Nwangwu is a shifty playmaker who can find success in space, so the Vikings may have their eye on developing him as a receiving back. That said, he has just six catches for 30 yards at the NFL level to date and only had seven catches for 57 yards in four years at Iowa State.

With that said, Nwangwu seems more likely to remain a primary weapon in the return game as opposed to an impact player on offense. But still, the 25-year-old will be a part of the competition and could make some noise if he can better find space between the tackles with his 6-1, 210-pound frame.

MORE: Kirk Cousins understands Vikings looking at QBs in draft, lack of contract extension

Best NFL RB free agents

The Vikings’ running back depth chart is looking pretty full even after Cook’s release, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see the team pursue a veteran depth option. After all, Chandler, Green and Nwangwu have a combined 31 NFL carries to their names and no member of the running back room is older than 25.

So, who are among the top free agents the Vikings could sign to provide depth behind Mattison? Here’s a breakdown of the NFL’s most notable and available running backs.

Kareem Hunt

It’s a bit surprising that Hunt, 27, remains available at this stage in the NFL offseason. The former Browns running back played second-fiddle to Nick Chubb in Cleveland but was still a productive, three-down option for the team.

Hunt struggled a bit last season, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. However, he had averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 221 touches, 1,152 scrimmage yards and 10 total touchdowns per 17 games played with the Browns before that. As such, there was hope that he could emerge as a solid starter wherever he landed next.

Hunt may still be unsigned because he is hoping such a scenario presents itself. That wouldn’t make Minnesota a great fit for him. But if he is willing to play second fiddle to another top back, the Vikings could try to get him as an upgrade over Chandler in the No. 2 role. And in truth, he’d be more of a 1B to Mattison’s 1A.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott may be a big name, but there’s a reason that the Cowboys were comfortable moving on from him and keeping Tony Pollard.

Elliott no longer has the burst he once had. He has become reliant more on his power than anything else, as he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season but racked up 12 touchdowns as an effective goal-line runner. He could certainly fill that type of role behind Mattison, and his backfield experience and pass-catching skills would be a welcome addition to the Minnesota squad.

The Vikings wouldn’t want to pay much for Elliott to serve as a power-back specialist, but they could at least kick the tires on him. But if they signed him, they’d have to hope he would work out better than their acquisition of Herschel Walker.

MORE: Breaking down the Za’Darius Smith trade between the Vikings and Browns

Leonard Fournette

Fournette is another veteran back who appears to be in the latter stages of his career. The 28-year-old averaged only 3.5 yards per carry for the Buccaneers last season and hasn’t run for more than 1,000 yards since 2019.

Still, Fournette has posted at least 69 catches in each of the last three seasons, so he has the skill set needed to provide pass-catching depth behind Mattison. So, if the trio of Chandler, McBride and Nwangwu fall flat in that regard, the Vikings could chase him as a better-rounded backup behind Mattison. But that remains a big if.

Kenyan Drake

Many questioned whether Drake had anything left in the tank when the Ravens scooped him up before last season. But he does. He racked up 482 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 4.4 yards per carry in a part-time role with the Ravens.

Could Drake fare similarly well with another purple team? The 29-year-old has the pass-catching skills needed to fit the three-down backup role if necessary, as he has 216 receptions over his seven-year career. So, he might not be the sexiest option, but teams could do worse than him as an emergency depth signing.

J.D. McKissic

If the Vikings just want to add a pure pass-catching back to the mix, McKissic could fit. He spent the last three seasons in Washington and averaged 73 catches, 563 yards and two touchdowns per 17 games played with the Commanders.

McKissic would be a good third-down back for the team but wouldn’t handle the full workload if Mattison were to go down. That could make him an ideal depth candidate, as he wouldn’t block Chandler, McBride or Nwangwu from earning the No. 2 back role.

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