Vikings position preview: Running backs


MINNEAPOLIS -- Between now and the Minnesota Vikings' first training camp practice July 25, we will break down each position group. Next up: the running backs.

Returning players: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Jerome Felton, Zach Line

Gone from last season: Toby Gerhart, coach James Saxon

New this season: Jerick McKinnon (third-round pick from Georgia Southern), Dominique Williams (undrafted free agent from Wagner)

Position coach: Kirby Wilson (first season), hired from Pittsburgh to replace Saxon (now the Pittsburgh Steelers' running backs coach).

Biggest issue: The Vikings plan to use their running backs differently this season, getting them more involved in the passing game than they've been in recent years. That plan has always been part of offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme, and it's designed to help Peterson avoid some contact at age 29. It should also give the 2012 NFL MVP more open-field chances, and McKinnon could be an intriguing weapon on offense, too. But a larger role in the passing game might also mean more protection responsibilities for the Vikings' running backs. That's never been the strongest part of Peterson's game, and McKinnon will have to learn it after spending his college career as a triple-option quarterback. Gerhart had a sizable role in pass protection as a third-down back, and he's gone to Jacksonville.

Player to watch: Peterson was effusive in his praise of McKinnon during the Vikings' minicamp, and if the rookie can pick up the nuances of the position in the NFL, he's got the physical traits to follow in the line of Turner dynamos like Darren Sproles and Brian Mitchell. He bench pressed 225 pounds 32 times at the NFL scouting combine and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds. McKinnon led all running backs in both categories, and his 40 1/2-inch vertical was the fifth-best of any player at the combine. He mostly ran between the tackles in college, and doesn't seem particularly shifty, but his open-field speed should give the Vikings good reason to get him involved in their offense.

Medical report: Peterson had groin surgery last winter, but was healthy for most of the Vikings' offseason program and said earlier this week his body feels good. Line, who was put on injured reserve with a knee injury after making the team as an undrafted free agent last season, is back and will try to fight for a roster spot.

Help wanted: With Peterson, McKinnon and Felton (a Pro Bowl fullback in 2012), the Vikings have good depth in their running back group. Barring injury, they shouldn't need to look for another option.

Quotable: "Everything that we’ve asked him to do, he’s done. Everything," coach Mike Zimmer said of Peterson. "Even one day, he came to me during one of the OTAs and said, ‘I’m going pretty hard the last couple days. I might need a little time off today.’ I said. 'Ok. Do me a favor, go out on the field, stretch and we’ll hold you back.' I went and told the running back coach after stretch to shut him down. So he went back to Kirby Wilson and said he was feeling pretty good and can he keep going. I said, 'Sure, let’s go.'

I think he likes competing. I think he likes being around the guys, and he is a good guy. I’ve had several conversations with him when I first got here, and I have the utmost respect for him."