MINNEAPOLIS -- As Kirby Wilson tried to make the best of his first season with the Minnesota Vikings, wondering if he'd ever get the chance to work with Adrian Peterson again, a serendipitous blessing was quietly developing for the running backs coach.
Peterson had been the focal point of the Vikings' offense for almost all of his first seven seasons with the team, and his 15-game absence in 2014 left a gaping hole in the fabric of the offense. But the Vikings soldiered on anyway, fashioning the league's 14th-best running attack with a converted triple-option quarterback and a former special-teamer who had 47 career carries before 2014.
"You learn through practice, but you get better from playing," Wilson said. "It was, in a way, a small blessing in disguise for their careers. I think they were extremely grateful for that opportunity."
Now that Peterson has returned, he'll once again be the featured back in the Vikings' offense. But Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata are back, too, after combining for 1,108 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 277 carries last year.
It's probably the most running back depth the Vikings have had since Peterson's rookie year, when Chester Taylor posted 844 yards a year after running for 1,216. And Wilson believes the Vikings can use all of it.
"All those things will kind of shake themselves out through training camp and exhibition games," Wilson said. "The league is aware of [McKinnon]. They're going to have to account for him. That's a good thing for us, because when he's out there, we can still get high-quality production from the position."
McKinnon averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season in 11 games, before back surgery ended his year. But in that time, he showed both explosiveness and an ability to run inside.
"I've had a couple staff members mention that to me [that McKinnon looks faster than last season]," Wilson said. "I don't know if he is or isn't. But I know he does look good. He does look explosive. He's moving extremely well, and he looks healthy. It helps, too, when you know what you're doing, because you move with a lot more confidence."
McKinnon and Asiata also combined for 71 catches, and true to the form of offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme, the Vikings got their running backs involved in the passing game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings threw 115 passes to running backs in 2014. That was the most they'd thrown to the backs since 2010, when Brett Favre (who had a career habit of throwing to running backs) was finishing his time as the Vikings' QB.
The Vikings have talked about converting some of Peterson's carries to catches, and their desire to keep him fresh at age 30 will inevitably lead to opportunities for McKinnon and Asiata. That's an easier sell because the two backs proved themselves in Peterson's absence. And whether they're complementary parts or something more, the Vikings will have no shortage of options in the backfield.
"Now, we just have to blend everybody together," Wilson said. "They'll carve out their own niche in our system. Those are things that Coach Turner will figure out down the road, and come up with a great game plan. We'll make it work, whatever he decides to do. But I know one thing: [Peterson] makes everybody on our football team better."