The Minnesota Vikings enter the offseason with uncertainty at some positions, and running back is one of them.
Backup runner Alexander Mattison is in the final year of his rookie contract and is set to enter free agency in March, barring an extension from the Vikings. While he has been a backup his whole career, a team could give him starter money to take over their backfield, considering how well he replaced Dalvin Cook a few times.
The starter, meanwhile, played a bad season, not just for his standards. Cook’s advanced statistics were a disaster, and most fans were able to recognize his skills diminish. He didn’t look nearly as explosive as he did in the past when he was one of the top players at his position.
Releasing Cook would save roughly $8 million in cap space, a huge number for the cap-strapped Vikings. Running backs are generally easy to replace. Even in late rounds, the draft and free agency offer some good players to target.
Vikings Should Target This RB in Free Agency
D’Ernest Johnson, a running back for the Cleveland Browns in his first four career seasons, will be a free agent in a couple of months. He should get a long look from the Vikings. The runner went undrafted in the 2018 draft and could not find a team in his rookie season.
After spending most of the 2018 campaign fishing in Florida, Johnson played in the AAF in 2019 for the Orlando Apollos after starting as the fifth-string running back but did enough to make the Cleveland Browns offseason roster. Because of strong performances in training camp, the running back earned a spot on the 53-man roster.
He was stuck behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the depth chart, and his opportunities to show his talent were limited. However, both top rushers missed some games at the same time in 2021, and Johnson started a couple of games, rushing for 245 yards and a touchdown on 41 attempts in the two contests. He added 80 yards in the passing game. Johnson can also return kicks and punts, which adds to his value.
In his three career seasons in the NFL, Johnson rushed the ball 141 times for 738 yards and three touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 229 yards. He’ll turn 27 in February, but the limited number of hits will help him extend his career.
The running back ran an atrocious 4.81 40-yard dash, which didn’t help him in the pre-draft process and directly led to him ending up as an undrafted free agent. Despite no team wanting him in 2018, Johnson tried everything to keep his dream alive, messaging and calling all AAF teams for a tryout.
Former Vikings offensive coordinator and now Cleveland’s head coach Kevin Stefanski handed Johnson a game ball after his great performance in his first career start in the NFL, a game that resulted in a 17-14 win because of the running back and his 146 rushing yards.
D’Ernest Johnson to me is a warrior and a great teammate. What he has fought through in his career and then to go have a night like that and to end it how he did. … I thought it was just outstanding.
Johnson brings great toughness and elite versatility to the table. True powerbacks with to-notch pass-catching ability are rare. According to Spotrac, Johnson is projected to sign a two-year $5.3 million contract. He showed flashes of greatness when he was given the opportunity. The running back was stuck behind two excellent backs. Signing him could be a great value.
Johnson could be a part of a cheap running back committee with 2022 rookie Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu, who could serve as the speed rushers of the trio with their 4.3 speed. The Vikings could retool some other positions in free agency with the saved cap space. Adding another wide receiver, especially a speedy one, could be on the agenda to take pressure off Justin Jefferson.
In Kevin O’Connell’s first season, Minnesota’s offense was one of the teams with the lowest run-percentage in the league. They only ran on 34% of the plays, the fifth-lowest in the league. Employing an expensive running back doesn’t make much sense in that offense, especially someone who is aging and doesn’t look like his prime self anymore.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt