What traits should a running back have for Kevin O’Connell’s scheme?

The Minnesota Vikings face an interesting dilemma at running back in the off-season.

Dalvin Cook, the team’s starter, enters the offseason with a potential out in his contract. Should the Vikings choose to release or trade Cook, they would save $7.8 million toward the cap and incur a penalty of $6.2 million.

At 27 years old, Cook has been with the team since 2017 playing in 73 games for the Vikings. This season, he’s crossed the 1,000-yard threshold for the fourth straight season rushing for 1,173 yards.

Injuries continue to creep into the mind of people. Cook played a full season for the first time in his NFL career this season. Since 2018, Cook has missed 13 games to injury, including a combined nine games in 2018 and 2021.

More pressing is the uncertainty around backup running back Alexander Mattison.

Mattison is set to enter free agency with his contract expiring after the season. Although Mattison’s impact has been limited this season, there’s a chance that Mattison finds himself in a situation where he can inherit a favorable situation when it comes to touches.

As a result, the Vikings will likely be shopping for a running back. Knowing that it’s important to break down the position for Kevin O’Connell’s offense.

Even though a complimentary running back often goes unheralded, their roles have begun to increase in NFL offenses. Bell cow running backs are the mermaids of NFL offenses, often ceasing to exist in nothing more than storytelling.

That reality begs the question: What traits does a running back need in Kevin O’Connell’s offense?

That question isn’t always clear cut but knowing the scheme, here are some traits that help running backs in this system.

The Scheme

Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the case of Kevin O’Connell’s offense, he’s very much a product of his mentors. The Vikings’ scheme is similar to that of Los Angeles Rams offensive mastermind Sean McVay, with O’Connell spending two seasons under McVay.

Like the Rams, the Vikings build their run game in a zone scheme, primarily inside and outside zone runs and duo.

While it’s unfair to say that experience in a zone system is a requirement, familiarity would help ease the transition for any running back.

The good news is that zone running is becoming a popular scheme for offenses across the country. As a result, more running backs will enter the NFL Draft with some experience in running zone.

For those currently in the league, there are plenty of places to look, as multiple coaches originate from the Shanahan tree and run a lot of zone concepts. As a result, finding a complimentary back during the off-season shouldn’t be difficult.

A lot of the Vikings’ pass game is built upon a strong run game, too. O’Connell likes to use play action, especially boots to the opposite side of a run, to get receivers open in space. Unsurprisingly, the Vikings are better when they play action.

According to Sports Info Solutions, the Vikings have an EPA of 21.71 on 188 play-action attempts. When Minnesota run pass plays without play-action, their EPA drops to -29.00, or an EPA/play of -0.059.

Those drastic shifts paint a picture of Minnesota’s offense at its peak. Ideally, you run the ball effectively and build your passing game with a heavier emphasis on play action to get those box defenders to bite and react.

Although this is just one sequence, it helps illustrate where the Vikings find success.

Although Dalvin Cook’s run is fruitless, going for just a one-yard gain, the showing of run helps the offense on the next play.

On the next play, the Vikings dial up a play-action throw to the opposite side and Taron Johnson (Bills No. 7) bites toward the run fake. That bite from Johnson allows TJ Hockensen to enter the flat and get a sizeable gain.

Sometimes, it’s really that simple. Even if the run doesn’t work, the threat of run can get a defense moving towards it, opening plays on the backside.

Here are the traits that successful running backs have in the O’Connell offense.

Vision

Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

This one is a no-brainer given the nature of zone-running schemes. Unlike gap schemes, which can create holes with pulling linemen, the zone scheme relies more on the running backs.

Gap schemes are point-and-shoot offenses for the running back. They’re asked to just track behind the pulling lineman and take what the defense hands them. In zone schemes, the back reads the defenders and his blockers to find holes and attack. As a result, running backs who can effectively read the field before and after the snap thrive in these environments.

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell was said to “have the size and vision to bang around inside,” by NFL Network’s Lance Zierlein. With a scouting report like that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s averaged 4.9 yards per carry over his career.

The important part about this vision is that it can’t just be after the snap. An effective zone running back can read the field before the snap and understand the leverage he might have. Sometimes, that’s just a box count to understand the best place to run the football. Other times, it comes down to reading the placement of defensive linemen and predicting how they might attack.

Contact Balance

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Minnesota Vikings run game is frustrating.

Ultimately, there’s a reason the Vikings rank near the bottom in most rushing categories. It’s not because they don’t want to run the ball — I believe that Kevin O’Connell would love to have more consistency — but rather the team feels incomplete in the run game.

The Vikings have been a block away from finding some big-time plays in the running game but those missed blocks have seemingly continued to happen at some point.

Being your own blocker comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. In the case of Cook’s 81-yard touchdown run against Buffalo, it’s as simple as cutting in space.

As Justin Jefferson helps seal the edge, Cook gets a one-on-one matchup against a defensive back — a dream for the Vikings offense — and is able to make him miss. With nothing but green grass in front of him, it’s an easy touchdown for Cook and the offense.

Quickness

Ty Chandler
Ty Chandler

Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Minnesota Vikings drafted three offensive skill position players: RB Ty Chandler, WR Jalen Nailor, and TE Nick Muse.

For the sake of the experiment, let’s take a look at their respective Relative Athletic Scores.

WR Jalen Nailor

TE Nick Muse

RB Ty Chandler

Notice a trend?

If you can’t notice the trend, take a look at each of their 10-yard splits…

All of them were high for their respective positions.

On the defensive side, Lewis Cine had an elite 10-yard split for his position. Undrafted RB Bryant Koback also had a high 10-yard split of 1.55 and an elite composite speed grade.

Between the draft and some of their roster moves, it’s clear what general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah values out of his players.

Since the 10-yard split is measured on the first ten yards of a 40-yard dash attempt, the time is a good indicator for players who are quick. Although quick players aren’t some new NFL discovery – most teams have begun to value players who can work quickly in phone booths, this trait is beneficial in zone schemes.

For running backs, this time is an indicator of players who are able to get away from defenders or hit holes quickly.

Pass blocking

Every fan desires the next Christian McCaffrey in the receiving game.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. Having a running back that provides that extra sauce through the air makes a better team – it’s like the ranch of football. Here’s the thing about running backs in the receiving game, though – they don’t just need to be able to catch the ball to make an impact.

Pass blocking is just as big of a trait for running backs.

With the top-end talent that the Vikings have between Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson, a back who gets his hands dirty and block an edge rusher will provide just as much value.

This especially becomes useful on third downs. When teams try and send pressure and limit the time a quarterback has to deliver a throw. In a game where games are decided in a matter of seconds, the advantages that a strong run blocker brings are immense. Whether a chip at the line of scrimmage before releasing or remaining in the pocket, that impact can be the difference between a first down and a sack.

Alexander Mattison is particularly good at pass blocking. He’s strong enough to hold a strong base and remain rooted when linebackers with momentum try and run through him.

Although Kirk Cousins may have had a clean pocket on this throw, Mattison holding the block makes it no doubt. On timing routes, a clean pocket makes all the difference. Mattison holding the block gives Cousins one less thing to worry about as he delivers the throw to Adam Thielen for a first down.

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire