Will Vikings make big splash to improve running game?

The Vikings need talent. Their first path opens next week with NFL free agency, when players can begin agreeing to terms with new teams starting 11 a.m. CT on Monday. Those contracts cannot be officially signed until 3 p.m. CT on Wednesday, when the NFL's 2024 league year begins. This week we will focus on five position groups where the Vikings have the biggest needs.

Day 1: Interior defensive lineman

Running backs

Vikings coaches called it a "no-brainer" to make Alexander Mattison the lead running back last season, but that did not work out for Mattison or the Vikings. He was released on Monday after five seasons in Minnesota, including one as the lead back. Mattison became the first leading rusher in franchise history to not score a rushing touchdown (not including the strike-shortened 1982 season).

Coach Kevin O'Connell enters Year 3 of trying to get the running game on track, and he'll do so with a new leader in the backfield. The Vikings still have fullback C.J. Ham as the veteran leader of a young group of runners, in which Myles Gaskin and Ty Chandler are the only ones with noteworthy experience. Cam Akers is recovering from a second torn Achilles of his NFL career. He's a restricted free agent, but the lowest-level offer the Vikings can make is worth nearly $3 million (not guaranteed), meaning he is likely to be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday.

Current roster: FB C.J. Ham, RB Ty Chandler, RB Kene Nwangwu, RB DeWayne McBride, RB Myles Gaskin

Free agents: RB Alexander Mattison (released), RB Cam Akers (restricted)

Current salary cap invested: $7.3 million, 14th in NFL

Free agents to watch

RB Saquon Barkley (Giants): The top of the class, Barkley is only 27 years old and coming off back-to-back strong seasons in which he accumulated 2,892 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. That means he's likely looking to top the $14 million annual average of new money earned by Colts running back Jonathan Taylor during his October extension. Nobody has yet topped Christian McCaffery's $16 million average in new money that was signed in 2020.

RB Josh Jacobs (Raiders): Jacobs, 26, has been just as effective as Barkley. He had 1,100 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in 13 games with Las Vegas last fall, following up nicely from his 2,000-yard and 12-touchdown season from scrimmage in 2022. The former first-round pick runs through people, and would instantly improve the Vikings run game. He's four years younger than ex-Titans runner Derrick Henry, who is also available.

RB Austin Ekeler (Chargers): Ekeler, who turns 29 in May, was not the same tackle-breaking machine last season that he had been for years with the Chargers. The precipitous decline by aging running backs and the game's declining reliance on "workhorse" backs are why NFL front offices have been so resistant to shelling out big money to the position. But Ekeler might come at a bargain, especially if he can regain form for a late-career burst.

RB Tony Pollard (Cowboys): Pollard, who turns 27 in April, produced middling results with a career-high 307 touches last season in Dallas. Replacing Ezekiel Elliott in the lead role came with much fanfare, but Pollard didn't have the same long speed or elusiveness he showed in his first four NFL seasons. Pollard reportedly cited a January 2023 leg injury and recovery for his slow start. Inquiring teams will have to bet on which Pollard they'll get next season.

RB Devin Singletary (Texans): Singletary, 26, was an incredible bargain last season for Houston, where he replaced starting running back Dameon Pierce by midseason. Singletary often isn't the most athletic player on the field, but he's touted for incredibly efficient footwork and versatility in the run and pass games. The results speak for themselves: three consecutive 1,090-yard seasons from scrimmage for the Bills and Texans.

RB Ezekiel Elliott (Patriots): Elliott, who turns 29 in July, will get the dreaded "washed up" label. He has a lot of wear on his tires and ran for a career-low 3.5 yards per carry last season. But that was in New England, where the offensive line was in constant turmoil. He's still an efficient short-yardage runner and trusted pass protector who could be a veteran bargain and valuable committee piece. Last season, Elliott converted 27 of 36 (75%) runs when needing between 1 and 3 yards.