MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings running backs are already feeling the benefit from a pivot to a more balanced attack in the Gary Kubiak-Kevin Stefanski offense through two preseason wins.
A group of versatile halfbacks and two fullbacks more involved in the passing game are creating an intriguing race to determine what the depth chart looks like behind Dalvin Cook. With the third-year back held out of his second straight preseason game, the younger backs had a chance to make the most of their live reps.
Among the standouts of that group is former undrafted free agent Mike Boone, an unrefined talent whose big, open-field runs against the Saints and Seahawks are helping him make a push to become Minnesota’s No. 3 running back.
Prior to the Vikings’ second preseason game, Ameer Abdullah was penciled into that role with his play as the No. 1 kickoff returner, which helps boost his overall value. But his chances of making the 53-man roster have become uncertain with the emergence of Boone and after Abdullah was sidelined on Sunday with an apparent injury coming off a fumble in the preseason opener.
Boone rushed for a team-high 66 yards on 21 carries behind the Vikings' second- and third-team offensive lines. Boone broke free on a 45-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter that set up the Vikings for a touchdown inside the 6-yard line three plays later.
“He's an explosive kid, runs hard,” Zimmer said. “He’s got juice to get to the perimeter. He did well last week, as well. That's a good thing for him.”
Boone lined up in the slot at times against Seattle, showing he can do more than just run the ball. Stefanski has made a concerted effort to utilize his backs in the passing game so there’s little drop-off when Cook exits the game.
“Just show some versatility, show you can line up wide and catch the ball, or even block for the receivers out wide, and adding another dynamic to what I try to do,” Boone said.
With 12 days until Minnesota finalizes its roster, Boone is making his case behind a handful of explosive runs to earn the No. 3 role. His contributions on offense could lead him past Abdullah on the depth chart, particularly if the Vikings believe they have other options with their returners on special teams.
Boone could also help cement a spot on the roster by thriving in the screen game, a primary focus for the Vikings in camp after they ranked in the bottom third on running back screens last season (118 of 299 yards gained on screen passes went to RBs).
But it didn’t pan out the way the offense hoped against Seattle. In the first quarter, a promising drive by the first-team offense soured quickly after Kirk Cousins threw a high incompletion on a screen to rookie Alexander Mattison. The pressure Cousins felt from a Seattle blitz prevented what could have been a big gain.
“We spend about 10 minutes every pre-practice, all we do is screens,” Cousins said. “There's been an emphasis now for about four weeks just pre-practice every day, going over every single screen we have. It's an important piece. We want to be better at that this year. You get what you emphasize. We got to emphasize it. It starts with practice. But would have been really nice to hit that one. We didn't hit it. That was frustrating.”
Mattison, a third-round pick who is the backup behind Cook, totaled 41 yards on 10 carries, a figure aided by a 22-yard cutback run.
The questions remain for the Vikings over the next two weeks: Will they keep three halfbacks plus CJ Ham? What if they keep all four running backs and add a fullback to the mix? There are many options for a team placing more of an emphasis on the ground game.
Mattison provides the run game with a physical presence as a big-bodied back. Boone’s skillset, which seems to mirror Cook's, is allowing him to show why he should earn a spot on the 53.