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2023 Vikings Position Recap: Running Backs

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings transitioned their running backs room in 2023, but the group struggled to establish and sustain consistent production within games and from week to week.

Alexander Mattison entered his fifth Vikings season ready to replace Dalvin Cook as the starter. Mattison posted a career-high 700 rushing yards but didn't score a rushing touchdown. He did add three scores through the air as part of his 30 receptions, but he also lost three fumbles after fumbling just twice through his first four seasons (474 touches in 59 games).

Second-year pro Ty Chandler flashed multiple times from the backfield (and on successful fake punts against the Chiefs and Broncos). His role on offense seemed reduced early in the season when he was filling in at kickoff returner while Kene Nwangwu was injured. Once Nwangwu returned to the lineup, Chandler factored more in the offensive game plan.

Veteran Cam Akers was acquired from the Rams through an in-season trade and brought a spark to the group before suffering an Achilles injury in Week 9.

Nwangwu played sparingly on offense (and special teams).

Minnesota implemented fullback C.J. Ham in a variety of ways, but one of his most common was as a third-down back to help with pass protection.

View the best photos of Vikings RB Alexander Mattison, Cam Akers, Ty Chandler, Kene Nwangwu, and FB C.J. Ham during the 2023 season.

Notable Numbers

Minus-21.3 — The Vikings rushed for 91.4 yards per game, which was 21.3 below the NFL average of 112.7 per game. Minnesota averaged 3.95 yards per carry, which was below the league average of 4.2.

9 — number of games in which the Vikings earned four or fewer first downs by rushing; Minnesota was 3-6 in those contests.

The Vikings were 2-5 in games with three or fewer first downs by rushing and 0-4 when they recorded two or fewer first downs by rushing.

Minnesota finished the season with 79 first downs by rushing, compared to 104 for opponents.

14 — rushes by Mattison during which he reached at least 15 miles per hour (including one that exceeded 20 mph)

Chandler recorded 11 runs on which he reached at least 15 miles per hour, according to Next Gen Stats.

Regular-Season Statistics


The Highest High

With Mattison inactive because of injury, Chandler showed up big in his first career start, rushing 23 times for 132 yards (5.7 per carry) in Week 15 at Cincinnati.

His day included a 1-yard rushing touchdown for a 7-3 lead with 2:23 remaining in the first quarter, a 24-yard scurry on first-and-10 from the Minnesota 8-yard line to open the third quarter and breaking free for 30 yards to set up a 1-yard pass from Nick Mullens to Jordan Addison for a 24-17 lead with 3:48 remaining.

From that game through the final three weeks of the season, Chandler totaled 258 yards and two touchdowns on 53 rushes.

The Lowest Low

The Vikings entered Week 16 with a chance to win the division or control their own playoff destiny, but the gains in the ground game from the previous week did not continue against Detroit.

Minnesota rushed for just 17 yards on 11 carries, a paltry average of 1.5 per attempt that includes one rush for 1 yard by Mullens.

Chandler was limited to 17 yards with a long of 6 on eight rushes, and Mattison netted minus-1 yard on two carries.

Ten of the yards were gained on Chandler's first four carries, which included a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 2:51 remaining in the first quarter. He followed with the gain of 6 to open Minnesota's next possession, but a sack on the next play put Minnesota in third-and-15. The Vikings picked up 13 and opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Detroit 40-yard line, but Mullens was intercepted.

2 Pressing Questions for 2024

  1. What does the rotation look like and who leads it?

The Vikings shifted from a primary running back with Cook for the past several seasons to a rotation.

Mattison was up first to start the season after a solid training camp, but the run game didn't seem to hit its stride consistently. Akers added some juice to the group in the middle of the season but is now recovering from the second Achilles injury of his four-season career.

Chandler hit multiple nice runs and showed good hands out of the backfield with 21 receptions on 25 targets. He also did not fumble on any of his 123 touches. At times, however, he was still growing as a pass protector.

Mattison and Chandler remain under contract. Akers is a pending free agent in 2024. Nwangwu also is under contract. Minnesota signed running backs DeWayne McBride and Myles Gaskin to futures contracts after the season ended. Will either of them compete for snaps, or will the Vikings bring in another back through free agency, the draft or as an undrafted rookie?

After that, will it be Chandler, Mattison or another player opening games?

  1. Can the team establish a rushing identity?

The Vikings last offseason added tight end Josh Oliver to bolster their run blocking at the line of scrimmage and try to prevent negative runs that throw the team off schedule.

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said he observed "some improvement" at the line of scrimmage, even though the team rotated through combinations of offensive linemen.

"Then there were other games where we didn't have the effectiveness that we want, and that's where we've got to continue to look at that, both personnel-based and also scheme-based. What do we want to hang our hat on? That's what the run game is all about," O'Connell said at his end-of-season press conference. "The difference between running for 3.95 a carry and 4.25 a carry could be the difference between a lot more manageable downs, and it seems like such a small number but that's really the difference between being in the upper half or bottom half of the league, running the football per carry and the more times you can have effectiveness, efficiency, the more opportunities you're going to get, more time of possession, more ball control, our defense is resting up on the sideline.

"All of those things are things I constantly think about and just the different avenues of making sure we get that to a place where we completely have the well-rounded offense we want to have consistently in the top tier of this league," O'Connell added.