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2021 Vikings Position Recap: Running Backs

Dalvin Cook had himself another 1,000-yard campaign in 2021.

The running back missed four games of his fifth pro season due to injury or COVID-19 protocols, but he made up for lost time in the 13 games he started.

Cook totaled 249 carries for 1,159 yards and six touchdowns. He also had 34 catches for 224 yards through the air, becoming the only player with 1,300-plus scrimmage yards in each season since 2019.

The 2017 second-round pick moved into fifth place all-time for career rushing yards by a Viking (4,820), surpassing Darrin Nelson (4,231), Dave Osborn (4,320) and Ted Brown (4,546) along the way. He remains in fifth place for career touchdowns by a Viking with 39, just one away from tying Brown. Only Adrian Peterson (97), Chuck Foreman (52), Bill Brown (52) and Ted Brown (40) are ahead of Cook in franchise history.

Cook notched his second career 200-yard game, but after ranking fifth in the league in rushing yards per game (142.7) last season, the Vikings fell to 17th in the league with 113.5 yards rushing per outing. Minnesota's rushing touchdowns also took a big drop, going from 20 in 2020 to 10 this past season, a fall from sixth in the rankings to 28th.

Individually, Cook ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards behind Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor (1,811), Cleveland's Nick Chubb (1,259), Cincinnati's Joe Mixon (1,205) and Pittsburgh's Najee Harris (1,200).

Cook's success was helped by Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, who blocked for the three-time Pro-Bowler. While the Minnesota native primarily played the role of bulldozer, Ham did add 159 yards from scrimmage in his fifth season on the 53-man roster.

Alexander Mattison backed up Cook for the third consecutive season. He recorded 134 carries for 491 yards and three touchdowns, all career-highs. He also added a career-high 32 catches for 228 yards and a score through the air.

The Vikings didn't ask much from running backs behind Mattison.

Ameer Abdullah bounced between the practice squad and active roster and had seven carries for 30 yards before being released by the team on Oct. 19. He signed with the Panthers five days later and finished out 2021 in Carolina.

Rookie Kene Nwangwu contributed mainly on special teams, where he emerged as a standout kickoff returner. He did get a handful of reps at running back, though, and finished the campaign with 13 rushes for 61 yards.

Notable Number

19.2 — Cook averaged 19.2 carries per game during the 2021 season, which was second most in his career behind an average of 22.3 in 2020.

View the best running back photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.

Memorable Moment

Welcome back, Dalvin.

Cook's top performance of the season occurred against the Steelers in Week 14.

The 26-year-old racked up 205 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, helping the Vikings defeat Pittsburgh 36-28 on Thursday Night Football.

Perhaps even more astonishing than the stat line itself, though, is that Cook accomplished the feat just 11 days after he was carted from the field in San Francisco with a shoulder injury.

Cook's 153 yards in the first half that night set a new Vikings record for first-half rushing yards, surpassing Adrian Peterson's 144.

"That's my guy," Cook said. "I watched A.P. before I got here, so I'm definitely just following behind his steps. Hearing all those, catching his records, that's big. A.P. is a legend in my eyes and a lot of people's eyes. I look at him as one of the greats, so to do that is big. I commend my o-line up front."

2021 Statistics

Dalvin Cook

249 carries for 1,159 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) with 6 touchdowns; 34 receptions for 224 yards; started all 13 game appearances and played 608 offensive snaps (53.3 percent)

Alexander Mattison

134 carries for 491 yards (3.7 yards per attempt) with 3 touchdowns; 32 receptions for 228 yards and 1 touchdown; started four of 16 game appearances and played 377 offensive snaps (33.0 percent)

Kene Nwangwu

13 carries for 61 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) with 0 touchdowns; 4 receptions for 9 yards; appeared in 11 games and played 29 snaps on offense (2.5 percent)

C.J. Ham

7 carries for 34 yards (4.9 yards per attempt) with 0 touchdowns; 17 receptions for 125 yards; started 8 of 17 game appearances and played 376 snaps on offense (33.0 percent)

Ameer Abdullah

7 carries for 30 yards (4.3 yards per attempt) with 0 touchdowns; 3 receptions for 17 yards; appeared in six games and played 49 offensive snaps (4.3 percent of team's total snaps for season)

Highest highs

1. The Vikings desperately needed a prime-time win against the Steelers, and 242 yards on the ground helped them get it done.

Minnesota got off to a hot start, at one point leading Pittsburgh 29-0, but allowed the AFC team to claw its way back into the contest. In another game that somehow came down to the final play, the Vikings prevailed.

Although Cook delivered the bulk of his damage in the first half, as mentioned above, the explosive running back's success kept the Steelers defense honest. Minnesota was able to mix up the run and pass game and hang on for the win.

The Vikings finished that game with 26 more rushing yards than passing.

2. Mattison racked up a career-high 113 rushing yards against the Lions in Week 5 to help Minnesota notch an NFC North victory.

With Cook sidelined with an ankle injury, the Vikings called on Mattison – and he answered the bell. The running back averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 25 rushes and kept the Lions on their toes. He also caught all seven balls thrown his way for 40 receiving yards and a touchdown.

The score occurred late in the second quarter, when quarterback Kirk Cousins connected with Mattison on a 15-yard touchdown that put the Vikings up 13-3. Mattison caught the ball at the 10, ran through one tackle, spun free from another defender and powered his way through a pile that gathered at the 2 with some assistance from Vikings offensive linemen.

Lowest lows

1. This one is a tough one to include, because a case can be made that Cook didn't fumble before he was down.

Minnesota's Week 1 game at Cincinnati went into overtime after the Vikings rallied from a 24-14 fourth-quarter deficit with a Cook touchdown and a 53-yard field goal by Greg Joseph. After the Bengals and Vikings exchanged unsuccessful series, Minnesota got the ball back for a second time and was driving toward a winning score.

On first-and-10 from the Bengals 38, Cook received the handoff and dropped the ball, though, after contact with Germaine Pratt. It appeared that Cook should have been ruled down, but officials called the play a fumble and recovery by Cincinnati.

Seven plays later, the Bengals kicked a 34-yard field goal for the win.

2. Minnesota held its destiny in its hands: In order to stay in playoff contention, the Vikings had to defeat the Packers on Sunday Night Football.

Things certainly didn't go as planned, however, and Green Bay routed Minnesota 37-10 at Lambeau Field.

The Vikings managed a pitiful 27 rushing yards on a frigid evening. It marked the lowest total on the ground since Week 3 of the 2018 campaign, when Minnesota totaled 14 rushing yards against Buffalo.

Pressing Questions for 2022

1. Will the Vikings maintain a run-heavy mentality on offense under new guidance?

Mike Zimmer never beat around the bush regarding his run-first mentality.

But in the wake of Vikings ownership relieving Zimmer of his duties and searching out a new head coach, it remains to be seen if that offensive philosophy will change at all for the 2022 season.

Cook signed a multi-year extension with Minnesota in September 2020, so it seems unlikely that any coach would move too far away from using the running back who's proven a threat against NFL defenses.

Still, though, things could change under new leadership, and it will be interesting to see if Cook receives the same number of carries he's been shouldered with the past few seasons. It's also worth noticing if Cook continues to be used as a pass catcher, lining up at a receiver spot occasionally, or if the Vikings can resurrect a screen game that saw success in 2020 but faltered significantly this past year.

2. Will Nwangwu see more offensive involvement?

As stated above, Mattison has been tasked with a similar workload in each of his three NFL seasons.

Nwangwu certainly brings a unique skill set to the running backs room, though, with a speed that stands out a bit from the bulkier backs in the position group. The rookie was able to show off his wheels as a kickoff returner in 2021, but will he be given the opportunity to do more on offense in Year 2?