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3 Key Vikings Training Camp Questions: Cook's Still Cookin, Mattison's Involvement & RBs on Special Teams

There's no question about the Vikings starting running back entering the 2021 season.

Dalvin Cook stayed healthy and put up career numbers last year, racking up 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns on 312 carries. He also added 44 catches for 361 yards and a score through the air.

Minnesota also can feel confident about Alexander Mattison behind Cook and about its home-state fullback, C.J. Ham. The Vikings are returning veteran Ameer Abdullah and added fourth-round draft pick Kene Nwangwu and undrafted free agent A.J. Rose to the running backs group. Jake Bargas is also back at fullback behind Ham.

While not as many questions exist among the running back group as some other positions, there are a few topics to consider. And with U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp on the horizon, it's the perfect time to dive in and discuss.

We opened our position-by-position camp previews with a look at Vikings quarterbacks on Monday and receivers on Tuesday. Tight ends took the spotlight Wednesday, so running backs are up next.

Q: Will Cook carry a similar workload in 2021?

Cook's 312 carries in 2020 ranked second-most in the NFL, trailing only Derrick Henry (378) who started 16 games to Cook's 14.

It's undeniably a big workload to shoulder, but you'll never hear Cook complaining. In fact, he'd likely take the ball every single offensive snap if given the opportunity. He spoke with Twin Cities media members during the Vikings Organized Team Activities and assured that he's recuperated from last season and is raring to go.

"I'm feeling good. I've been busting my tail all offseason, trying to get ready," Cook said. "For me it's all about staying patient. I want to play football right now. That's how my body feels. I feel good. I've been lifting pretty good."

Also worth noting is that the NFL implemented a 17th regular-season game for the first time, which could add room for more attempts by Cook. Will he reach 2,000 yards this season?

View the best photos of Vikings RB Dalvin Cook from the 2020 season.

"I won't say it's going to be easy, but it's up in the air to get [2,000 yards] but that extra game is valuable. … It's hitting the weight room a little bit harder," Cook said. "It's doing the little things a little more. It's a longer season. I know they cut the preseason short, but it's a longer season for everybody so you have to do things a little smarter, you've gotta train a little harder.

"I think that's going to be the key: Who takes care of their body the best," Cook added. "I've been setting myself up pretty good and putting good people around me to take care of my body."

You can bet that Vikings coaches will be monitoring, as well.

"Honestly, he's got an unbelievable [running backs] coach, Kennedy Polamalu, who's always tracking those things. Our strength staff (is) monitoring their workload in practice every day with the GPS tracker, so we're aware of his touches," Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak said. "We're going to manage them, but you also want to get him plenty of work because like all players they need repetition to improve. So we'll definitely monitor them and make sure come the season that he's hitting his stride then as opposed to right now during OTAs."

Q: How will the Vikings work Mattison into the mix?

Speaking of workload, the Vikings have the option of spreading the ball around to other backs behind Cook, including Mattison, who is entering his third NFL season after being drafted out of Boise State in 2019.

Mattison last season played 13 games, making his first two career starts, and totaled 96 carries for 434 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he recorded 13 catches for 125 yards and a receiving touchdown.

The Vikings used Mattison on 197 offensive snaps (19 percent) as a rookie and 229 offensive snaps (21 percent) in 2020. Will they work him into the mix a little more in Year 3?

Although the offense has been passed from Gary Kubiak to one of his sons, it seems likely that Minnesota will continue its preference of running the football.

Klint Kubiak was asked this spring if the explosion of receiver Justin Jefferson will result in a heavier rotation of passing plays. He responded with the following:

"We have to do the best to utilize the talents of everybody. Dalvin's success opens up holes for Justin and Adam [Thielen], and the offensive line blocking their tail off helps us out in the play-pass game and in drop-back situations on third down. It's a team effort, but you get to see the talents of each individual player when [his] partner has success because you can't defend them all."

It definitely seems like the run game isn't going anywhere, which could mean an uptick for activity for Mattison.

Playing with a comfortable lead wasn't a reality for the 2020 Vikings, but if Minnesota can play better complimentary football early in games and build a lead, it also could lead to more opportunities to run the football late in games.

View the best photos of Vikings RB Alexander Mattison from the 2020 season.

Q: What role will RBs play in Minnesota's special teams?

It seems likely that Cook and Mattison will handle the bulk of the Vikings carries on offense.

That doesn't mean there won't be exceptions, though. Just ask Abdullah, who scored two touchdowns last season against his former Lions team. And it's also important to remember that Minnesota likely will utilize running backs on special teams.

It remains to be seen who will man the kick-returner role, which has primarily been held by Abdullah since the 2018 campaign. Abdullah could certainly return to the position, but other options include Nwangwu and rookie receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

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A former Iowa State standout, Nwangwu ranked third in the Big 12 and seventh nationally with an average at 28.9 yards per kickoff return. He recorded five returns of 30-plus yards, including two of 65 yards or longer. His 2,470 career kickoff yards is the most in school history and third all-time in Big 12 history.

"There's so many parts to being a kick returner, just even securing the kick and rolling into it – that's something I can keep working on from college to the NFL level," Nwangwu said. "But whenever the time comes, whenever we get to take full-speed reps, treating it like a game rep is how I get better."

Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber recently emphasized the value of running backs for a special teams unit – whether carrying the ball or making tackles.

"You look at the last couple of years, and who are some of our best cover guys? It's [former Viking] Mike Boone. It's C.J. Ham. It's running backs that can go down and … they know how to navigate running through the traffic and making tackles in the punt game and the kickoff game," Leber explained. "Some of our best tackling guys on special teams are our running backs.

"A guy like Nwangwu, I wouldn't look at him as just a return guy. I think that he can be a gunner, he can play on punt team, he can probably go down and make some tackles."

Fans could likely see Rose also getting work at special teams under new Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken, who is eager to work with young players in whatever way he can.

"There's a lot of things we want to go ahead and accomplish obviously, things that we want to improve on and build on from previous years, but it's exciting to go ahead and be in front of a group of guys, and when we had the rookie camp … I had some juice flowing a little bit," Ficken said.

Fans have the opportunity to see the 2021 Vikings in person at U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp later this month when practices at TCO Performance Center will be open to the public. Click here for ticket info about team practices, two joint sessions with the Denver Broncos and a first-of-its kind scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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