Depth is critical to sustained success in the NFL, especially with the expanded 17-game season in 2021. Teams with better depth can survive injuries that would otherwise be deemed critical, assuming they’re of the short-term variety. And that’s exactly what we’ll see play out over the next couple of weeks in Minnesota as the Vikings plug running back Alexander Mattison into the starting role while superstar Dalvin Cook recovers from his shoulder injury.
Cook is expected to miss at least a couple of weeks, which will be plenty of time for Mattison to prove once again that he’s one of the top backup running backs in the NFL. In fact, with unrestricted free agency coming for Mattison at the conclusion of the 2022 season, these next few games will be, in a way, his audition for a big paycheck and future starting job all to himself.
Mattison’s been in this role before, and he’s thrived. He started in relief of Cook in Week 5 this season when he shouldered 25 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown and caught seven passes for 40 yards and another score against the Detroit Lions. In Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks, once again in relief of an injured Cook, Mattison had a total of 32 touches: 26 carries for 112 yards and six catches for 59 yards. That’s 51 carries for 225 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and 13 catches for 99 yards and a score through the air. That kind of production, spread over 17 games, is equal to 1,913 rushing yards and 842 receiving yards. Obviously, elite.
Now, before we go crowning Mattison as a potential 2,000-yard rusher, plenty of running backs can look great for a two-game sample size. I’m not suggesting Mattison is the kind of player who can maintain Christian McCaffrey-type production over the course of a full season. Heck, even McCaffrey can’t do that anymore. But what Mattison has proven is that he’s a starting-quality NFL running back who can keep the Vikings’ playoff hopes alive while Cook gets healthy.
Here’s the crazy part about Mattison: He’s only 23 years old. It feels like he’s been in the league for quite some time, and he sort of has. Next year will be his fourth season in the NFL and he’ll hit free agency before he turns 25. He’ll be a hot commodity for teams searching for a running back who can do a little bit of everything at a high level.
Is it fair to expect Mattison to replace all of Cook’s production? No; few running backs can do what Cook has proven capable of during his career. But Mattison’s track record of success extends beyond his two big outings this season. In the two games that he received at least 20 carries last year, he ran for 112 and 95 yards. He hit paydirt twice in those games, too, with one touchdown coming in the passing game. Simply put, Mattison delivers when his number is called.
What helps Mattison’s outlook in this upcoming stretch of starts are the opponents the Vikings will face. In Week 13, Minnesota draws the Detroit Lions. In Week 14, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams boast defenses that rank in the bottom five against the run. So, yeah, expect at least 20 carries and a bunch of yards in each game for Mattison, assuming the Vikings keep the score close (which they should).
Unfortunately for Mattison, his stint as the Vikings’ starter will end as soon as Cook is cleared to play. But his time as a legitimate starting running back in the NFL will come very soon. And when it does, he’ll be one of the more productive players at the position.