Vikings rookies show promise in bid to replace Jerick McKinnon

Rookie Roc Thomas had one of the top performances in the Minnesota Vikings’ first preseason game in Denver, stealing the spotlight with a pair of receiving touchdowns, including one that came on a screen pass that he took 78 yards to the house. Thomas finished with 131 yards from scrimmage and made an impression with his big-play ability.

Mike Boone had his chance Saturday against Jacksonville to shine and potentially even the competition between the two rookie rushers. Boone’s 13 carries for 91 yards and 1 touchdown was the lone bright spot on a lackluster day for the offense. He accounted for two of the Vikings' longest runs and showed improvement in pass protection, impressing quarterback Kirk Cousins with a fourth-down blitz pickup on their final drive.

"Anytime you put this many good things on tape in preseason games, it's not really a question of if he'll be in the league it's just a matter of where," Cousins said. "And we've had some really good running back play from several guys who are competing for those spots."

Minnesota’s search for its No. 3 running back -- the replacement for what Jerick McKinnon contributed as a change-of-pace back in 2017 -- is beginning to take shape. The early performances by Boone and Thomas provide the Vikings with several options for rounding out the depth chart behind Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. A difficult decision likely looms during roster cuts.

McKinnon, who signed with the 49ers in free agency, had career highs in rushing yards (570), receiving yards (421) and receptions (51) last season. What he added to the offense in Cook’s absence helped lead Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game. Cook’s return will certainly fill any void created by the departure, but the Vikings are prioritizing finding their next McKinnon.

Minnesota brought in both rookies as undrafted free agents this spring, allotting $23,000 in total guarantees for Thomas and another $7,500 for Boone.

The numbers from Boone’s pro day drew intrigue from Vikings scouts. The former Cincinnati product's 42-inch vertical and 11-foot, 7-inch broad jump would have ranked No. 1 among running backs at the combine. Boone rushed 420 times for 2,250 yards and 24 touchdowns in college, adding 65 catches for 596 yards and a score.

After two years at Auburn, Thomas transferred to Jacksonville State in search of a lead role. He found that was possible as a Gamecock, rushing for 1,065 yards on 178 carries and 13 touchdowns in 12 games last season. Thomas ran for more than 100 yards in five games and caught 21 passes for 244 yards.

Boone (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) and Thomas (5-foot-11, 198 pounds) share similar physical traits with McKinnon (5-foot-9, 205 pounds), who provided a spark on the rushing and receiving end.

The rookies have been used in a multitude of places, including the slot and lined up on the outside. Boone was rated a two-star receiver coming out of high school before morphing into a versatile scat back for the Bearcats. His skill set was on display Saturday, when he added four receptions, including a 16-yard gain.

Boone and Thomas have been praised for their athleticism and how they can rip off explosive plays. But they’ve also been knocked for the same thing: field vision. Boone averaged 6.8 yards per carry during his first two seasons at Cincinnati, but his production slipped to 4.0 yards per rush from 2016-17.

The critiques on Thomas were similar. One draft profile read:

Thomas is a change of pace back with plus athletic ability and agility, who can be too eager to turn every run into a big play. He will need to run with better patience and discipline to keep running back coaches from staying in his face. Thomas is able to create yardage through burst, elusiveness and yards after contact, but he lacks consistency from run to run.

The preseason has provided Thomas with time to develop better field vision and timing to let plays develop.

"At the beginning of camp, I wasn’t patient at all," said Thomas, who had 25 yards on five carries against the Jaguars. "I was running up [the offensive line's] backs and wasn’t letting the blocks get developed and that type of stuff. Coach kind of talked to me and the players kind of talked to me, told me to kind of slow down, gather my steps and stuff like that. Being patient worked out a lot better for me."

It appears the same is happening for Boone, who went from averaging 1.8 yards per carry in Denver to 7.0 yards per rush against Jacksonville. More impressive were the 6.0 yards per rush that came after making contact, according to Pro Football Focus.

The running back depth chart has been all over the place after Cook and Murray. Mack Brown appeared to have an early lead for the No. 3 job before an injury in Denver set him back. Boone and Thomas have rotated reps behind the two lead rushers in practice, splitting the workload and the spotlight just as each did, respectively, in the first two games.

"We come here to compete and make plays," Boone said. "That’s the goal every game. Not just because Roc did good last week or something like that. I’m trying to come every game and put my best foot forward."

So what are the Vikings looking for from the No. 3 spot? It’s not necessarily dependent upon who can provide Minnesota with something entirely different from Cook and Murray. It’s more likely how that player can complement the guys ahead of him and how his skillset can accentuate various elements of the offense.

"Can they catch the ball? Can they block protections? What kind of runner are they?" coach Mike Zimmer said. "Then we try to fit it where it’s best with us. It’s nice having a change-of-pace back like you say or a 1 and 1A and a change of pace or third-down back. It’s really about who the best guys are and how we can utilize them."