Published November 20, 2014
When Chester Taylor left Minnesota as a free agent, the natural assumption was that rookie Toby Gerhart would slide into Taylor's old spot as Adrian Peterson's backup and the primary running back in passing situations.
If that was the team's intent, the memo missed Albert Young.
The third-year player out of Iowa who spent his rookie season on the practice squad took a majority of the turns with the first team while Peterson rested a tight left hamstring and is listed ahead of Gerhart on the depth chart.
"I'm just putting in my bid to take that role," Young said, referring to the sure-handed, solid-blocking, slithery Taylor's departure. "There's a whole group of guys who feel the same way."
Gerhart doesn't have the same skill set as Taylor, which is one reason why he's not automatically slotted as the third-down back. The other is that the second-round draft pick has a lot of work to do to fully grasp the professional game and the Vikings system. This is further evidence of the complexity of the NFL, particularly at certain skill positions such as Gerhart's.
"I think the blitzes are a little more complicated," Gerhart said. "People are moving around a little more."
Plus, nearly every play the Vikings call in the huddle can be changed at the line of scrimmage depending on the defensive alignment. That essentially doubles the amount of assignments Gerhart must remember, and his time with the team in the offseason was limited because Stanford's calendar saves graduation for mid-June.
The coaching staff has been pleased by Gerhart's attitude and effort during training camp so far, but he has a long way to go in terms of picking up blitzes, reading defenses and becoming a complete player.
"The last thing you want to do is throw a high draft pick in and assume he can take on the challenge of being the third-down back," running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said. "Now is there a specific role for Toby? He's going to define that role. But you never want to throw a guy that hasn't had that experience yet out there. Will he learn? Yes he will."
During the first couple of days, Gerhart took his share of hard hits — a few of them knocking him flat on the grass. Coach Brad Childress remarked that Gerhart was learning a lot about the pace of the pro game.
"I have never gotten the impression that anything was too big for him. I think he has been good with his pass protection," Childress said Tuesday. "I have seen him make people miss. I have seen him bang through some stuff that people are going to struggle to get him on the ground with. Obviously he's being initiated by our defense ... but that is just kind of a rite of passage. It's nothing extreme."
Ryan Moats and Darius Reynaud are also candidates for playing time behind Peterson, with practice-squad holdover and special-teamer Ian Johnson also taking his turns.
"I think you've got to control what you can control: come out every day, practice hard and compete," Gerhart said. "We've got a good group of guys that are all fighting for that second spot to replace Chester Taylor and complement Adrian. Just come out and work hard and see what happens."
Cornerback Chris Cook, Minnesota's other second-round draft pick, has stood out more in early practices with a handful of interceptions and strong plays on the ball, though it's hardly fair to compare different positions.
Cook is also listed third on the depth chart, on the left side behind Antoine Winfield and Benny Sapp. With Cedric Griffin still working his way back from left knee surgery, the coaches are open to trying Cook on the right side too at some point with Winfield proving he's fully healed from his broken right foot. Asher Allen is the starter for now at right cornerback, with Lito Sheppard behind him. Griffin, who remains on the physically unable to perform list, is unlikely to be ready for the start of the regular season.
Cook is taking it in stride.
"I think I've made a pretty good impression," he said. "I've got my hands on a few balls, made a few plays here and there."
Cook's biggest challenge is to get in better shape.
"Probably the thing for him, like most rookies, is adjusting to the speed of the game," Childress said. "If there is any area that will have to be worked on, it would be getting him caught up to speed from a conditioning standpoint. Physically he is what we thought we were going to get. He is a guy with very good hands, very good speed and great length which makes it very tough for wide receivers down the field against him."