The timing couldn't be any better for Toby Gerhart. For the Minnesota Vikings' second-round draft pick from 2010, the fourth running back selected that season, it's his time to step into the spotlight. With Adrian Peterson opening training camp on the active/physically unable to perform (PUP) list, Gerhart is first in line to carry the load at running back when the Vikings open the season.
If the Vikings have any hope of turning around two consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North, Gerhart will need to play a huge role in the Vikings offense.
For the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate that he can be the featured back in the NFL, at least until Peterson is completely ready to resume his duties atop the depth chart. According to Mike Freeman of cbssports.com, that might not be until midseason.
That's a safe prediction. After all, it took Chris Johnson half the year to get back on track after holding out and missing most of the preseason last year. Without having to recover from a devastating knee injury, Johnson averaged only 3.02 yards per carry in the first eight games of 2011.
At midseason he cranked it up, with a 4.83 yards per carry average over the final eight games. Still, he finished with career lows with 1,047 rushing yards, and with a 4.0 yard per carry average.
Even though Peterson is ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation, running and cutting on the knee on the sidelines is very much different than playing in a game with contact. While I have no doubt he will be back and ready to go, it will still take time for him to regain the explosiveness that is key to his game.
One key to his return will be the number of reps he gets in practices and games. The more carries, the more effective Peterson becomes. In so many games he would be held to one and two-yard gains, only to eventually break off a long run.
Enough about Peterson, this is all about Gerhart.
Like Peterson, Gerhart has performed better when given the ball more frequently. As a senior at Stanford, Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards on 343 carries, a 5.5 average. He also scored a CFB-best 28 touchdowns that season.
As a Viking, Gerhart only has 190 carries for 853 yards, a 4.5 average with two rushing touchdowns. Only three times has he carried the ball at least 19 times. While that's no surprise since he is backing up the best running back in the NFL, he should see the ball more this season.
One area in which Gerhart may excel over Peterson could be in the passing game. Since 2010, Peterson has 54 receptions for 480 yards and two touchdowns, while Gerhart, playing about a third of the offensive snaps, has 44 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns.
This, by no means, suggests that the Vikings are better off with Gerhart. It does mean that things could be a whole lot worst if the Vikings didn't have a capable running back.
While it's still a step back at the running back position, the Vikings should be improved at just about every other position on offense. The addition of free agents wide receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson bolsters the receiving corp. Along with the expected improvements of second-year players, quarterback Christian Ponder and tight end Kyle Rudolph, opposing defenses will have more to contend with than last season.
On the less than positive side of things, the offensive line will have a 60 percent turnover. Behind a rebuilt offensive line, with three new starters anchored by first-round draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle, it could take some time for things to come together as the line learns to work together.
The worst-case scenario would be for Gerhart to struggle behind an offensive line of Phil Loadholt, Geoff Schwartz, John Sullivan, Charlie Johnson and Kalil for three games while the Vikings are without the services of Jerome Simpson, who opens the season serving a three-game suspension.
That would give Peterson time to get take a few carries during the first three weeks to test the knee and gauge where he is at. By the time everything comes together on offense, he can step in and resume being the best running back in football.
OK, so let's get back to Gerhart, and predicting his numbers for 2012.
As a rookie, he ran the ball only 81 times in 15 games—an average of only 5.4 carries per game. Because of so few touches, he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Other than his sophomore year at Stanford, when he only played in one game because of a knee injury, it's the fewest carries he's ever had in a season.
Last year, with Adrian Peterson missing some games, Gerhart got 109 rushes for 531 yards and an improved yard per carry average of 4.9—much closer to the 5.5 average he had as a junior and senior in college.
Head coach Leslie Frazier has indicated that Gerhart will get most of the carries early in the season until the coaching staff is fully convinced Peterson is ready to go.
Gerhart's Numbers in the First 3 Games (without Simpson):
Frazier still believes Peterson is going to have a great year, but the plan is to take things slow. The plan as of now is to activate him for some preseason action, with the goal to have him in the lineup for the opener against the Jaguars.
Two of the Vikings' first three opponents finished in the top 10 in rushing defense, and the 49ers, the Week 3 opponent, finished 2011 as the top defense against the run. Fortunately in the middle they have the Colts with the 29th ranking against the run.
Gerhart will get plenty of touches, but the offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will still be trying to find the right fit for the various personnel packages.
On the ground: 40 carries for 160 yards and one touchdown.
In the passing game: eight catches for 80 yards.
Week 4 through Week 8:
In these five game the Vikings will not face a defense that finished any better than 18th in the league against the run (at Washington in Week 6), with Tampa Bay in Week 8 having the worst rushing defense in the NFL last season.
Peterson should be just about ready to start handling the bulk of the running back chores, so Gerhart will really start to pick things up.
On the ground: 60 carries for 350 yards and two more touchdowns. The number of carries per game drops slightly, but the average per attempt goes up.
In the passing game: 10 catches for 90 yards.
The Second Half of the Season:
As the Vikings ramp things up for Peterson, they will be reducing Gerhart's role.
On the ground: 64 carries for 310 yards and one more touchdown.
In the passing game: 12 catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
Prediction for the season:
On the ground: A career-high 164 rushes for a career-high 820 yards with four rushing touchdowns.
Through the air: 30 catches for 266 yards and two touchdowns.