Minnesota Vikings: Is Toby Gerhart Ready to Shoulder a Heavy Load?

Bill HubbellContributor IAugust 2, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 26: Toby Gerhart #32 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball against James Sanders #36 of the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on November 26, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

So the Ferrari is dinged up; it's time to pull the Honda Accord out of the garage. 

The Minnesota Vikings and their fans will find out very quickly that you simply don't replace Adrian Peterson, much the same way you don't replace Randy Moss. Peterson is the best of the best and the first five years of his career have him on a path to the Hall of Fame and among the best who have ever played the game.

Peterson is the Ferrari, the mind-blowing, eyeball-popping superstar that pulls fans out of their seats nearly every time he gets his hands on the ball. Combining speed, power and elusiveness, Peterson has thrilled Vikings fans since first arriving in 2007. Quite simply, he's the best running back the Vikings have ever had. 

But among the myriad of travesties that befell Minnesota during the 2011 season, the one that may haunt them the most was the serious knee injury Peterson suffered on Christmas Eve against the Washington Redskins. Complete reconstructive knee surgery was needed and Peterson has begun training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.

For the Vikings, their fans and Peterson himself, it's time to hurry up and wait. Peterson has done everything possible to get back on the field as fast as he can, but with such a severe injury, everyone involved would be crazy to push things. Minnesota hopes the Ferrari only suffered some chipped paint, but they would be foolish to take it out again before the new paint has dried.

Enter the Honda Accord, Toby Gerhart. The third year back out of Stanford has a giant opportunity to show the world what he can do while Peterson is out. Nobody expects him to be the next Adrian Peterson, but, like that Honda Accord, he has to get you where you want to go.

Gerhart certainly has the credentials to step into the role. The 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2009, Gerhart left Stanford as the second all-time leading rusher in school history (behind former Viking Darrin Nelson) with 3,522 yards. He's Stanford's all-time leader in rushing attempts with 671, and in touchdowns with 44.

Gerhart capped off his terrific college career with 1,871 yards in 2009, going over 200 yards three different times.

Still, it was a bit surprising to some when the Vikings used a second-round pick in 2010 on Gerhart. For starters, they already had the best running back in the game. Secondly, Gerhart was pretty tough to peg at the next level. He lacks explosive speed and isn't going to make a lot of people miss. While he caught the ball to some degree at Stanford, he certainly didn't fit the profile of a third down back that the Vikings might be looking for.

The Vikings obviously saw it differently. They looked at Gerhart as a very productive back that would add depth to a position that always needs it. The feeling at Winter Park was that Gerhart had too much value to pass on with the 51st pick in the draft.

Gerhart's rookie season was anything but spectacular. He averaged just four yards per carry and gained 322 yards in spot duty while looking hesitant and slow. Gerhart spent most of his time trying to learn the offense and to add pass protection for then quarterback Brett Favre.

Season two was a huge leap forward for the 6'0", 231 pounder. Gerhart started five games in Peterson's absence and rushed for 531 yards while bringing his average rush up to 4.9 yards per carry. More importantly, he just looked a lot better. Gone was the hesitation from his rookie season. Gerhart was quick to the hole and proved to be a very strong runner between the tackles.

Gerhart has obviously learned a lot in his two years in the league. He's a smart runner, who, while not being fast, is quick to his spots and knows how to let a play develop to get the most out of it. He's also a very tough runner, who will usually bounce off one or two tacklers before being brought down.

He's not going to rip off a lot of long touchdown runs like Peterson, but he certainly looks capable of shouldering the load until Peterson is fully recovered. Knowing that Peterson might miss a portion of the coming season, Gerhart showed up to camp last week in the best shape of his life.

The Vikings enter 2012 with hopes of showing improvement at almost every position. While no one expects Gerhart to ever be another Adrian Peterson, there is no reason to think he can't be a viable starter when Peterson is out and a large contributor when Peterson comes back.

Depth at the running back position is vital during the long 16-game season. Teams like the Saints, Giants and 49ers have made it a priority to spread the ball around among several backs in an effort to get maximum results out of all of them.

If Peterson comes back without missing a beat, then he'll obviously get a majority of the carries. 2011 proved that Peterson is actually human after all, so even if he does come back at 100 percent, the Vikings would be wise to lessen his load and give Gerhart more opportunities.

No, he's not a Ferrari, that's Adrian Peterson. The Ferrari has been dinged up and nobody knows how it will ride in 2012. In the meantime, the Honda Accord will do.