When Chester Taylor decided to sign with the Chicago Bears after the 2009 season, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in need of a backup running back able to at least occasionally spell Adrian Peterson and be a functional player. Given Peterson's shortcomings as a pass blocker, any role as his backup would have to center around playing on passing downs and being productive in limited opportunities as long as Peterson is healthy.
The Vikings traded up in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft to select Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2009 when he led the country in rushing yards (1,871) and rushing touchdowns (28). He also had a workload befitting a workhorse running back, as he also led the nation in carries with 343. Certainly a capable runner with a solid collegiate track record, as he also rushed for 1,136 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior in 2008, but 24 receptions over his final two collegiate seasons did not suggest a good fit as a change of pace back with a different skill set than Peterson's.
Gerhart had just 81 carries for 322 yards and a touchdown as a rookie last season, along with 21 receptions for 167 yards. He was productive in his one start against the Washington Redskins, with 22 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown with two catches for five yards when Peterson was injured. But other than that, it was clearly an underwhelming rookie campaign for Gerhart.
Gerhart again got an opportunity to start in Week 12 of this season against the Atlanta Falcons, as Peterson was sidelined by a left ankle injury he sustained in the previous game against the Oakland Raiders. Gerhart had 17 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown along with two receptions for 19 yards in the game, as he equaled his carry total from the first eight games of the season and scored his first touchdown this season.
Week 13 brought another starting opportunity against the Denver Broncos with Peterson missing a second straight game, and Gerhart did not disappoint. He set career-highs with 91 rushing yards (on 21 carries) and eight receptions (for 42 yards) as he looked like a capable pass catcher and repeatedly made a lot of yards after contact. Clearly not as dynamic a runner as Peterson can be, but a suitable NFL starting running back if given the opportunity, or at least so it seems.
Given the fact Peterson is clearly the Vikings' top running back (and offensive player, really) and the long-term financial investment made in him prior to the season, there seems to be little room for a running back that may require more than a handful of carries each game to be a productive player. Gerhart seems to better fit the mold of a back capable of handling 20-plus carries in a game, which is an increasingly dying breed across the NFL and stands to make him a poor fit for the Vikings long-term. Of course that also assumes Peterson is able to stay healthy more often than not down the road, and the shelf life for running backs is generally not long. Peterson will turn 27 next March, so the end of his prime is definitely coming.
That said, the past two weeks have given the Vikings an opportunity to showcase Gerhart for a possible trade this coming offseason. Trades are rare in the NFL, but the team has far too many holes elsewhere on the roster to not at least explore trading a potentially valuable asset. Peterson's status for Week 14 against the Detroit Lions and the rest of the season is still up in the air, despite head coach Leslie Frazier's assertion on Monday that he is close to returning, so Gerhart could see a few more starts and get a chance to bolster any potential trade value he may have.