When the news dropped on Monday that Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook would pull out of team activities without a new contract, plenty of eyes turned to second-year running back Alexander Mattison.
After a strong rookie season that saw him average 4.6 yards per carry, there’s a contingent that believes that Mattison could take over for Cook not only in 2020 but beyond if the Vikings scoff at Cook’s demands. This path would fall in line with several teams across the NFL, who have looked to get younger and cheaper at running back, giving the 2019 third-round pick a path to playing time.
But before looking at what Mattison could do, we have to see what he did with his opportunities last season. In that, there are many pros and cons that the Vikings have to consider when deciding to pay Cook the $12-16 million he’s seeking or giving Mattison full reign to the backfield.
The Case for Mattison
The first thing that is noticeable about Mattison is that he’s an effective runner in Gary Kubiak’s scheme. As someone who pounded the table to get Mattison during the 2019 draft, Kubiak likes Mattison’s one-cut style, which is a perfect complement to Cook’s home run ability.
While Cook is one to break out a long touchdown run, that doesn’t mean that Mattison is incapable of such a feat. According to Pro Football Focus, Mattison recorded nine runs of 15 yards or more last season, which ranked 18th among qualifying running backs. That stat is more impressive when considering his smaller sample size of 100 carries, which landed him third in the NFL in breakaway percentage at 41.3%.
While he can get out in the open field with some clean blocking, Mattison also showed the ability to create his own long runs. The Boise State product forced 18 missed tackles on running plays last season and wound up with an overall elusive rating of 55.6. That number wasn’t far off from Cook, who forced more missed tackles (42) but also had the benefit of 150 more carries.
If we have some fun with Mattison’s numbers in his rookie season, it shows that Mattison could theoretically have numbers on par with Cook if he received the same number of rushes last season.
|Dalvin Cook||Alexander Mattison|
|Missed Tackles Forced||42||45|
|15+ yard runs||13||22.5|
The Case Against Mattison
While Mattison was getting spot duty work, Cook was the driver of the Vikings offense. In his healthiest season as a pro, Cook put up career-high numbers across the board. And while his numbers dipped in the second half (partially after getting banged up), he proved to be one of the most dynamic threats in the league.
There are a lot of stats that prove to be comparable when it comes to Mattison and Cook, but the game-changer is what Cook does in the passing game. Both running backs had equal opportunities in the passing game based on playing time, but Cook parlayed his receptions into 11.7 yards after the catch, the top mark in the NFL among qualifying running backs.
Mattison’s 7.7 clip isn’t anything to scoff at, but it shows the value of Cook to the Vikings offense. If you stop him on the ground, there’s nothing to stop him from taking a screen or a swing pass for a big play, making teams have to account for him in both facets of the game. Mix in that Cook can also work with inadequate line play, and it makes his contract demands worth the amount he’s asking for.
There’s also the concept of when Mattison was getting his touches. A lot of the rookie’s work came late in games where the Vikings were well in control with 87 of his 100 carries coming in wins. 76 of those carries in games where the Vikings won by double-digits.
So while stats such as yards per carry (4.6) and yards after contact (3.22) look nice, Cook was doing the bulk of the lifting in these games when Mattison came in and picked at the scraps of a worn-down defense.
Can Mattison shoulder the load of a Lead Back?
That leads to one of the biggest what-ifs of last season. When Cook went down with shoulder and chest injuries late in the season, he missed most of the final three weeks in order to get healthy for a playoff run. That could have opened the door for Mattison, but he wound up on the shelf after suffering an ankle injury against Detroit.
In those three games, Cook started but did not finish the game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and Mike Boone came in and ran for 56 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Although he put up a dud against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, Boone returned to shred the Chicago Bears (albeit in a glorified exhibition) for 148 yards and a touchdown.
If Mattison plays in these games — and especially the final two — he’d have gotten a long look as a starting running back. If he went off, the Vikings could have that leverage with Cook at the negotiating table and would be more comfortable letting him walk.
But the Vikings instead find themselves in a predicament. They traded away Stefon Diggs, and with few threats to spring big gains, the Vikings pretty much have to have a player like Cook, who can score any time he touches the ball.
Minnesota’s cap situation will make that tough, but we’ve seen Rob Brzezinski do more financial gymnastics for lesser players. Although Mattison could become a solid starter down the road, we don’t know what he’d do on a level playing field, which is why the Vikings should pay Cook.