When Dalvin Cook signed his contract on the eve of the 2020 season, there was plenty to be critical about. The “running backs don’t matter” chorus has only grown louder since the hotly debated selections of Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette in 2016 and 2017.
Ben Baldwin laid out the argument comprehensively. In short, the running game has a minimal impact on game outcomes and running backs have a minimal impact on the running game (as compared to their offensive line, which Cook himself seems to recognize). In addition, running backs are notoriously hard to scout and that good running backs can be acquired for cheap. Investing in a running back, on the whole, is difficult to pay off.
But is Dalvin Cook doing the impossible?
Dalvin Cook’s five-year, $63 million extension is structured in such a way to minimize its impact on the salary cap. After his pay raise, Cook is currently the 14th-priciest running back in the league. Next year, he will be 10th. By 2022, he’ll be 5th. We can also expect new contracts to be signed between then and now, bumping him down the list. Put another way, the Vikings won’t really have a unique cap burden tied up in the running back position, even in the more expensive years.
Cook’s contract is also flexible. Only his signing bonus and some money this year is fully guaranteed. In fact, the vast majority of Cook’s $63 million is malleable. In the chart below, the blue bars represent cap charges the Vikings will have to pay one way or another. The red bars represent money the Vikings could cut, trade, or otherwise restructure.
So the bar to “justify” this contract doesn’t require elite play that changes the shape of the position. By 2022 or 2023, the cap will have inflated such that a $12 million or $13 million cap charge no longer feels burdensome. Cook just has to prove that he contributes. But for a running back, that’s an uphill climb. Among starters, Cook is the 2nd-highest graded running back in the league. He leads the league in yards after contact (per attempt), and is second in PFF’s elusive rating. Those are the base numbers, but the work is far from done.
To evaluate any player, we have to separate his contributions from those of his teammates. The question to ask isn’t how much production a running back had, but how much of that production he was responsible for. Take this 3rd and 8, where Cook turns a likely punt into a conversion by forcing a missed tackle.[videopress JBVqcSE3]
On the contrary, he didn’t do much on this touchdown, and probably shouldn’t get much credit for it. Dakota Dozier‘s block was good enough where a Kubiak could have run it in.[videopress CmOMqjER]
Cook’s contribution is sometimes difficult to identify. Run plays can look like Cook serenely floating through open holes, but he has his own hand in creating those holes. On this touchdown, the Vikings use a pin-and-pull to open up a hole for C.J. Ham and Cook. Two Green Bay defenders play it well enough to challenge that gap, and Ham can only block one. Cook has to get the safety out of position, and his balance, footwork, and flexibility make the touchdown a foregone conclusion by the time he hits the line of scrimmage.[videopress 49Y65ePM]
Cook’s superpower is his ability to change pathing without sacrificing speed, and vice versa. Defenders reading his feet or hips can be lured out of position, making an easier time for the guys up front. It allows him to floor the gas pedal without sacrificing steering. In this example, it allows him to punish an overzealous rookie linebacker for freelancing his way out of his gap.[videopress BdmATHaZ]
We also have to compare Cook to his backup. The Carolina Panthers have an incredible run game, and it hasn’t missed a beat with Christian McCaffrey on the sideline. Mike Davis has been the only starting back with a higher elusive rating than Cook, casting doubt on McCaffrey’s mega-deal.
But Cook’s absence was more impactful in Minnesota.
Consider Alexander Mattison‘s infamous 4th and 1 in Seattle. Even if we ignore Mattison’s questionable gap choice, we see the difference with a non-deceptive running back. If Cook were able to widen out Benson Mayowa the same way he widened out Henry Black in the third clip above, that would have created a more favorable angle for C.J. Ham. Instead of a violent head-on collision, Ham could have made a more effective block, sealed Mayowa off, and enabled a conversion.[videopress TEcKyxqw]
It’s undeniable that Dalvin Cook offers an efficiency that most running backs don’t. Because of his easily balanced, efficient and deceptive style, he makes life easier on the blockers in front of him. He finds hidden yardage. He inflates Minnesota’s rushing efficiency such that it justifies his deceptively meager cap fee.