The Minnesota Vikings have had a busy offseason, but one position that has maintained stability is running back.
That is until you realize Cook’s contract situation.
After Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season in a quest for long-term security, running backs are reluctant to play out the final year of their deal. With the Vikings poised to run the ball for better or worse, it makes sense that Cook wouldn’t play out the final year of his rookie deal without a new contract in case he runs into one more serious injury.
That brings up a serious dilemma for the Vikings.
As a team that’s almost pinned to the salary cap, they must decide if adding one more big contract to an interchangeable piece of their offense is worth it. In the same vein, they also must figure out how much to pay a back who has been electric when on the field, but has also missed 17 games — and left three others early — in his first three seasons.
The idea of how much to pay Cook has gotten a little clearer as free agency has unfolded. While smaller deals with Jordan Howard (two years, $10 million with Miami) and Melvin Gordon (two years, $16 million with Denver) provided some clarity, neither are in the same range as Cook, who turns 25 in August.
With most running backs on the decline as they head into their later 20s, Cook is in the prime of his career and coming off a season where he hit career-highs across the board. It’s a much different situation than Howard, who was mothballed in Philadelphia last season, and Gordon, who botched a holdout attempt for a long-term deal.
What does tie some ideas together is deals reached within the stacked 2017 draft class. As backs like Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones and Austin Ekeler head to the bargaining table, the number Cook will be asking for will only get higher, which makes McCaffrey’s new contract with Carolina more relevant than the six-year, $90 million (with $50 million guaranteed) Ezekiel Elliott signed with Dallas last offseason.
McCaffrey put pen to paper earlier this week on a four-year, $64 million deal, which averages about $16 million per season. Said contract had to have other members of this draft class licking their chops including Kamara, who heard about the news playing video games.
But what Kamara and McCaffrey have over Cook is a healthy track record. The two running backs have missed three games — all three belonging to Kamara — since entering the league and thus have better on-field numbers to inflate their value. While Cook’s 2019 was terrific, he also slumped to 3.32 yards per carry over his final nine games (including playoffs).
With McCaffrey also having the benefit of being the only running back to go over 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, it would make sense that even if Cook asks for the $16 million per season McCaffrey received, it’s probably above what he will get.
But there also needs to be a baseline, and that could come from Ekeler’s extension with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Ekeler didn’t have the same output on the ground as Cook, running for just 557 yards compared to Cook’s 1,135. But it was his role in the Chargers’ passing attack that got him paid. Ekeler posted 92 catches and 992 yards with eight touchdowns through the air and parlayed that into a four-year, $24.5 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.
The total production makes sense that Cook would get somewhere in that neighborhood, but the Vikings aren’t likely adding a second running back to anchor the ground game like the Chargers will. If there’s a back to compare him to, it might be Jones, who will be looking for a new contract with the Packers.
Both Cook and Jones had two modest years of production before exploding in 2019. Both players will be entering their age-25 season and both have been the main anchor in the ground game while adding substantial contributions through the air.
|2017 (Age 22)||74 carries, 354 yards, 2 TD; 11 rec., 90 yards, 0 TD||81 carries, 448 yards, 4 TD; 9 rec. 22 yards 0 TD|
|2018 (Age 23)||133 carries, 615 yards, 2 TD; 40 rec. 305 yards, 2 TD||133 carries, 728 yards, 8 TD; 26 rec. 26 rec., 206 yards, 1 TD|
|2019 (Age 24)||250 carries, 1,135 yards, 13 TD; 53 rec. 519 yards, 0 TD||236 carries, 1,084 yards, 16 TD; 49 rec., 474 yards, 3 TD|
|Total||457 carries, 2,104 yards, 17 TD; 104 rec., 914 yards, 2 TD||450 carries, 2,260 yards, 28 TD; 84 rec., 702 yards, 4 TD|
While neither running back might not blink in an effort to establish value for the other, their final deal could be similar in one that’s above the roughly $6 million per season Ekeler received and below the $16 million McCaffrey received.
If we were to average it out, that would mean that Cook might agree to a three- or four-year deal worth about $11 million per season. That total would also fall in line with a report by ESPN‘s Courtney Cronin that the “sweet spot” for a potential contract would be around $8-10 million.
That number also happens to be the same amount of money the Vikings cleared by signing Kirk Cousins to an extension prior to the start of free agency. Said scenario would also fall in line with what KFAN’s Paul Allen theorized on his radio show once the Ekeler deal was announced.
“What you do is you re-do Cousins,” Allen explained. “And with the money you house, it all heads to Dalvin on a deal similar to this (Ekeler’s deal) unless he wants to break the bank like Ezekiel Elliott.”
If Cook wants a deal in the neighborhood of Elliott or McCaffrey, the Vikings have to call his bluff with just $12 million in salary-cap space per Spotrac. This should be the case even if the Vikings deal Anthony Harris during the draft to clear up more cap space. With Mattison waiting in the wings, this is a deal that should be interesting to follow as the Vikings get closer to the 2020 season.