Over the next couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom will dig into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
The Minnesota Vikings find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make a financial decision about a talented player and a fan favorite. That player has also dealt with injuries during his three-year career and plays a position many have deemed superfluous to a team’s success.
The Dalvin Cook decision looms almost as largely as the Kirk Cousins decision. Both would command a significant financial commitment in an extension that would lock up resources for several years. In our previous story in the series, we examined the Cousins conundrum; now we’ll look into the Cook debate.
SHOULD THE VIKINGS EXTEND COOK?
Take a look at the top-nine highest-paid running backs in terms of annual salary and you’ll notice a trend. None of them competed in the playoffs this year. Seven of the nine missed the postseason completely, while two — Jerick McKinnon (49ers) and Lamar Miller (Texans) — missed the season with long-term injuries.
That doesn’t exactly strengthen Cook’s argument for a massive payday as he contemplates extension talks. Ezekiel Elliott set the running back market last season with a six-year, $90 million contract with over $50 million in practical guarantees, but a supremely talented Cowboys team still missed the playoffs out of a weak NFC East. Le’Veon Bell skipped the 2018 season, then signed with the Jets for four years, $52.5 million and delivered a 3.2 yards per carry average that was among the lowest in the league. Todd Gurley received four years, $57.5 million in Los Angeles only to rush for 3.8 yards per carry as the Rams went from NFC champs to third place in the NFC West.
It’s hard to put Cook in the same class as those running backs from a leverage standpoint, too. Gurley and Bell had three 1,000-yard seasons before they inked their deals. Elliott had two. Cook put forth his first 1,000-yard season in 2019, but he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in his final eight games (including playoffs) as he dealt with multiple upper-body injuries. His rookie year was cut short with an ACL tear, and his second season was impeded by a hamstring.
At his best, however, Cook was a defining piece of the Vikings’ offense. In his first eight games, he averaged a gaudy 5.3 yards per carry and over 10 yards per reception while the Vikings built up a meaningful screen attack. His excellence coincided with one of the most potent play-action attacks in the league over that time. Minnesota’s 6-2 start showcased its offense at near peak efficiency in many games, but then defenses adjusted, injuries popped up and the offense sputtered at times late in the year.
If there’s one thing the league’s running back contracts indicate: It’s hard to predict future performance at the position. And the backs that do perform don’t tend to bolster a team’s win-loss record. Seven of the top 11 running backs in scrimmage yards missed the playoffs last season, including the top three. The four that made it were all on rookie contracts.
In an uncapped environment, extending Cook would be a no-brainer, but in a league where divvying out cash proportionally is part of the team’s responsibilities, spending top dollar at the running back position might be questionable based on recent evidence.
IF THERE’S NO EXTENSION, WILL COOK HOLD OUT?
In a scenario where Cook can’t come to an agreement with the Vikings, then the questions of a holdout arises. There have been three notable running back holdouts the last two seasons, each with different outcomes.
Bell held out in 2018 when the Pittsburgh Steelers offered him a second franchise tag and wound up skipping the entire season when the Steelers wouldn’t budge on a long-term deal. Bell never caved, got his release and hit the free-agent market in 2019.
Elliott held out in Dallas last season before Jerry Jones succumbed to his demands and made him the highest-paid back in football.
One could argue that Bell and Elliott both won their holdouts. Bell kept his value high without putting on further mileage or risking injury. Elliott got paid without having to skip any games. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Melvin Gordon. The Chargers back skipped the first four games of 2019 and watched backup Austin Ekeler amass 100-plus scrimmage yards in three of the four. Gordon returned without a new contract in Week 5, only to struggle for much of the season. Gordon now enters free agency with only one 1,000-yard season in five years and four seasons rushing for less than 4.0 yards per carry.
There’s no telling what Cook’s intentions are at the moment. But if there’s no new deal, Cook may elect to emulate his running back colleagues and enter training camp in holdout mode. How long it will last is unknown.
IF COOK HOLDS OUT, CAN THE VIKINGS BACKUPS CARRY THE LOAD?
It’s almost as if Alexander Mattison was brought in for a situation like this. The Vikings fell in love with the rookie from Boise State early in the offseason and quickly deemed him Cook’s No. 2. He was highly efficient in 100 carries, running for 4.6 yards per carry while hurdling tacklers along the way. Plus, Mattison seemed to do well with volume. In five of the six games where he received eight or more carries, Mattison accomplished 4.5 yards per carry or better. If the Vikings did, indeed, anticipate a potential contract dispute with Cook, then drafting Mattison in 2019 looks retroactively smart.
No. 3 back Mike Boone got a pair of starts late in the year and experienced some ups and downs, but his shiftiness remains a nice complement to Cook and Mattison’s powerful style.
Ultimately, any back in the Vikings’ run-based offense has the benefit of an offensive line specifically assembled and coached with the running game in mind. Minnesota had the 12th-best run-blocking grade last season, per Pro Football Focus, and may bolster that in 2020 if the interior blocking improves. If Mattison, Boone or another young back are asked to step up, the Vikings have the infrastructure to set them up for success.