Vikings

The Long-Term Effects of Dalvin Cook’s Breakout

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest storyline of the 2020 Minnesota Vikings has been the emergence of Dalvin Cook. Over the past two weeks, Cook has put the Vikings on his back, collecting 478 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns to take Minnesota from tanking for Trevor Lawrence into playoff contention.

Although Cook’s play has been pristine over the past two weeks, he’s been able to do it all season long. By leading the NFL with 858 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, Cook has forced his way into the MVP conversation in a league that is dominated by quarterbacks.

This is exciting for any Vikings fan who doesn’t want to sit through a 3-13 season while sweating the results of the Jets game. But Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager saw things a different way.

With Cook running the Vikings back into playoff contention just two weeks removed from a potential fire sale, is Cook’s performance bound to hurt the Vikings in the long run?

Like most of the conversation this season, this revolves around the quarterback position. The Vikings have done their best to take things off of Kirk Cousins’ plate, and for good reason. The top five games by pass attempt totals have all resulted in Vikings losses this season; the other three have resulted in victories.

You have to factor in that teams that are ahead don’t throw the ball as often. Therefore, Cousins isn’t going to put up blistering stats when Cook is running through an opposing defense. But the other half of it stems from the belief that Cousins may not be a long-term answer. Cousins’ performance, which has included an 82.6 quarterback rating in losses, indicates that he’s a quarterback who can’t lead his team out of such a hole.

This leads us to this year’s quarterback class. The good news is that there are plenty of solid prospects the Vikings can draft. While Florida’s Kyle Trask or Alabama’s Mac Jones may be good enough as developmental prospects, there’s something to be said about getting a blue-chip quarterback at the top of the class who could supplant Cousins sooner.

The top of some classes will result in teams reaching for players like Sam Darnold or Jared Goff, but this appears to be a buyer’s year in the quarterback class. The dream of landing Lawrence may have died, but the Vikings could still have their shot at landing Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

The counterargument here is that Super Bowl winning quarterbacks (or even superstar caliber quarterbacks) have come from all over the draft. Ben Roethlisberger was the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. The following year, the Packers selected Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick. Twelve years later, Patrick Mahomes lasted until pick No. 10 in the 2017 NFL Draft.

And yes, Tom Brady was selected in the sixth round of the 1999 NFL Draft.

But teams have become more aggressive in selecting signal callers in recent years if they feel they can help their franchise. The Chiefs are a successful example of this: They needed to give up an additional first and third-round pick just to land Mahomes. When Mahomes became a football deity, however, Kansas City had a cheap quarterback and salary space to add elite talent at other positions.

This has resulted in other teams attempting to pull the same strategy off, but failing miserably because they took the wrong quarterback. The same year that Kansas City took Mahomes, the Chicago Bears gave up a slew of draft picks to acquire Khalil Mack, and it turned their defense into one of the best in the NFL. The problem? They drafted Mitchell Trubisky to be their franchise savior and everything crumbled.

So where does that leave the Vikings? If Cook runs like 2012 Adrian Peterson, he may do just enough to prevent them from getting that elite arm. This leaves the Vikings running it back with Cousins and hoping he can lead them to another 7-9 finish and a playoff loss. This is the main thesis of Eager’s philosophy.

Then there’s the question of if it even matters at all.

While Cook has been the face of the franchise during their pair of victories, he has had plenty of help making an impact. One of the positives has been the development of the Vikings rookie class, which has shined when given the opportunity.

Justin Jefferson has already taken that opportunity and run with it, but other rookies such as Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland and D.J. Wonnum have all begun to improve simultaneously. If their development continues simultaneously with Cook running at an absurd pace, the Vikings could be a 9-7 or 10-6 team that not only has momentum going into the playoffs but into 2021 as well.

That would mean good things for a team that still has Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith while also welcoming the return of Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter. With a young core providing depth and a crew of solid veterans ready for a last ride, the Vikings could be ready for one more run with Cousins before looking to ditch him and his $45 million salary cap number for 2022.

This could be a situation similar to the one in Baltimore. The Ravens have never been a team that’s picked toward the top of the draft, but they’ve stayed relevant even as they transitioned from Trent Dilfer to Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson. They are in another Super Bowl window and have continued to stockpile talent without purging their roster the way the Cleveland Browns or Miami Dolphins did.

The Vikings could also follow the Chiefs route and make a trade to acquire one of the top four quarterbacks. General manager Rick Spielman has never been afraid to make a trade, and with The Draft Network projecting the Vikings to own 12 selections in next year’s draft, the picks are there to make a Godfather offer to another team.

So what does this all mean?

Cook is a running back who is putting on a show for a team that was left for dead two weeks ago. Although it could go down the drain with one injury or a bad performance by Cousins, a 2012 Peterson-like performance doesn’t bury the Vikings’ hopes of landing a franchise quarterback in next year’s draft.

Even though I was a dedicated advocate of tanking earlier in the season, the best course for Vikings fans now is to sit down, grab some popcorn and see if Cook can will this team to the playoffs. Once the season is over, we’ll see if Spielman and the rest of the Vikings’ front office can work their magic.

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Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

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