Dalvin Cook‘s cards are now on the table. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday that the fourth-year Minnesota Vikings running back will not participate in any more team activities without a “reasonable deal” as he enters the final year of his contract.
The question becomes: How long is Cook willing to hold out? And will the Vikings stand their ground?
This announcement felt somewhat inevitable after seeing the way upper-echelon NFL running backs have handled contract disputes in recent years. By threatening a holdout, Cook is following precedent. Ezekiel Elliott held out of Dallas’s training camp in 2019 and was eventually rewarded with a $15 million/year contract before the season. Melvin Gordon held out in Los Angeles and wound up skipping four games before returning and struggling while Austin Ekeler stole his touches. He then signed a modest two-year deal worth $8 million/year in Denver this year. Le’Veon Bell skipped the whole 2018 season in Pittsburgh, then signed with the New York Jets for more than $13 million/year, only to have a career worst season at 3.2 yards per carry.
Cook will certainly be striving for an outcome like Elliott’s, one in which he gets paid toward the top of his position, misses no games and remains with his current team. The worst-case scenario would be a situation like Gordon’s where Cook misses time, doesn’t get paid and depreciates his value in the process.
The Athletic’s Chad Graff tweeted that Cook is seeking David Johnson-type money (three years, $39 million), while the Vikings are offering Gordon-type money (two years, $16 million). The Johnson comparison makes some sense. The Arizona Cardinals running back signed his new contract heading into his fourth season having dealt with injuries in his past. In Johnson’s case, however, he signed the contract coming off knee and wrist injuries, while Cook’s torn ACL is three years behind him. But similar to Cook, Johnson only had one true breakout season on his resume as he went to the negotiating table. The Vikings would likely be quick to note that Johnson’s two seasons after signing his contract were dismal, and he was recently traded to Houston for pennies on the dollar.
Cook’s value is presently the highest its been in his career after totaling 1,654 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, so it’s reasonable that he’d want to cash in before taking the field and running the risk of further injury. But the Vikings are still in the driver’s seat in these negotiations.
A clause in the league’s new CBA prevents a player from accruing service time if they fail to report for training camp or thereafter fail to “perform contract services.” From Article 8, Section 1 (b):
“A player shall not receive an Accrued Season for any League Year in which the player is under contract to a Club and in which (i) he failed to report to the Club’s preseason training camp on that player’s mandatory reporting date; or (ii) the player thereafter failed to perform his contract services for the Club for a material period of time…”
This means an extended holdout could prevent Cook from hitting unrestricted free agency in 2021. Instead, he would become a restricted free agent and could be retained for a first- or second-round tender at less than $5 million.
While the Vikings have voiced their desire to get a deal done with Cook — an electrifying player when healthy — Minnesota will have to be stingy with doling out cash and particular about their priorities until they understand the full ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on next year’s salary cap. Reports have indicated the cap could decline $30-40 million in 2021 if the season goes on without fans or games aren’t played. The Vikings are already on the books for over $179 million next season, per Spotrac, and a $30-40 million decrease would leave them in the red. While the league will almost certainly create some exceptions for teams in that predicament, introducing new money in that scenario could still be difficult, and Minnesota will also need to consider extensions for right tackle Brian O’Neill, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and safety Anthony Harris. Playing hardball with Cook may not simply be an issue of stubbornness, but of financial necessity.
Still, there is mounting evidence that running back performance is hard to sustain, and the Vikings have a healthy stable of running backs on the roster in the event Cook skips games or leaves the team after this year. Alexander Mattison has another three seasons on his rookie contract before he’s up for a new deal, and Mike Boone can be retained cheaply for another two seasons if the Vikings give him a restricted free agent tender next spring. Veteran Ameer Abdullah also remains in the mix.
By digging his heels in, Cook takes on much more risk than the Vikings. If the team gets the sense that one of Cook’s understudies is a worthy replacement, it would be easy for them to table negotiations. Plus, it makes little sense for Cook to risk losing a year of service time, which could prevent him from hitting unrestricted free agency until 2022. By then, Cook will be 26 with up to two more years of mileage on his legs — or additional injuries.
Between the league’s new CBA, Cook’s injury history and the team’s salary cap situation, the chips are stacked against the Vikings running back, who may be forced to compromise. A compromise, however, could still assure Cook more guaranteed money than he’d make over the next two years in a holdout/RFA/tender situation, and it may give him the chance to hit free agency again before exiting his prime.
Cook’s peers didn’t do him any favors by signing big contracts and immediately declining. It’s entirely possible Cook would buck that trend, but it’s an expensive risk for the Vikings to take in a murky cap environment.