One of the most pressing questions in an offseason full of questions for the Minnesota Vikings has to do with running back Dalvin Cook. The fourth-year man recorded a career season in 2019 and wants to get paid for it. He’s reportedly set to hold out of team activities until he and the Vikings agree on an extension.
Enter Alexander Mattison.
It’s important to note that Cook and the Vikings do still have time to agree on a long-term contract extension. With that said, if recent seasons serve as evidence, running backs aren’t afraid to carry these disputes into the regular season.
In the event that Cook’s holdout does indeed carry into the regular season, Mattison will be vaulted into the lead back role for Minnesota. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a history of utilizing his running backs heavily in his zone scheme, so Mattison could be in for a massive opportunity in 2020.
The major question, of course, is how much of a decline the Vikings offense would see with Mattison receiving the majority of snaps at running back instead of Cook.
More and more evidence continues to suggest that running backs are largely a product of their situation. The offensive scheme, the offensive line, the quarterback and the overall offensive efficiency impact a running back’s production more than the running back’s own talent.
Kubiak’s past teams showcase great examples of relatively unknown running backs that became stars. The marquee name is Arian Foster, who was was an undrafted free agent that went on to become a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time first team All-Pro with the Houston Texans in the early 2010s. Foster mastered zone running, and Houston’s offensive line executed the scheme well.
Both Cook and Mattison ran well in the zone scheme last season that included the Kubiak influence. Cook, of course, set career highs in yards (1,135) and touchdowns (13), despite missing some time due to injury.
A closer look, however, reveals that Cook and Mattison were quite similar terms of effectiveness. Mattison actually bested Cook in yards per attempt, avoided tackles per attempt, yards after contact per attempt and breakaway percentage. Overall, Mattison was third in the entire NFL in breakaway percentage at 41.3%.
While Cook may seem like the more “explosive” athlete between the two, when measuring explosive runs as 15 yards or more, Mattison was actually more explosive. However, Cook did register a positive EPA on 39.2% of runs compared to 31.1% for Mattison, indicating that Cook was more consistent.
It should also be noted that Mattison’s production was gained against a higher percentage of eight-man defensive boxes. Much of Mattison’s time came near the end of games as the Vikings were trying to drain the clock, and the defense was noticeably prioritizing stopping the run.
This isn’t to say Mattison is a better player than Cook. What these numbers do show is that, over a full season with a lead back workload, Mattison can record similar production to what Cook did on the ground in 2019.
It’s also important to note that Cook was very effective in the passing game, totaling over 500 receiving yards last season. What’s more, Cook recorded 11.7 yards per reception after the catch, which was best in the NFL among qualifying running backs. The eye test suggests that Cook is extremely dangerous in the open field. This stat confirms it.
Mattison registered 7.7 yards per reception after the catch, which isn’t bad by any means. But it does show the most significant disadvantage of Mattison taking a bulk of the reps over Cook, should that scenario come to fruition in 2020.
More and more evidence continues to suggest that running backs are largely a product of what’s around them. Minnesota has a decision to make in the coming weeks, and maybe months, about their own beliefs on running backs. Is Cook unique enough to pay double-digit million dollars per season? Is his impact on the offense, particularly in the passing game, enough to strain the salary cap more than it already is?
An extra twist in this dilemma is that Mattison and Cook’s injuries overlapped last season. The Vikings didn’t get to see Mattison play the role of lead back when Cook was injured, because an ankle injury simultaneously forced Mattison to the sidelines. The final two games of the 2019 regular season could have delivered a glimpse of what Minnesota’s offense could look like with Mattison as the focal back. Instead, it was Mike Boone — which provided mixed results.
It’s unclear whether this holdout will carry into the regular season. But if it does, Mattison’s rookie campaign showed that he can keep Minnesota’s Kubiak-led offense humming without Cook on the field.