The Minnesota Vikings have begun engaging in discussions with star running back Dalvin Cook about a long-term contract extension.
It’s a surprise to nobody. Cook is coming off a career season in which he ran for 1,135 yards, recorded 13 rushing touchdowns and added over 500 receiving yards. He was the focal point of Minnesota’s old-school offense, and many will argue it’s not a coincidence that the Vikings’ offense went stale in a pivotal Week 16 loss to Green Bay when Cook was out with an injury.
Cook and his representation should and will do what they can to get paid. Based on what the market says, a top five back like Cook should receive somewhere in the range of $12 million to $15 million per season on a new deal. Recent contracts around the league have created that range as the target zone for a player with Cook’s credentials.
Of course, the Vikings have their own reservations about extending a lucrative long-term offer to Cook. He has a history of injuries, and the running back position is inherently prone to injuries as a frequent carrier of the football. Additionally, due to COVID-19 circumstances, rumors have swirled that the NFL salary cap will actually decrease for 2021, which would further restrict Minnesota’s difficult cap situation.
Aside from those concerns, recent examples from around the league suggest that paying a running back a large long-term deal just doesn’t work.
Todd Gurley — Los Angeles Rams
Prior to the 2018 season, the Rams and Gurley agreed to a four-year, $60 million contract extension that was set to kick in during the 2020 season and keep Gurley in Los Angeles through 2023.
Gurley put together another tremendous season in 2018, and the Rams earned a berth in the Super Bowl. However, concerns about Gurley’s knee surfaced and the Rams had to decrease his workload.
The issues persisted in 2019 and long-term concerns about Gurley’s health forced the Rams to release him and eat over $20 million in dead money. That’s right, the Rams cut Gurley before his contract extension even kicked in.
The Rams will now pay Gurley over $20 million to not play for them, and it’s largely because of a nagging injury that is set to linger for the rest of the former Georgia Bulldog’s career.
Oh, and the Rams missed the playoffs in 2019.
Le’veon Bell — New York Jets
Le’Veon Bell served as a pioneer for running backs by sitting out an entire season in 2018 to make sure he got paid. And it worked, kind of, when he accepted a four-year, $52 million deal with the Jets. It’s far less than the rumored $20 million per season Bell wanted, but that’s still a nice chunk of change.
The Jets, however, have not seen the payoff for this deal. Bell had his least efficient season in the NFL, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry in 2019 and caught fewer passes and recorded fewer receiving yards than each of his previous two seasons in Pittsburgh.
New York clawed to a 7-9 finish in 2019, but not before rumors circulated that the Jets wanted to trade Bell. The problem is that few teams would entertain an offer for a running back making $13 million per season coming off the worst season of his career.
David Johnson — Arizona Cardinals
Johnson and the Cardinals agreed to a three-year $39 million extension that would start in 2019. Unfortunately, injuries and other running backs quickly got in the way for Johnson in the 2019 season. Chase Edmonds and, later in the season, Kenyan Drake became the lead running backs and Johnson became an afterthought.
The 2016 season was Johnson’s second season in the NFL. It was also his peak. He recorded over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns during that season. An injury cost him almost all of his 2017 season, and 2018 resulted in a decrease in efficiency likely due to a worse supporting case on offense.
Arizona traded Johnson to Houston this offseason, receiving star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in return as part of the trade. Many people are still wondering what universe Texans head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien is living in to accept a trade to pay a running back who’s past his prime over $11 million instead of paying perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL $12.5 million.
At any rate, the Cardinals were losers for a couple of seasons after paying Johnson his massive deal. Things might just turn around, however, thanks to O’Brien and the Texans’ generosity to take the contract off their hands.
Ezekiel Elliott — Dallas Cowboys
This one isn’t necessarily a failure, but it hasn’t resulted in anything positive for “America’s Team.” Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension that is set to run through 2025.
The deal includes over $50 million in guaranteed money. Dallas will be paying Elliott over $10 million in 2020, over $13 million in 2021, and over $16 million in 2022 before the Cowboys can potentially get out of the deal. Even then, cutting Elliott would result in over $6 million dead money.
Of course, Elliott is still a very productive back. He rushed for 5,405 yards at 4.6 yards per carry in his first four seasons with 40 rushing touchdowns in addition to over 1,600 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns.
However, this deal is seemingly restraining Dallas from paying quarterback Dak Prescott a long-term deal. Prescott and the Cowboys have been rumored to be in discussions for some time now, but the two sides are far apart from an agreement. Dallas may regret the Elliott deal if it cannot find a way to keep Prescott long term.
Plus, the Cowboys finished the 2019 season 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Dallas is poised for success in the next couple of seasons thanks to a supremely talented roster, but so far the Elliott deal has done more harm than good.
Dalvin Cook — Minnesota Vikings
If the Vikings aren’t careful, they’ll be next in this quickly-growing line of teams hurt by a long-term running back contract. It could be injury, it could be salary cap constraints, it could be a decrease in efficiency, or it could be all of the above.
Cook’s asking price is going to be in the neighborhood of the contracts signed by Gurley, Bell, Johnson, and Elliott. Each of these scenarios has caused problems for the franchise in one way or another.
Minnesota would be taking a significant risk by offering Cook a long-term deal. The Rams, Jets, Cardinals and Cowboys agree.