In a year as unpredictable as 2020, one of the events that Minnesota Vikings fans probably put their money on was Dalvin Cook signing a new extension. As the engine for a Vikings offense that loves to run the ball, it felt like Cook and the team would come to an agreement no matter how far apart the two sides were in the offseason.
But on Tuesday, those visions were put on hold as NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the two sides had reached an impasse and the Vikings running back was focused on Week 1. This seems like something that could potentially derail Minnesota’s hopes to keep Cook around, but it’s not the end of the world.
If there’s one thing that we should agree on, it’s that Cook is important to what the Vikings do on offense. In 2019, Cook put up top running back numbers with 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns and even added 519 yards through the air. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider Cook played in 13 games and was knocked out early in a pair of those contests.
The effect that Cook has on the offense is widespread. With an elite threat such as Cook in the backfield, play-action is more effective for Kirk Cousins, who ranked fourth in the NFL with a 129.2 passer rating off of such plays. That helps buy more time for the Vikings suspect offensive line, and it puts the ball in the hands of Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson or whoever can find their way downfield.
Even with Alexander Mattison in the fold, there’s still value in having a back like Cook to give the Vikings a proverbial “thunder-and-lightning” tandem on the ground which makes the lack of a new contract surprising as we march toward 2020.
But Cook’s presence isn’t without its share of question marks. First, we still don’t know if Cook can stay healthy for a full season. Cook has found himself on the sideline for 29 of 48 games, and there are several more where Cook has left early or has been limited.
It would seem like Mattison has had a fair chance to show what he can do, but the biggest “What if?” of last year might have been Mattison’s lost opportunity to start in place of an injured Cook in Weeks 16 and 17. Such an opportunity may have resulted in a Cook trade or even the complete halt of contract negotiations heading into the season.
Complicating matters, we still don’t know what the Vikings financial situation will be heading into 2021 and beyond. With the COVID-19 pandemic potentially halting the growth of the salary cap for the next couple of seasons, the Vikings may want to use that cash on a more premium position, especially with Cousins’ massive contract taking up a good chunk of the current payroll.
All of these questions may mean that having Cook play the 2020 season is a good thing because it buys time to find out the answers before making a long-term commitment.
Think of if the Vikings had given Cook the three-year, $39 million deal David Johnson signed prior to the 2018 season. While the Vikings would have the peace of mind knowing Cook’s under contract until 2023, they would also be holding their breath not knowing if he could make it through a full season.
By not signing Cook, the Vikings can let some of those issues play out. If Cook goes down and Mattison goes nuts, the Vikings can comfortably move on. If Cook stays healthy, the Vikings can use the franchise tag in 2021 to give themselves a larger timeframe to work out a long-term deal with Cook.
A similar situation played out last year in Tennessee with Derrick Henry. After running for just 474 yards and averaging 3.7 yards per carry in the first 12 games of the 2018 season, Henry exploded for 585 yards and 6.7 yards per carry in the final four games. A stretch like that seems like a great time to go to the negotiating table, but the Titans opted to wait and buy more time to see what they wanted to do.
The encore was significant. Henry led the NFL with 1,540 yards rushing and ran for 16 touchdowns before helping the Titans run all the way to the AFC Championship Game. This led Tennessee to use the franchise tag and hours before the deadline, Henry was the proud owner of a four-year, $50 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed.
If this plays out for the Vikings, it would give them options heading into next year. They could decide to pay Cook in the same fashion that Tennessee paid Henry, or the Vikings could shop Cook on the market, getting Rick Spielman his precious draft picks and opening the door for Mattison.
By playing out the final year of his deal, time is now on the Vikings side as Cook’s pending free agency looms. With the ball in their court, it makes sense why the team would cut off extension talks and hope for the best heading into 2020.