The Minnesota Vikings have historically been great about keeping their star players in purple and gold, especially during the Mike Zimmer era. Players who most fans would consider stars have received a lucrative contract that provided long-term security, while not putting the franchise in salary cap hell.
Dalvin Cook appears to be next in line for a lucrative deal. But general manager Rick Spielman and cap guru Rob Brzezinski need to proceed with caution when negotiating with Cook, more than they did with players like Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks and others.
Cook is undoubtedly one of the best running backs in the NFL today. There is no disputing that. His ability to make the first defender (and sometimes additional defenders) miss is second-to-none. He possesses a gear of acceleration that few running backs — nay, players of any position — possess. Plus, he also runs with underrated power that helped the Vikings close out several games in 2019.
However, with that said, it’s important to keep in mind that extending a running back to a long-term deal is much riskier than any other position. This includes the quarterback position, where today players are routinely being extended at over $30 million per season.
The nature of the running back position lends itself to high injury risk. Running backs are asked to carry the football 10, 15, 20 or even 25 times per game and run straight into a sea of very large men who want to see them put on the ground immediately. The physical toll that takes on someone is important to consider.
And then there’s Cook’s injury history. He’s missed chunks of games in each one of his seasons as a member of the Minnesota Vikings due to injury. If a player is missing multiple games per season, that deteriorates his value quite a bit.
Speaking of value, the discussion of the value of the running back position is another reason for the Vikings to proceed with caution. Dominant running backs just don’t carry their teams to postseason success. Last season, only three of the NFL’s top 10 in rushing yards made the playoffs — and one of them was quarterback Lamar Jackson. Cook and Derrick Henry were the only two running backs in the top 10 that played in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the teams that played in the Super Bowl did not need a highly-regarded running back to get there. Kansas City’s Damien Williams was undrafted and has suddenly made a name for himself as a frequent touchdown scorer in the playoffs. The 49ers’ trio of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida was more than enough for San Francisco to win the NFC.
New England’s dynasty will perhaps never be matched, and the Patriots have shuffled running backs around in their offense more than anyone in the NFL over the past decade. They had three 1,000-yard rushers in the 2010s — all of them were separate players.
Christian McCaffrey put together one of the most productive seasons of all-time for a running back in 2019 as a member of the Carolina Panthers. He totaled nearly 2,400 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns — over 1,000 yards and four touchdowns came as a receiver. But all that production led to a 5-11 record and a last-place finish in the NFC South.
This isn’t to say running backs don’t matter. They just have much less of an impact on the team’s success than other positions.
With that said, part of the argument for a large Cook contract is Minnesota’s offense. The Vikings still operate an old-school offense that relies more on the run game than nearly every other team in the NFL. A running back that can exploit the defense for a big gain at any moment is certainly a key piece to that puzzle.
Still, a massive contract remains a risky move. The Todd Gurley situation with the Los Angeles Rams is just more support against the idea of a long-term running back contract. Two years ago, Gurley was an MVP candidate and won NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Two years later, in the middle of one of the largest running back contracts ever, he was released by the Rams as concerns about the long-term condition of his knee surfaced.
Remember Le’Veon Bell? The Jets added Bell prior to the 2019 season on a four-year, $52 million contract. Not much has changed — the Jets are still the Jets.
David Johnson was once an MVP candidate with the Arizona Cardinals before he received a lucrative extension worth over $10 million per season. In 2019, he became replaceable. The Cardinals traded Johnson to the Houston Texans to get rid of that contract.
The list goes on and on. Rarely, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL, does a long-term contract for a running back pay off.
Plus, the possibility of a salary cap decrease has entered the fold now as the COVID-19 virus has restricted the NFL and will certainly make a dent in the league’s revenue. If the salary cap dips, Minnesota will be in financial trouble and paying a large lump to Cook will only pour gasoline onto the fire.
It’s not really fair to Cook. He’s one of the best at what he does. He’s also really easy to root for and has won the hearts of Vikings fans both on and off the field. But the nature of the running back position suggests that it just isn’t as valuable as almost every other position on either side of the ball. The impact, positive or negative, isn’t extreme. So why spend top dollar there?
The risks far outweigh the reward, which is why the Vikings must proceed with caution.