Dalvin Cook spent years as the centerpiece of the Minnesota Vikings’ offense, but now it’s Justin Jefferson’s team. Mike Zimmer’s proclivity for running the ball is out, and Kevin O’Connell‘s use of four wide receivers is in.
So what will Cook’s role be in O’Connell’s 11-personnel offense? Will he be on the field less? More?
First, it’s essential to look at Cook’s contract in some detail to illustrate his impact on the cap. Cook signed a five-year, $63 million extension in 2021. However, there is a potential out for the Vikings after this coming season, and he’ll be the fourth-highest-paid running back in the NFL this year.
Cook is worth it from a talent perspective, but his durability is a concern. O’Connell hasn’t had a running back close to as talented as Cook in his prime. Hopefully, O’Connell won’t run him into the ground as Zimmer did, but Cook will still be as efficient.
O’Connell has been an offensive coordinator for two teams over the last three seasons. To better understand how he’ll use Cook, let’s look back to find out how he utilized his running backs.
2019 – Washington Commanders
O’Connell’s offense had the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL in 2019.
The Washington Commanders had an interesting group of running backs at the time. Their leading rusher was a 34-year-old Adrian Peterson, and he made a bigger impact than I remember. Peterson had 898 yards and five touchdowns on 4.3 yards per carry. Not a bad season considering his age and the circumstances of this season.
Second-year running back Derrius Guice was the Day 1 starter for Washington in 2019. He missed his rookie season due to an ACL tear in the preseason. Guice suffered more injuries in 2019 and only had one meaningful game that year, but it was an anomaly. He had 12.9 yards per carry on just 10 attempts.
Overall, they did not rely on their running backs as much as other teams under O’Connell have. Part of that is due to the injuries at the position and the team’s struggles as a whole. Washington ended the season 3-13.
That was O’Connell’s first season as an OC, and it wasn’t great. It’s much more of an outlier than a red flag, though. Therefore, it’s more important to break down the next two seasons.
2020 – Los Angeles Rams
It was running back by committee under O’Connell in 2020. The Rams had two primary backs, and I mean that because they had almost identical rushing stats.
Cam Akers had 625 yards, and Darrell Henderson had 624. Malcolm Brown, the third wheel, had only 419. However, they all recorded five TDs. They didn’t have one true starting RB, but O’Connell had far more success on the ground in LA than in DC.
The Rams were 10th in rushing attempts in the NFL and were similarly ranked in both yards and TDs. That’s a stark contrast from the year before in Washington. There he had one lead back, albeit out of desperation, instead of three primary runners.
The Rams were willing to spread the load across multiple backs throughout the season. Given Cook’s injury history, it wouldn’t be surprising to see O’Connell lean on Alexander Mattison or even Kene Nwangwu in games that Cook starts.
Cook missed four games last season, but he was still fifth in the league in rushing attempts. He had more than Ezekiel Elliott, who played all 17 games. That’s not a recipe for longevity, so I welcome the change if that’s what keeps Cook healthy for the duration of his contract.
2021 – Los Angeles Rams
Unsurprisingly, last years’ Rams team was similar to 2020s. The one key difference is that they traded for Sony Michel after Akers suffered an injury.
Michel was the rushing leader on the Super Bowl-winning offense. This was the first time in O’Connell’s coordinator career that he had a running back play a whole season. Michel is by no means a great back, but he was serviceable.
Henderson played a role last season and started quite a few games. It seems like the Rams really liked Henderson because he still got 688 yards, but between him and Akers missing time, Michel had the lion’s share of carries.
O’Connell doesn’t commit to one running back in all three of these samples unless he’s forced to. Cook will be the first clear-cut superstar in one of his backfields. And with Mattison’s talent, I think Cook will split carries more throughout games.
Last year there was only one game where Mattison got over five carries when Cook was fully healthy; he had seven against the San Francisco 49ers. Cook was consistently getting 20-plus carries per game. He obviously has earned that, but it has to be part of why Cook has suffered so many injuries.
In the past, Mattison only got meaningful carries when Cook was hurt. Part of Mattison’s success has come when he gets a lot of carries, but he really should be used in relief of Cook to keep him fresh – and that’s probably what will happen.
The NFL is trending towards using multiple running backs. Expect O’Connell to take that approach because all the pieces are falling in place for a modern offense this season.