It was hard not to think of the Minnesota Vikings’ 2019 playoff win over the New Orleans Saints when tensions boiled over at the end of the 2021 season. It became evident that the Vikings would move on from Mike Zimmer after the Green Bay Packers ended their playoff hopes, and Minnesota finished the year below .500 again. What if Minnesota had lost that game in New Orleans? Would George Patton and Kevin Stefanski have taken over in 2020? Could they have gotten more out of this roster?
Ultimately, that mattered less when the Vikings hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell last offseason. KAM and KOC retained most of the core players from 2021 but created a new culture, focused on situational football, and won 13 games. Justin Jefferson broke Randy Moss’ franchise receiving record and reached the playoffs; Kirk Cousins played better under an offensive head coach.
However, the Vikings are in a cap crunch and will have to make tough decisions on popular veterans, including Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith. Dalvin Cook is chief among them. The decision Adofo-Mensah and the front office make on him will be more telling than what they do with Thielen, Kendricks, and Smith. Retaining Thielen is probably a matter of whether he’ll take a pay cut to stay in Minnesota. Their decision on Kendricks will tell us how much they value veteran savvy versus raw athleticism. Smith will indicate if Ed Donatell misused him last season or if he’s slowing down meaningfully.
But what they do with Cook will tell us how much they value the running back position.
Like Thielen, Kendricks, and Smith, Cook showed signs of decline last year. He played an entire season for the first time in his career and rushed for 1,173 yards, sixth-most in the NFL. However, he finished with an average of 17.8 touches and 86 yards per scrimmage per game, career lows. Furthermore, O’Connell’s Sean McVay-inspired offense averaged 42.9 dropbacks per game, the most for the franchise since Denny Green’s 2000 Vikings. Conversely, they averaged 23.7 rushes per game, the third-lowest over that span.
“It’s this complex equation we’re always trying to solve,” Adofo-Mensah said after the season when reporters asked him about retaining core veterans. Cook and others “are great football players, great people, [and] core foundational elements of our culture.”
Welcome to modern football, folks. Many teams are dedicating a lot of cap space to their quarterback, and Cousins’ $36.25 million hit currently constitutes 16.09% of Minnesota’s cap. They also aren’t the only organization that has emphasized the passing game. If Cousins is going to make that kind of money, he has to drive winning.
Jefferson is the Vikings’ star, but he can only do his job if Cousins enables him. However, Cousins can only get him the ball if defenses have to cover Minnesota’s secondary receivers and he has enough time to throw. The Vikings can extend Jefferson this year, and they also need to pay T.J. Hockenson and revamp their defense. Something’s gotta give.
In June 2020, Cook held out for a “reasonable extension,” and the Vikings signed him to a five-year, $63 million extension on September 12, 2020. Twenty-four hours later, the Packers beat them 43-34 to kick off the season. Cook will carry a $14.1 million cap hit next season, and KSTP insider Darren Wolfson reported that Cook “is not inclined” to take a pay cut. Cook’s salary occupies 6.26% of Minnesota’s cap, higher than the money they’ve committed to Danielle Hunter, Kendricks, and Hockenson.
Cook recently had shoulder surgery, so he may be healthier and more productive next season. He also had an 81-yard run in Buffalo and scored on a 64-yard screen in Minnesota’s comeback over the Indianapolis Colts. He’s capable in the run and pass game, which is vital in the modern NFL. However, he’s become a boom-or-bust running back, and most teams are moving to a model where multiple league-minimum backs share the running duties.
The Vikings don’t have any surefire replacements in-house. Alexander Mattison is a free agent, and he’s an inferior back to Cook. Kene Nwangwu is an explosive player, but Minnesota hasn’t used him much as a running back. Ty Chandler showed out in the preseason, but he’s a fifth-round pick who only appeared in three games last year. Still, the Vikings could trade Cook and supplement their current roster with free agents or rookies to fill out a two- or three-back rotation.
Zimmer wanted a run-first offense and focused on defense. But O’Connell has built his offense around the passing game, as he should with Jefferson and Hockenson under contract. Cousins progressively learned the offense as the season went along and should enter next year with a good base of knowledge. He still takes snaps from under center and uses play-action to create explosive plays, but the team won’t lean on the running back to carry the offense. Therefore, a multi-back offense is feasible.
Would Paton have extended Cook like Spielman did? Maybe. Both came up as scouts, and Paton was with the Vikings organization from 2007 until he took the Denver Broncos GM job in 2021. Scouts tend to favor the players they draft and develop, and Cook turned himself from a second-round pick in 2017 to a dynamic $63 million back in three years. Paton had a hand in drafting him and his development. Furthermore, Stefanski ran a Kubiak-style play-action offense, and he has leaned on Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt since the Cleveland Browns hired him in 2020.
But the times, they are a changin’, and the Vikings are on the vanguard of the modern NFL. O’Connell isn’t allergic to the forward pass; Adofo-Mensah acts more as a CEO than a super-scout. He came up through Wall Street and has an analytics background. Therefore, he will always emphasize value and may start being cutthroat. Cook was born in Opa-Locka, Fla., and has become amaranthine in his association with the Purple. But as Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell continue to shape the team in their vision, it’s hard to see them dedicating a lot of green to the running back position.