The Vikings Might Be Better Off Keeping Dalvin Cook

Photo Credit: Jamie Germano via USA TODAY Sports

Imagine, if you will:

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was feeling good heading into the NFL’s general manager meetings. The Minnesota Vikings were coming off a 13-win season, they had a wunderkind head coach and a ton of cap space piled up for the 2024 offseason. His successful resumé had Adofo-Mensah walking into a Florida hotel with an energy reserved for the high school nerd-turned-bombshell at their 10-year class reunion before he ran into one of his colleagues.

“Hey, it’s the guy paying $14 million to a running back!” Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane announced to the room.

“$14 million for a running back…in this economy?” Miami Dolphins GM Chris Grier added.

Suddenly, everyone was laughing at Adofo-Mensah. He was also standing in his underwear. Things weren’t going great – until he woke up in a cold sweat.

“I have to trade Dalvin Cook,” Adofo-Mensah said in a state of terror. “But do I really have to trade Dalvin?”

Keeping Dalvin could be the answer to a complicated situation. The Vikings would like to get younger and cheaper in the backfield, but they have an expensive problem in Cook. In a perfect world, a team would trade for a running back who has racked up four-straight 1,100-yard seasons. But with the devaluation of running backs throughout the league, a deal hasn’t gotten done.

It also may not be a matter of whether Cook is traded before this season. Instead, it could be whether the Vikings are willing to hold out until they receive the perfect deal.

The main reason the Vikings may want to move Cook is to take his salary off the books. At $14.1 million, Cook has the third-highest cap hit of any running back behind the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry ($16.3 million) and the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb ($14.8 million). The Vikings could be eyeing to trade or release Cook after June 1, which would clear $9 million in cap space with a release or $11 million with a trade. It appears they’re heading that route based on their offseason moves.

Minnesota re-signed Alexander Mattison to a deal with a $3.5 million average value and then drafted UAB running back DeWayne McBride in the seventh round of this year’s draft. Even with their reported pursuit of David Montgomery, the Vikings wouldn’t have been paying the $6 million per season he got with the Detroit Lions. And that would be significantly less money than they would be paying Cook.

Taking money out of the backfield would allow the Vikings to allocate funds toward premium positions. With Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, and Christian Darrisaw set to receive paydays in the next calendar year, it makes a lot of sense. However, the earliest any of those deals would kick in is during the 2024 season.

If anything, Cook’s departure would clear money off the books for the upcoming season. At this point, it’s unclear if there is a move available that would not only require salary-cap space but also make the Vikings a better team than they would be with Cook.

Think back to the 2021 season when the Vikings spent $50 million in free agency to fix their defense. Some of that money was used on larger contracts for Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson. However, it was complemented by smaller signings that summer, including Sheldon Richardson and Bashaud Breeland.

Both signings were applauded at the time, but neither Richardson or Breeland made a difference because the Vikings went 8-9.

Does someone like Marcus Peters, Leonard Floyd, or Frank Clark move the needle for the Vikings? Or are they just like Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, and Peterson – pricey veterans who are heading toward the wrong side of 30?

Additionally, the Vikings would be handing Mattison the starting job roughly nine months after giving him a career low in carries. Meanwhile, 2022 fifth-round pick Ty Chandler has yet to prove he’s more of a preseason star. McBride may not be able to provide an immediate impact even if the Vikings had a starter’s grade on him coming out of the draft.

In this case, keeping a player who has run for 1,100 yards in each of the past four seasons makes more sense – especially with his salary already on the books. But it also doesn’t mean that the Vikings are tied to Cook in the long term.

Cook still is unable to pass a physical after undergoing surgery in March, and teams would also want to lower his cap hit before bringing him aboard. With this in mind, any team that is trading for Cook is doing so on a leap of faith. It might benefit the Vikings to wait until a team gets desperate and dangle Cook for a blockbuster at the trade deadline.

You may think that no team would give up more than they should to acquire an aging running back. Still, as much as we hear that teams are devaluing that position, there are a lot of coaches who care about their running game.

Take Kyle Shanahan, whose father once turned Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Alfred Morris into household names. For years, Shanahan cycled through running backs during his early years in San Francisco. However, he caved in at last year’s trade deadline by dealing for Christian McCaffrey.

Like Cook, McCaffrey was expensive and was coming off an injury-plagued season, but he performed well enough to rehab his value while the Carolina Panthers stumbled to a 2-6 record. With the Panthers looking to turn the page, they shopped McCaffrey at the deadline and received a second-, third-, and fourth-round selection from the Niners in the 2023 draft and a fifth-round selection in 2024.

There’s a chance the same scenario could play out for the Vikings in 2023. O’Connell went into the offseason wanting to prove the efficiency in the running game and signed road-grading tight end Josh Oliver before extending C.J. Ham. If these moves are successful, Cook could take off and look like the back we’ve seen for most of his career.

Even if that happens, it’s not guaranteed the Vikings will be one of the better teams in the NFC. Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, and Patrick Mahomes will test Minnesota early, and their schedule also contains sneaky matchups like Mike Evans in Week 1, Thielen’s revenge game in Week 4, and Bijan Robinson in Week 8. If the Vikings can’t find the same magic that produced eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season, they could be sellers — which could put Cook on the market.

That could benefit the Vikings in the long run. Instead of bailing on Cook for the sake of getting him out of town, they can play the long game and get a lot more in return. If he’s a productive member of the team, the Vikings can also try to deal him again next year, where they would save $12.5 million against the cap.

Both of these scenarios would be better than taking a fifth-round pick this summer and could leave Adofo-Mensah with the last laugh.

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