There's Two Key Differences With the Za'Darius Smith and Dalvin Cook Situations

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings knew that change was coming once their magic ran out in the first round of the playoffs last year. The Vikings beat the New York Giants during the regular season, were 11-0 in one-score games, and never lost to an underdog. But in the postseason, the underdog Giants beat them, handing them their only one-score loss of the season. A team that walked on sweet nothing all year finally fell back to earth.

A day after losing to the Giants, several players reflected on the season as they cleaned out their lockers. Justin Jefferson said it was a good season but not “a success.” Jordan Hicks said that they laid a foundation and established standards. When reporters asked Eric Kendricks about his future in Minnesota, he said he’s “not even thinking about that right now.” Dalvin Cook had a similar answer. “You have to talk to Kwesi and KO about that,” he said. “That’s not my type of question.”

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell knew Minnesota’s record in one-score games was unsustainable. The Vikings were up against the cap, and they had declining veteran players. They said goodbye to Adam Thielen and Kendricks and traded the disgruntled Za’Darius Smith to the Cleveland Browns. But we don’t know what will happen to Cook yet. His $14.1 million cap hit remains on Minnesota’s books, the third-highest on the team. He also carries a $15.6 million hit in 2024; $13.5 million in 2025. Cook will be 30 by then.

The Vikings probably would have liked to trade Smith and Cook on draft day. They entered the draft with five picks this year and needed to open up some cap space. But they found no takers. Eventually, Cleveland traded them fifth-round picks in 2024 and 2025 for Smith and Minnesota’s sixth- and seventh-round picks in 2025. It was a modest return for a player who had ten sacks last year. But Smith, 30, recorded 8.5 of his sacks in the first seven games last year. He only had 1.5 in the final ten games while battling a knee injury. The Vikings had little leverage, given his age, late-season production, and discontentment.

It’s easy to lump Smith and Cook into the same category as Thielen and Kendricks. They’re veteran leaders with large cap hits who may be declining. Either they had to take a pay cut to remain with the team, as Harrison Smith and Hicks did, or the Vikings would move on from them. But there is a significant difference in their situations. Za’Darius Smith had a valuable contract, but he sold his home and said goodbye on social media. Conversely, Cook carries a large cap hit for a running back but appears happy in Minnesota.

If Smith still lived in Eagan and hadn’t forced his way out, the Vikings probably would have welcomed him back last year. His decline in play is directly correlated to his knee injury, and he made the Pro Bowl last year. Smith still has something to give entering his age-31 season. Minnesota should be thrilled with any value contract, given its cap situation. But that all changed when Smith asked out. They can’t extend him and add more money in the future, especially with a player on the wrong side of 30. Therefore, they signed Marcus Davenport and traded him to Cleveland.

Conversely, Cook is popular among his teammates and made crucial plays throughout the season. He ripped off an 80-yard run in Minnesota’s upset of the Buffalo Bills, and his 64-yard screen play helped them come back against the Indianapolis Colts. He wants to stay; it’s just a matter of if it makes sense from a cap perspective. Adofo-Mensah probably would not have signed Cook to a five-year, $63 million extension. But that’s the difference between the Vikings’ new and old general managers. Rick Spielman was a super-scout who wanted to keep his draft picks who panned out. Adofo-Mensah is more of a CEO with a Wall Street background. He knows that it’s inefficient to pay running backs but also that it’s wise for him to spend to the cap.

The Vikings could cut Cook post-June 1 and save more money against the cap. But what are they spending cap space on at this point? They already restructured Kirk Cousins to become cap compliant at the end of the league year. They cut Thielen and Kendricks and traded Za’Darius Smith for what they could get. Harrison Smith and Hicks took pay cuts. Jordan Addison and DeWayne McBride should sign soon. It’s hard to believe they’ll land an impact player at this point in the offseason. So they should spend to the cap limit, even if Cook’s contract is inefficient.

It looked like Cook’s days were numbered when the Vikings re-signed Alexander Mattison. But Cook and Mattison have played together before, and teams are wise to have multiple viable running backs, given the amount of stress their bodies endure on Sundays. Minnesota offloaded Za’Darius Smith for little in return, but he was an unhappy player. Cook isn’t as productive as he once was, but he’s still capable of making a big play. And on a team where the offense will have to carry them again next season, that’s still valuable – even if the Vikings are paying too much for it.

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