The Vikings have a workload problem with Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, and it's something they need to rectify over the final six games of 2020 to maximize their likelihood of success this season and beyond.
The issue is simple: Cook is getting the ball too much and Jefferson isn't getting it enough. However, the reasons why the respective usage levels of the Vikings' two young stars are concerning requires some explanation.
Let's start with Cook. On the surface, it may seem ludicrous to suggest that his touches are problematically high. After a breakout year in 2019, Cook has gone to another level this season, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns by a wide margin despite missing a game and a half. He's been the most dominant and productive running back in the league by whatever measure you choose, whether that's raw statistics, any advanced metric, or even just the eye test.
Cook is the Vikings' best player and the centerpiece of a run-heavy offense. He almost singlehandedly led the way to victories over the Packers and Lions, establishing himself as a dark horse MVP candidate and the league's top back with a pair of remarkable outings. While those absurd numbers were predictably unsustainable, he has continued to play at a high level since then, just like he was earlier in the year before a minor groin injury cost him six quarters of football. The numbers from Cook's last six fully healthy games speak for themselves.
- vs. TEN (Week 3): 24 touches, 199 yards, 1 TD
- at HOU (Week 4): 29 touches, 146 yards, 2 TD
- at GB (Week 8): 32 touches, 226 yards, 4 TD
- vs. DET (Week 9): 24 touches, 252 yards, 2 TD
- at CHI (Week 10): 34 touches, 112 yards
- vs. DAL (Week 11): 32 touches, 160 yards, 1 TD
That's an incredible level of durability and consistency. Cook averaged 182.5 yards from scrimmage over those six games, raising his season average to 144.8. No one else is above 118 yards per game in 2020. Why would you want to mess with that?
Well, the issue here has nothing to do with Cook's talent; it's about his weekly number of touches and the long-term effects they could have on his health and production. Over that six-game span, he either carried or caught the ball a combined 175 times. No other running back in the league has come anywhere close to that type of workload over their past six games; Derrick Henry is second at 134, with James Robinson and Josh Jacobs the only other players above 120. Cook handled at least 32 touches in three of the past four games, while the rest of the league has combined for exactly one game of 32 or more touches all season (Henry in Week 1).
Those 175 touches break down to a weekly average of roughly 29.2. Over a 16-game season, that would result in 467 total touches, which would be the second-most in NFL history behind only James Wilder's 492 in 1984. Cook opening the season with 29 combined touches in Weeks 1 and 2 and missing 1.5 games means he obviously won't challenge Wilder's record, but his current pace would put him right at the 400 mark. He's at 226 right now, meaning another 175 touches over the Vikings' final six games would get him to 401.
While 400-touch seasons were fairly common for workhorse running backs in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, only three players have reached that mark since 2010: DeMarco Murray (449 in 2014), Le'Veon Bell (406 in 2017), and Christian McCaffrey (403 in 2019). Each of those is a bit of a cautionary tale, which is where the main point comes in: carrying (or catching) the ball that many times takes a physical toll on any player. Murray had another big year in 2016, but dealt with injuries and was out of the league two years later. Bell hasn't been the same player since his 400-touch season, though missing all of 2018 with a contract dispute didn't help. Even McCaffrey – who the Vikings may see this weekend – has been limited to three games this year.
Given Cook's well-known injury history and the significant financial commitment the Vikings made to him this offseason – a five-year, $63 million contract with $28 million guaranteed – should they really be running him into the ground like this? He has taken a particularly noticeable beating over the past two games against the Bears and Cowboys, staying down on the U.S. Bank Stadium turf for a minute or two after this vicious hit last Sunday:
Running backs don't typically last very long in the NFL, much less maintain their peak levels of explosiveness and production year after year. Adding in Cook's injury history only heightens the risk that his current workload could lead to future missed games or a premature decline in burst and agility.
Cook will never admit that it's too much. "It's just football" is a common line of his. He's a tough competitor who embraces his role as this offense's focal point and doesn't shy away from contact.
"My body feels good after that one," Cook said after a season-high 34 touches in Chicago. "I’m ready to play another one. It’s about getting my body back in line to take those touches. Because I know mentally I’m there. I’m checked in and I’m ready to go and it’s just about getting my body ready to go. I can take them. I’m ready."
The Vikings seem to understand that Cook getting 30-plus touches every Sunday isn't ideal; Mike Zimmer has mentioned on multiple occasions wanting to get backup Alexander Mattison more work. However, it just hasn't happened. Mattison, who the Vikings spent a third-round pick on last season, had a grand total of six touches to Cook's 98 against Green Bay, Chicago, and Dallas.
With the Vikings getting off to a 1-5 start this year, every game feels like a must-win for their playoff hopes. And with that, they know their best chance of offensive success requires Cook to be on the field. "We’re going to have to ride this guy," Zimmer said after beating the Packers. Unless the game is out of reach, Cook is out there on virtually every single snap.
That shouldn't be the case. Yes, the Vikings have six games left in 2020 to try to mount a run to the playoffs. But with their odds of reaching the postseason back below 20 percent after the loss to the Cowboys, there also needs to be some long-term perspective taken into account. The Vikings have a chance to be really good in 2021 with the return of key players on defense and the continued growth of some young pieces on offense. They need Cook to be healthy and firing on all cylinders when next season rolls around. They'd also theoretically like him to still be effective in 2025, when he's 30 and in the final year of his contract. Reducing Cook's touches slightly and getting Mattison more involved is a smart way to increase the chances of that happening.
There's also the entirely separate idea that the Vikings should be running the ball less frequently in general, which is where Jefferson comes in. With Zimmer and Gary Kubiak in command, the Vikings have been one of the NFL's most run-heavy teams for the past two years. Last year, that led to ten wins and a divisional round appearance, but it also resulted in an elite talent at one of the sport's most important positions forcing his way out of town. After seeing 94 targets in 2019, Stefon Diggs has 101 through ten games with the Bills and is second in the league in receiving yards (and playing for a 7-3 team).
This year, the Vikings have kept the same offensive philosophy. Leaning heavily on Cook worked out against the Packers, for example, but all of the analytics (such as Expected Points Added) tell us that running is far less efficient than passing. One obvious example of this approach's flaws is that Kubiak's insistence on calling run plays on second and long has put Kirk Cousins in some difficult situations on third down.
Jefferson stepped into the Diggs role this season and has shockingly managed to exceed the production and efficiency of his predecessor. The rookie from LSU is an emerging superstar who is on pace to break all kinds of franchise records, including Randy Moss's rookie receiving yards mark set in 1998. Jefferson leads the entire NFL in yards per route run at 3.16, a number that hasn't been reached in a full season since Steve Smith in 2008. He's PFF's second-highest graded wide receiver and leads the league in receiving yards since entering the starting lineup in Week 3.
In short, Jefferson is really, really good. He has demonstrated incredible prowess as a route-runner, generating consistent separation against all types of coverages. He has the speed, contested-catch skills, and yards-after-catch ability to be a top ten receiver in the league very soon, if he isn't one already.
Despite all of his talent, Jefferson is suffering from the same thing Diggs did last year: a lack of opportunities. Yes, some of his success and efficiency can be attributed to his heavy usage on intermediate and deep routes and Cook commanding a lot of attention from opposing defenses. But Jefferson had just five targets against the Cowboys, and that wasn't an anomaly; he's had five or fewer targets in five of the last seven games. Of the 25 players with at least 500 receiving yards since Week 3, only Jefferson (53 targets/778 yards), Tim Patrick (46/510), and A.J. Brown (51/501) have fewer than 55 targets during that span.
There's simply no excuse for Jefferson to ever have five targets in a game. He's too much of a weapon. In the three instances where he's seen nine or more targets this season, Jefferson has averaged 158.7 yards and scored three touchdowns. He was getting open at will against the Cowboys, much like he has been all season long.
Adam Thielen and Cook had big days in that game, Cousins played very well, and the Vikings' offense as a whole was quite efficient and effective. Jefferson also dropped a key pass on the team's final offensive series, his third drop of the year and the first that came in a big spot.
But from a general perspective, there is plenty of room for improvement from the Vikings' offense, which ranks 17th in yards per drive and 14th in scoring average. Getting Jefferson the ball more often is a simple and necessary step towards the development and maximization of that unit. Whether that's via passing the ball more, increasing the number of plays where Jefferson is Cousins' first read, or even scheming him touches with things like screens and end-arounds, it's something that needs to happen.
Increasing Jefferson's usage – and slightly reining in Cook's – would go a long way for the Vikings during the remainder of 2020 and in the years to come.
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