Who Has More Leverage in Contract Negotiations, Dalvin Cook or the Vikings?
A day that always seemed like a possibility has now officially arrived. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Monday that Vikings running back Dalvin Cook will be holding out from all team activities until he receives a "reasonable" offer from the Vikings on a contract extension.
Cook is set to make $1.3 million in 2020 in the final year of his rookie deal. As is the case with all young stars, he would be drastically underpaid if he played another season on that contract. Cook broke out with over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns last year, establishing himself as a top-five running back in the NFL.
Now the Vikings' star wants to get paid like a top-five running back. The baseline for getting into that range is $13 million per season, which is what new Texans RB David Johnson is making on the deal he signed with the Cardinals back in 2018. Le'Veon Bell is just above Johnson at $13.1 million, Ezekiel Elliott is at $15 million, and Christian McCaffrey leads the way by making $16 million annually on the extension he signed with the Panthers earlier this offseason.
Thus far, the Vikings have been "unwilling" to meet Cook's price in negotiations. Cook's side undoubtedly went high with their initial asking point, likely in the Elliott and McCaffrey range. The Vikings presumably countered with something below the Johnson and Bell range. The question now is whether or not the two sides will eventually compromise on something in the middle.
As Cook and the Vikings go forward with negotiations, it's important to consider which side has more leverage. Let's take a look at what each party has working in its favor.
Dalvin Cook's leverage
Spoiler alert: this section is going to be shorter than the following one. Because of a provision in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the recent history of big contracts for RBs, and his injury history, Cook just doesn't have a ton of leverage.
What he does have going for him is his talent and his value in the Vikings' scheme. Cook has everything you want out of a modern running back: vision, explosiveness, agility, power. His playmaking ability also shows up when catching passes out of the backfield. And in Gary Kubiak's run-heavy offense, Cook is a crucial part of the Vikings' success. Look to last Week 16 against the Packers, when he was forced to sit due to injury and the Vikings' offense desperately missed him in a disappointing home loss.
The Vikings' depth at running back could potentially be an argument for both sides. Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone are good young players, but neither is as talented and well-rounded as Cook. This isn't a situation like the Chargers had with Melvin Gordon last year; the difference in talent between Cook and Mattison is a lot larger than the difference between Gordon and Austin Ekeler. The better comparison is probably the 2018 Steelers, where Bell sat out all year and was replaced by James Conner. But as I'll explain in a second, Cook doesn't have the same leverage that Bell did that year.
All of the evidence suggests the Vikings would like to pay Cook. Under Rick Spielman, they have a strong history of rewarding their talented homegrown players with lucrative second contracts. Cook is one of the faces of the franchise and a great representative of the team off of the field. He's also a very talented player who would be tough to replace.
With that said, he doesn't have as much leverage as the Vikings do.
The Vikings' leverage
There's no question that the Vikings have the cap space to pay Cook on a new deal. They've got roughly $8 million left to spend this year, and could make it work over the next few seasons (although a coronavirus-caused dip in the 2021 salary cap is a concern). But they don't have many incentives to cave into Cook's side's demands as far as price goes.
The main reason for that – and something that could make Cook's holdout threat a fairly empty one – has to do with a provision in the new CBA that was agreed upon this offseason. Cook, who reportedly "will absolutely not play for the Vikings in 2020 without a new deal," may not actually have a realistic choice. Under the new CBA, if he were to fail to report to training camp, he would be sacrificing an "accrued season" and would not hit unrestricted free agency in 2021. Instead, he would become a restricted free agent, and the Vikings could simply use a first- or second-round tender on him like they did with linebacker Eric Wilson this offseason.
If that were to happen, Cook would still be able to negotiate with other teams. But if a team gave him an offer sheet and the Vikings didn't match it, that team would have to surrender at least a second-round pick. If no team made an offer – which would be a possibility, given the value of early-round picks and the lack of a robust market for running backs – the Vikings would only owe Cook a couple million in 2021. By not showing up to training camp this year, Cook would be risking delaying his payday by a year and perhaps seeing the numbers on a long-term deal go down due to advanced age, as well as potential injury or underperformance.
This new element of the CBA means rookie contract players have very little leverage in holding out. Bell sat out all of the 2018 season and then signed a lucrative deal with the Jets the following year, but Cook doesn't have that same freedom.
The Vikings also have the leverage of having Mattison and Boone waiting in the wings. Even if neither is on the level of someone like Ekeler, the analytics would suggest that the Vikings probably wouldn't experience much of an overall dropoff by going from Cook to Mattison as their feature back.
And of course, the two main risks of signing Cook to a big deal remain relevant. One is the recent history of second contracts for running backs like Bell, Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman, and Jerick McKinnon, almost all of which those teams quickly regretted. The other is Cook's injury history; he has played in just 29 of a possible 48 games through three years due to various injuries.
The Vikings and Cook presumably would both like to reach a compromise that would keep the star running back in purple for the foreseeable future. Perhaps this will all be rendered moot when Cook agrees to a deal worth somewhere in the $10-13 million per year range ahead of training camp.
But if Cook's side refuses to stray from their demands of $13+ million per year and the Vikings decide that spending that much doesn't make sense in their long-term plans, it will likely be Cook who is forced to budge. It almost certainly doesn't make sense for him to not show up to training camp this year because of what he would be risking. If the two sides can't come to an agreement on a number, maybe the Vikings would look to trade Cook to a team that's willing to pay him what he desires. Or maybe Cook begrudgingly accepts his fate and plays out the season before bolting in free agency in 2021. He could also stick to his word and sit out, despite the risk.
There are a lot of potential outcomes still on the table. But if one thing is clear, it's that the Vikings are the side with more leverage here.
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