Offseason Roster Question No. 2: Should the Vikings Spend Big on Dalvin Cook?
After playing in just 15 games in two injury-plagued seasons to begin his NFL career, Dalvin Cook stayed (mostly) healthy this year, appearing in 14 of the Vikings' 15 meaningful games. The result was a breakout year for Cook, whose unquestioned ability was finally showcased for a full season.
Cook ran for 1,135 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns, and added 519 receiving yards (9.8 yards per catch), finishing second in the league with 118.1 yards from scrimmage per game. He showed off his power by laying the wood on Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in Week 1, his breakaway speed by out-running the entire Packers defense for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 2, and his shiftiness by breaking five tackles on a run against the Raiders in Week 3.
From there, the rest of the season was more of the same. In addition to the above traits, Cook's vision and patience allowed him to thrive in Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, which requires backs to know when to bounce a run to the sidelines and when to burst through a cutback lane. Cook's acceleration in the open field made him a dangerous receiver, as well.
Considering his overall skillset and production, there's little doubt that Cook should be considered one of the top five running backs in the NFL. Depending on how you feel about Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Nick Chubb, Cook might even be in the top three with Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry. Rankings aside, Cook looks like a long-term star at running back, much like the Vikings had with Adrian Peterson earlier this decade.
To keep him in purple for the foreseeable future, the Vikings will have to open up the checkbook like they did for Peterson. Cook was a complete bargain last season, as he made just over $1 million in the third year of his rookie deal. He's schedule to make $1.3 million next season in the final season of that deal, and would then become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. To prevent him from hitting free agency, the Vikings have the option to offer Cook a lucrative extension this offseason. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapaport, that's something that both sides have discussed.
“[Cook] is also one of the NFL's biggest bargains, making just a million dollars this year, [and] has one more year on his contract after this," Rapaport said. "My understanding is his agent and the Vikings are going to get together this offseason and see if they can change that. No guarantees, but my understanding is they want to work on a long-term extension to keep him in a Vikings uniform for years to come. We’ve seen the road map: 6 years, $90 million for Ezekiel Elliott. This could end up being the biggest Vikings deal since Adrian Peterson‘s $100 million deal in 2011.”
The question is this: is it worth is for the Vikings to lock Cook up with a lengthy, pricey extension? Let's look at the cases for and against doing so.
The case for signing Dalvin Cook to a major extension
Anyone who watched this Vikings this season saw both Cook's talent and his importance to the offense as a whole. He was a perfect fit in Kubiak's offense, handling major workloads and bringing big-time production.
Cook helped the Vikings get out to leads and keep them in early-season games against the Falcons, Raiders, Giants, and Lions, surpassing 120 yards from scrimmage in each of those games (including a season-high 218 at the Meadowlands). With 183 yards from scrimmage, he was the clear MVP of their narrow Sunday night victory in Dallas, the team's biggest win of the season at that point. And after being banged up down the stretch, his first-half production in the wild-card playoff game was a big reason why the Vikings were able to stun the Saints on the road.
Cook made this offense go. He ripped off big gains on early downs and was a reliable outlet and playmaker for Kirk Cousins in the passing game. His presence also helped unlock Cousins' play-action game that was the key to generating explosive plays within the Vikings offense. Furthermore, we saw a prime example of Cook's value when he missed the game against the Packers in Week 16. The Vikings should give Cook a long-term deal with Elliott-like money, and trust cap guru Rob Brzezinski to figure everything else out later.
The case against signing Dalvin Cook to a major extension
No one will argue that Cook isn't an excellent running back; he clearly is one of the best in the league. The case against extending Cook comes down to a couple factors, the most notable being the lack of value of running backs in general, which is exemplified when looking at recent big-money contract for star backs around the league. There's a sentiment among the NFL analytics crowd that "running backs don't matter." And while that's clearly an oversimplification, it's true that in a league where passing adds more expected value than running on a play-to-play basis, there's only so much value a star running back can bring.
Look at the Vikings' seven-year, $96 million deal with Peterson in 2011. He won NFL MVP in 2012 with one of the most ridiculous individual seasons in NFL history, yet with Christian Ponder at quarterback, it was only enough to barely drag the Vikings to the playoffs. Peterson played just four full seasons after signing the contract, and the Vikings never won a playoff game during that time. The Vikings' defense and quarterback situation have improved since then, but it still goes to show that a running back alone cannot lead a team to a title.
Then there are other examples from around the league. Elliott had a strong season in the first year of his $90 million deal, but it wasn't enough to get the Cowboys to the playoffs in 2019. Todd Gurley had a down year this season in the second year of a four-year, $60 million deal, as the Rams followed up a Super Bowl appearance by missing the playoffs. Le'Veon Bell's deal with the Jets is considered to be disastrous. Go down the list – Saquon Barkley, David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Jerick McKinnon, Leonard Fournette – and whether due to injuries, declining production, or the talent surrounding them, almost none of the recent big-money running backs have made massive differences to their team's outlook. The Chargers refused to pay Melvin Gordon, and ended up being just fine with Austin Ekeler this season.
All of this is to say that signing Cook to a long, pricey extension – which would mean the Vikings would have to move on from some veterans at other positions – comes with some risk. Injuries cost Cook most of his first two seasons and clearly limited him somewhat down the stretch. Even if he's healthy, Cook can't do it on his own. When the 49ers keyed in on shutting him down, the Vikings offense had no backup plan. Finally, there's the fact that Alexander Mattison (4.6 yards per carry, 8.2 yards per reception) gave the Vikings similar production to Cook this year, albeit with a smaller workload. Mattison is under contract for three more years, and will make just over $2 million during that time.
Cook is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and a perfect fit for the Vikings' offense. But would they be better served letting someone else give him a huge contract? That's for Rick Spielman and the rest of the franchise's decision-makers to determine.
The Vikings offseason roster questions series is a deep dive into the biggest decisions facing the Vikings as they look to upgrade their roster in 2020.
Question No. 2: Should the Vikings Spend Big on Dalvin Cook?
Still to come: examinations of the offensive line, potential cap casualties and impending free agents, the upcoming NFL draft, the Vikings' biggest positional needs, and more.