As we discussed on this week’s edition of ‘About the Labor’, the NFL may be on the precipice of a salary cap implosion in 2021. Because of the expected impact on the NFL’s revenue in 2020-21 thanks to COVID-19, it’s been reported that team-by-team salary cap reduction of up to $40-to$50 million (or $80 million by some estimations).
That reduction would be catastrophic for each team, as they’d essentially have to cut most of their players and start over from scratch. That’s why it most likely won’t happen, as the NFL could instead finance the difference and then pay off the lended amount with profits in future seasons. I only bring it up because the Vikings are currently negotiating the extension for their sudden superstar running back Dalvin Cook and are most likely using this uncertainty as a negotiating tactic.
Why do I think that?
Well, there have been reports this off-season that the Vikings consider Cook’s value to be in the $8-to-$10 million dollars per season, which is far off from what Cook (and his agent) believe his talents are worth which is reportedly $13-to-$15 million dollars per season range. That amount would put Cook in the rare company of backs like Ezekiel Elliott, who held out from the Cowboys last season to get his deal done, or Jets running back Le’Veon Bell, who also held out to get his deal.
That’s a perfect segue as it’s been reported that Cook is also now holding out from the Vikings until his deal is done.
According to ESPN, in lieu of a “reasonable deal”, Dalvin Cook will no longer participate in any-team related activities.
“He’s out, Without a reasonable extension, he will not be showing up for camp or beyond.”
That linked article by ESPN states that the Vikings have essentially shown this off-season that they are a “quarterback first team”. That is somewhat ironic as the Vikings under Zimmer have always branded themselves as a run first team, which is something they’ve also shown by refusing to invest in fixes to the offensive line that’d, you know, give their quarterback in Kirk Cousins an actual pocket to throw from.
The Vikings offensive line has been atrocious in terms of pass blocking, clocking in at the 27th-ranked unit in 2019. They’re a much better run blocking unit, nearing the top five at times during the 2019 season. That alone should should you that the team values it’s run game much more than it’s pass game, as Cousins was often only capable of moving the chains through the air when he was able to roll out of the pocket and create time for himself.
So, it’s somewhat strange that they’d extend Cousins before Cook, especially as together the two will make up over 20% of the teams salary cap if Cook even is given a contract that averages out to $10 million a season. That amount would bring the duo to a total of $55-million in 2022, which’d be about a quarter of the team cap for TWO players.
Because of the way they’ve handled these extensions it isn’t hard to go the extra logical step and question whether or not the Vikings feel comfortable breaking the bank for a running back who has yet to show that he’s able to make it the full 16 games each season.
Cook’s first two seasons were both cut in HALF thanks to an ACL and hamstring injury, respectively, that limited his games played to 16 of 32. Cook seemed to buck that trend in 2019, only to end the season by missing two games thanks to an upper torso injury that was reported to be a couple of different things (chest, shoulder, etc.).
Injury-prone running backs don’t tend to get less injury-prone as they age and accumulate more hits, and considering the sheer amount of carries that the Vikings asked of Cook in 2019, and that they’d continue to ask moving forward, perhaps they’re a bit hesitant to pay him full market value if they’re not confident he’ll be able to earn those wages on the field.
Just check out this table from SportsInjuryPredictor.com (which is somehow a real thing). They aggregate data to predict the percentage chance that a player will be injured, as well as how many games they’re projected to miss.
Dalvin makes the top ten, which includes running backs that aren’t starters, and that definitely aren’t on his level. Do you think that the Vikings don’t have some sort of similar data? Or, even from a non-algorithmic level, Cook has missed 62.5% of the games he otherwise would have started.
With that in mind, I’ve always thought that they wanted to see if Cook’s body held up in 2020 before, again, breaking dat bank for him. That’s something that won’t happen now as Cook has made it clear that he’s comfortable letting his amazing output in 2019 (albeit in 14 games) speak for him in terms of contract negotiation.
Considering he had 13 touchdowns, nearly a touchdown a game, in 2019 (the second-most in team history) and was arguably the best back in the entire NFL in 2019-20 it’s not hard to see why he’s doing that. On top of that fact, if he were to play in 2020 without an extension and then actually get hurt he would be completely torpedoing his value.
Dalvin and those around him are smart enough to understand that the risk of that happening is way worse than the risk of holding out and letting the 30 out of a potential 48 games played speak for him. This might be something the Vikings saw coming, which explains why they spent a third round draft pick on Dalvin Cook 2.0 in Alexander Mattison back in 2018.
Speaking of risk, should the Vikings not want to tether the near future of their franchise to an injury prone but brilliant running back like Cook, they at least know that they have someone behind him who has shown that while not as talented but is able to run the offense in very similar ways to that of Cook. Mattison is able to not only execute his role on the ground, but he also is able to catch balls out of the backfield. He was also known as a workhorse back in College at Boise State, one that according to Vikings general manager Rick Spielman:
“We watched all the tape on him, and it seems like the more carries he gets, the more work he gets, the more he gets lathered up”
For a “run first” team like the Vikings not to have sorted Cook’s extension before now or especially that of apparent afterthought quarterback Cousins, to me speaks volumes as to their thoughts on whether or not it makes sense to extend Cook for the elite amount of money he’s looking for. While he would definitely get that money somewhere, I also am not sure it makes sense to pay a running back that amount of money, period, in 2020.
That’s not to say that I am one of those people that thinks a running back by committee system is worth what someone like Adrian Peterson brought to the table in his prime, or a better example being a three-down back like Ezekiel Elliott.
That having been said, when you’ve got one of the best run game architects in NFL history as your offensive coordinator, as the Vikings do, you might really not notice much of a difference between what Alexander Mattison brings to the fore, when he’s running in the zone blocking scheme perfected by Gary Kubiak’s mentor in Mike Shanahan.
Shanahan was known for “creating” 1,000 yard backs each year, something that should at least be mentioned when talking about Cook’s breakout 2019 campaign. While Cook has shown otherwordly talent, he also was running in Kubiak/Dennison’s system, one that we saw Shanahan’s son Kyle utilize as well.
Take practice squad journeyman Raheem Mostert as an example. The 49ers running back ran for a 7.6 yards per carry average against the supposedly stout defensive front of the Green Bay Packers during the 2019 playoffs, racking up 220 yards in the process and essentially dictating the entire game by himself. While that’s a very rare and specific example, there’s a reason why the elder Shanahan was known for being the guy who could get 1,000 yards out of a potato in his system.
The Vikings could be balancing whether or not it makes sense to invest 25% of their salary cap into two players, one of which is injury prone and whose output could be replaced at least at a serviceable level by someone else already on the roster. That’s the difference between Cousins and Cook, or the main one, as the Vikings have no one else on the roster to replace Cousins.
Cousins has also been consistent in his statistical output over multiple seasons (as the ONLY QB in the NFL to have 25-or-more touchdowns in all of the last five seasons), in terms of both stats and health and when faced with the question as to who they should invest in first (or perhaps who to invest in at all), they clearly chose Cousins despite their “run first” mantra.
That’s not to say that they aren’t attempting to extend Cook, they are. But the time that it’s taken and the reported gulf between camps that has lead to Cook holding out, may show that the Vikings aren’t completely sold on Cook and his 14 games of excellence, or at least that they couldn’t also get around 4.5 yards per carry from Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone and/or Ameer Abdullah.
Do you honestly think that with Kubiak running the show, with the team claiming that they’ll be more athletic on the line now that slowpoke Josh Kline is gone (UGH), that they wouldn’t be able to come up with 1,100 yards on the ground between Mattison and Boone? Sure, Boone looked in over his head against the Packers late in the season, but Cook had similar games (namely the three games that Kline missed, all of which were either 2.4 or 2.5 yards per carry affairs) and Boone bounced back with nearly 150 yards against the Bears week 17, running behind an offensive line of mostly reserves.
The question is whether or not the team believes that, and whether or not they’re willing to give $60 million to two players in 2022. While Cook’s fortunes are his own, they’re also tethered to the reality that the team did in fact pay Cousins first and they paid Cousins an insane $45 million for the 2022 season (all of which will be guaranteed unless he is cut before the start of next season which won’t happen because of the dead cap money it’d accrue).
Because of that, I believe that the team might not budge when it comes to what they want to pay Cook as they do obviously value what he brings to the team but considering all the other variables/realities (Cousins’ deal, Cook’s propensity to get hurt, Mattison being on the roster, this being a zone blocking team, the 2021 salary cap regression) it’s not hard to see why the Vikings and Cook are at an impasse.