NFL free agency starts next week, giving the Vikings a chance to retool a roster that was good enough to win 10 games and upset the Saints in the NFC playoffs. We’ll be rolling out a new Access Vikings podcast every day this week to preview the week ahead, focusing on different sets of players each day.
Monday’s initial effort, on offensive skilled position players, was interesting as a means of clarifying just how many important decisions the Vikings have to make with that group this offeason — even though the biggest decisions don’t really have anything to do with 2020 free agency.
The three big ones:
*Decide if they are going to trade wide receiver Stefon Diggs — a question some of us (me) have been focused on even while the Vikings insist there’s nothing going on.
*Decide the future of Kirk Cousins, given that he has one year left on his contract and an extension could ease their salary cap burden.
*Decide the future of Dalvin Cook, who has one year left on his rookie deal and will be looking for a lucrative extension.
The Diggs question is a fun one, but it’s the most speculative and least urgent. He’s under contract for four seasons, and as long as everyone is happy the Vikings can just keep paying him to produce.
The Cousins question is interesting, but we’re probably overthinking it. Thinking like the Vikings: If the goal is to make the playoffs year after year, giving yourself a chance in the postseason, a Cousins extension makes sense. He’s an above-average player at a position where the Vikings haven’t had above-average stability in a long time.
Cook? It seems obvious on the surface, but it’s more layered than it appears. So let’s spend a little time on it. (Above photo of Cook by the Star Tribune’s Jerry Holt).
As recently as 10 years ago, this would be a slam dunk decision. Running backs were workhorses and the focal points of offenses. Twenty years ago the decision would be even easier. Thirty years ago the Vikings gave up a million pieces to get one (Herschel Walker) that they thought could put them over the top.
These days, though, it’s not so simple. First, the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 instituted a rookie wage scale — setting a fixed cost for players in the first four years of their careers based on their draft slots. Cook, a second-round pick in 2017, signed a four-year deal worth $6.26 million total.
Because running backs tend to be more NFL-ready than players at other positions, they tend to offer a lot of value on their initial deals. Then they get A LOT more expensive when they hit free agency.
They also take a lot of hits and are exposed to a sort of physical wear and tear that gives them a shorter peak shelf life than players at other positions. The main takeaway from a Pro Football Reference study of running backs is that “as a group, running backs under 27 tend to improve, and running backs over 27 tend to decline.”
Cook will turn 25 just before the start of next season. Let’s say the Vikings gave him an extension somewhere in the neighborhood of what Ezekiel Elliott got with the Cowboys — adding six years and $90 million to his existing contract. Cook would be 26 when the extension started and 31 in the final year of the deal. Theoretically, at least in terms of the average running back, the Vikings would be paying for 2-3 years of Cook’s peak and 3-4 years of his decline if the contract was played out in full.
No position has been squeezed more by analytics and the current NFL salary structure than running backs. And it doesn’t help Cook’s case when teams like the Steelers and Chargers almost seamlessly move on from standouts Le’Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon with cheaper options in James Conner (in 2018) and Austin Ekeler (in 2019).
On Monday’s podcast, we raised a simple question: How good is Cook in relation to other options on the team? If the Vikings decided to let Cook walk after this season and ride the younger and cheaper Alexander Mattison or Mike Boone (or someone else they draft in the next two years) in 2021, are they 90% of what Cook is? 75% Less?
Pro Football Focus at least gives us some objective measure. Cook was graded No. 14 out of all qualified NFL running backs last season — good, but perhaps not as high as one might imagine. As a pure rusher he graded much higher, but he was dinged with relatively low grades as a receiver and pass blocker as well as for his four fumbles.
Boone, though not qualified to be ranked because he didn’t play enough, actually had a higher overall grade than Cook (78.1 vs. 76.2) while Mattison was a respectable 70.0 in 212 snaps as Cook’s primary backup when healthy.
That last part is important, too, when it comes to Cook. He’s played in just 29 of 48 career regular season games in his three seasons with the Vikings because of a variety of injuries.
All that said: Cook was at one point the NFL’s leading rusher last season and was a clear focal point of the offense. The Vikings were 10-4 when he played last season, 0-2 when he didn’t — including an ugly home loss to the Packers in which the Vikings struggled mightily to move the ball. He bounced back with 94 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win over New Orleans.
As a threat to break a long one every time he touches the ball, Cook stresses a defense in a way that a replacement might not — opening up the play action passing game the Vikings leaned on heavily last season and figure to lean on again in 2020.
Cook is a Vikings draft success story as a second-round pick and one that GM Rick Spielman included among “those core group of players that we definitely want to try and keep,” when addressing the media at the Scouting Combine late last month.
Still, it’s fair to wonder: When the money gets tight, as it inevitably will for the cap-strapped Vikings, will the Vikings look at Cook as a player they can’t afford to lose or can’t afford to keep?