A Winning Contract for Dalvin Cook and The Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings should offer Dalvin Cook an extension that fully guarantees $10.278 million per year for the first two years, and Cook should accept. In doing so, Cook will be paid as a top running back and the Vikings will retain flexibility in future seasons.

The Complicated Case of Dalvin Cook

In a recent interview, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked about Cook’s holdout. Kubiak explained that “we support Dalvin” and that Cook is “very bright” before indicating that he “love[s] running backs.”

As if there was any uncertainty, Kubiak also said that “we believe in running the football” before noting that Cook “did a hell of a job of doing that.” Shortly thereafter, Kubiak reiterated his commitment to “running the football and being a physical team.” “I work for a head coach,” Kubiak explained, “that talks that same way.”

The analytics community tends to be less enthusiastic than NFL coaches about running backs, but it’s notable that some of the analytics suggest that Cook is among the best running backs in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranks Cook as the fifth most elusive starting running back in the NFL. His overall player grade is a very solid 81.4. Even still, PFF raises some concerns about giving him a large contract.

Therein lies the issue with the Cook contract: for every great argument in favor of an extension, there is an equally compelling counterargument.

Other Running Back Contracts

Christian McCaffrey is rightfully being paid as the top running back in the league. According to Over the Cap, McCaffrey is averaging just over $16 million per year. Unlike Cook, McCaffrey has been fully healthy over his three seasons. His production also outpaces Cook’s. Just last season, McCaffrey ran for more than 1300 yards, he caught 116 passes, and had more than 1,000 receiving yards. It’s not inconceivable that Cook could one day mirror these numbers, but he hasn’t yet, so the Vikings should be aiming at a contract that is considerably lower than McCaffrey’s.

The next highest paid running backs are Ezekiel Elliot ($15 million/year), Le’veon Bell ($13.125 million/year), David Johnson ($13 million/year), and Derrick Henry, who is playing under the franchise tag ($10.278 million/year). Cook deserves to be within range of these players, especially seeing as how he is considerably better than both Bell and Johnson. One could certainly make the case that he has a higher ceiling than both Elliott and Henry.

The issues, though, are numerous. In his three-year career, Cook has had several injuries, the foremost of which being his torn ACL in his rookie season. Perhaps even more concerning is that in the second half of last season, Cook’s production was significantly lower (even before the two missed games). In his final eight games (two of which were playoff games), Cook averaged less than four yards per carry six times and less than three yards per carry two times. This doesn’t mean he was altogether ineffective, but it is concerning.

With all that being said, it’s important to remember that Cook is an elite player at his position, one who makes life easier for the rest of the offense. The Vikings have several good players on offense; Cook is the only elite one. Simply being on the field makes life easier for Kirk Cousins. It isn’t just his explosive runs and ability to turn screens into long gains, it’s also the plays when he doesn’t even touch the ball. Defenses have to respect the possibility of an explosive run or screen pass, thereby opening room for other players to succeed.

It is indisputable that Cook deserves a raise. He is a top five running back who is being paid less than a lot of backups. The question, then, rests in how much Cook deserves.

On the one hand, he has been injury prone, shown signs of wearing down over a season, and plays a position where replacements are easy to find. On the other hand, he is the only truly elite player on offense, a player who is intelligent and hardworking, someone who is good in the locker room, and who fits perfectly in Mike Zimmer’s vision for the Vikings.

There are legitimate reasons for and against a big contract extension, so the Vikings should try to find a middle way. The Vikings should guarantee the first two seasons, and they shouldn’t be shy about front-loading the money. Paying $10.278 million fully guaranteed would put Cook directly in-line with the current franchise tag for running backs (see Henry’s contract above).

The key rests in the term. Running backs, especially the injury-prone ones, can wear down quickly. The Vikings don’t want to be paying elite money to a non-elite running back; it’s impossible to know if after three more years (an eternity in the NFL) Cook will still be elite. The middle way, then, may involve a four or five-year extension with the first two seasons being fully guaranteed.

The result is a contract that acknowledges Cook’s status as being among the best running backs in the NFL, as the fully guaranteed $10.278 million suggests. This contract would also marry Cook’s deal with the Cousins contract (who received a two-year extension this offseason). If they still aren’t able to truly threaten for a championship over the next three years, the Vikings can move on from both players and pursue a new direction.

Conclusion

Even if the worst case happens this season (God forbid, a season ending injury in the preseason), the Vikings should still be interested in bringing Cook back for the 2021 season. If they decided to cut him after the initial season into his extension, then they’d be responsible for the $10.278 million in dead money. This is a lot of money, but keep in mind that they’re paying more than $20 million this season in dead money, so it isn’t an entirely prohibitive number. After the initial two seasons, though, the Vikings should protect themselves by ensuring there is an easy opt-out clause.

Regardless of what the solution is, the hope here is that it gets resolved soon. The holdouts over the past couple season (Melvin Gordon, Elliott, Bell, etc.) have all involved running backs who haven’t lived up to their contract and teams that haven’t succeeded. The Vikings and Cook have good reason to find a solution, and the key rests in arriving at a sensible balance.

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