Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his daily writing at Purple Insider.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Minnesota Vikings are a better team with Dalvin Cook than they are without him.
Pro Football Focus rated him the fifth best running back in the NFL last season and gave him the third best rushing grade. He also gained 15 or more yards on 11 screen passes last season, which was nearly double the next best running back. In the last 20 seasons, only 12 players have more yards from scrimmage in their first 29 games than Cook (per Pro-Football Reference) and 11 of those ahead of him have more than 600 touches. He has 561 since being drafted in the second round in 2017.
So you can see why Cook believes that the Vikings should sign him to a lucrative contract extension. You can understand why he would hold out rather than play on a deal that will make him the 42nd highest-paid player at his position in terms of average annual value (per OverTheCap).
But the Vikings reportedly haven’t offered Cook an extension anywhere near the price tag he believes he’s worth. You can see their point with recent deals for Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley going bust and most analytic studies finding that the running back’s impact on an offense isn’t as great as we once believed. That’s not to mention Cook’s injury history.
While the Vikings have a tendency to get deals done for their star players like Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Everson Griffen, Adam Thielen, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and so on, this time around the situation might be different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, revenue has a good chance of dipping and impacting the future salary cap.
Make no mistake, the Vikings can work something out if they want because of money coming off the books but if they see greater value in other positions down the road, it might be in the best interest of both sides to find a trade partner.
Certainly the Vikings wouldn’t expect to get a first-round pick back like they did from Buffalo for Stefon Diggs but there are a handful of clubs that could have interest. Currently 15 teams have at least $15 million in cap space (per OTC).
Take Washington, for example. Last year they ranked 21st in rushing yards and 16th in yards per carry. They have $36 million in cap space and a quarterback in Dwayne Haskins on a rookie deal. Washington hired Ron Rivera this offseason with a mind toward major improvement. Cook would instantly jolt their offense forward.
In past years during the Mike Zimmer era, the Vikings didn’t trade any players amidst contract negotiations because of the team’s window to win. Take Kyle Rudolph, for example, who was quoted last offseason saying that if he couldn’t reach an extension with the Vikings, there were other teams interested in dealing for him. Rudolph returned with a new contract, in part because 2019 was the final year of the Vikings still having the bones of the 2017 team that went to the NFC Championship. Things have changed vastly since last offseason. They will have a new No. 2 receiver, guard(s), defensive end, defensive tackle(s) and cornerback(s).
The NFC North is too wonky to call it a rebuild but the sheer number of new faces and young players filling large roles makes for 2020 to be the first year in which we won’t head into the season talking about NFC title game expectations or beyond. It’s more realistic to view 2021 that way and 2020 as a transition year in which the Vikings can determine which young players will be staples going forward and which spots they can spend on in 2021 free agency.
Trading Cook also wouldn’t mean tossing the season down the drain. Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone aren’t as talented as Cook but they combined for 745 yards at 4.9 yards per carry last season. Not to mention there are a handful of veteran running backs on the free agent market like Freeman, Theo Riddick, Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell who could create a trio in the backfield.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has made a career out of squeezing more talent out of his backs (a la Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson, Justin Forsett etc.) than their paychecks or draft status. It was clear from his comments last week on a conference call with Twin Cities media that, while he appreciates Cook’s elite talents, the team plans to keep running no matter who’s in the backfield.
“We really start our classroom offensively, we walk into a room and tell our guys we’re committed to running the football and being a physical team,” Kubiak said. “I work for a head coach that talks that same way. It’s really just a mindset and saying hey we’re going to be good at doing this.”
If a trade seems out of the realm of possibility with a run-obsessed OC like Kubiak, well, you’d have to check the history books. Once upon a time, Kubiak was the OC for a Denver team that traded an outrageously talented young Clinton Portis for cornerback Champ Bailey.
Of course, the Vikings and Cook have over a month before training camp comes around. But if Cook doesn’t have a deal by then, things get ugly. Cook would lose an accrued season if he misses the start of camp and he will be fined heavily for every day missed. He could end up like Melvin Gordon, who skipped several weeks to start the season without a new deal and ended up with pennies on the dollar in free agency.
Nobody wants that.
Trading away a Pro Bowler is never something that a contending team sets out to do but if Cook and the Vikings are truly at an impasse, moving him for a 2021 draft pick is a better option than having everyone go into camp frustrated with the situation. And this sure as heck isn’t the year to add extra distractions.