As Dalvin Cook embarks on a contract holdout that threatens to go into training camp, the Minnesota Vikings are left with an important decision regarding his status.
The Vikings could pay Cook as one of the top running backs in the league, but that hasn't worked out well for teams that have taken that plunge. With Alexander Mattison waiting in the wings, they could also let Cook walk and see his shelf-life expire somewhere else, saving money in the process.
But as this situation nears its resolution, the Vikings need to find a way to keep Cook around to avoid becoming an offense that falls into mediocrity.
Cook's impact on the offense
The Vikings have spent the past two seasons transforming their offense and centering it around the running game. While John DeFilippo tried to use a pass-happy approach to get Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs involved, it wasn't the best scheme for the offensive line or Kirk Cousins, thus creating a change.
Beginning with Kevin Stefanski's takeover as offensive coordinator in Week 15 of the 2018 season, Cook ripped off a 10-game stretch where he ran for 973 yards, 10 touchdowns, and averaged 5.44 yards per carry. Those numbers declined to 410 yards, five touchdowns, and 3.5 yards per carry in the final seven games, but that doesn't tell the full story of his impact on the offense.
When Cook began to stumble, the Vikings' passing game took full advantage. After struggling for his first 20 games in Minnesota, Cousins took off and played at an MVP-level for the Vikings, averaging 8.31 yards per attempt and compiling a 23-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his final 12 games.
With the combination of Cook shredding opposing defenses, it helped play-action become Cousins' most dangerous weapon. Cousins registered a 129.2 passer rating on play-action passes throughout the season, but that number dropped to 101.4 in the final two starts without Cook per Pro Football Focus.
Cousins' rise was also aided by Cook, who also became a factor in the passing game. While his targets weren't downfield, Cook made big plays with the ball in his hand, leading the NFL among qualifiers with an average of 11.7 yards after the catch.
What about Mattison?
Those numbers indicate that even if defenses want to stop the run, Cook can be effective in other ways. However, it doesn't completely negate the level of effectiveness that Mattison showed in his rookie season.
In a piece at Zone Coverage, it shows that Mattison's stats would look eerily similar to Cook if they had been extrapolated to the 250 carries Cook received last season. In fact, there were some areas where Mattison proved to be better than Cook, although in a smaller sample size.
Those numbers have many Viking fans pointing at San Francisco, who used the combination of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida to the verge of a Super Bowl victory. Even Kansas City, who bested the 49ers in that game, was fueled on the ground with 104 yards from UDFA Damien Williams.
Could the Vikings be fine turning to Mattison if they can't come to an agreement with Cook? Sure. Would the offense be the same? I'd have to disagree.
While Mattison wound up having the NFL's third-highest breakaway percentage at 41.3 percent, a lot of his damage was done late in games. More specifically, 76 percent of Mattison's carries came in games where the Vikings won by double-digits.
Defenses are likely in eight-man fronts to stop the run at that point, there's also nobody to stop Mattison once he breaks through the second level of the defense, leading to bigger runs, thus inflating his effectiveness.
Perhaps this could have been solved if Mattison were healthy enough to make the Week 16 start against Green Bay, but we don't know what he would look like in a workhorse role and the big plays that Cook has put up may not be there.
How much should the Vikings pay?
There is one important caveat in this discussion and that's how much the Vikings should actually pay Cook. ESPN's Courtney Cronin stated that Cook is looking for the $16 million Christian McCaffrey got from Carolina and considering how running backs are fading, it makes sense for Cook to get paid while he can.
But the Vikings are reportedly offering $8 to $9 million, which also makes sense considering Cook's injury history.
In the end, there might have to be a compromise because after trading Diggs, the Vikings are running out of weapons for a quarterback that needs them. Justin Jefferson could be that answer, but 700 yards and five touchdowns would be a solid campaign, but nowhere near the numbers that Diggs has put up.
The Vikings need Cook because even if an offense can run with average players, it doesn't make it a good idea to get rid of the good ones. For an organization that paid Kyle Rudolph out of guilt last offseason, it might be suitable to strike a two-to-three-year deal and revisit things down the road.
Otherwise, the Vikings offense will risk slipping back into mediocrity.