In the final weeks of the 2018 season, the Minnesota Vikings had a change in identity on offense. After John DeFilippo tied his luck to the right arm of Kirk Cousins and the passing game, head coach Mike Zimmer preferred a ground-and-pound approach that was based on keeping the ball away from the opponent and making the game shorter.
After offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski spent the final three games feeding Dalvin Cook, the Vikings went all-in on their running game in 2019, going from 30th in rushing offense to sixth and riding Cook to a tremendous season.
With Cook's success comes the question of his future as NFL teams treat running backs in the same way fantasy football players treat quarterbacks. As the Vikings are projected to be $9 million over the salary cap, the question on what to do with Cook is another big one this offseason.
2019 in review
After waiting through two injury-marred seasons, the Vikings finally got to see what Dalvin Cook could do with a full season of work, running for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns. Cook was also an integral part of the passing game, catching 53 passes for 519 yards.
While Cook was electric for the Vikings in 2019, he was aided in part by a strong rookie campaign from Alexander Mattison. The third-round pick chipped in with 462 yards and a touchdown while Mike Boone played well in emergency duty, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with three touchdowns late in the season.
The strong play from the backups was welcomed by the Vikings as the effectiveness of the running game helped Kirk Cousins post a 129.2 passer rating on play-action passes. With 31.4% of his passing attempts coming via play-action, the argument could be made that Cook is the most important player on the Vikings offense.
The salary cap situation
Cook's production was nice, but it was also problematic for the Vikings as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract. Although he is under contract for next season, running backs have shown an unwillingness to play the final year of their deals out without future guarantees. Just look what happened with Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas.
Fortunately, the Vikings have been great at paying important players before it becomes an issue. With Cook due to make just over $2 million next season, the Vikings would be wise to work out an extension with the 24-year-old to keep him happy and also create much-needed cap space.
Outside of Cook, the Vikings are set at the running back position with both Mattison ($830K) and Boone ($662K) under contract for 2020. With several other positions looking at changes to create cap space, the money should be there to give Cook a raise.
Potential free-agent targets
With the Vikings having their three running backs in place for 2020, it's highly unlikely that Minnesota will be looking to add another back in this year's free-agent class. That doesn't mean there aren't some interesting names on the market as Tennessee playoff hero Derrick Henry is set to become a free agent as well as Los Angeles' Melvin Gordon and Arizona's Kenyan Drake.
Potential draft targets
Again, the Vikings aren't likely to dive into this draft class after selecting Mattison in the third round last year, but this year's crop is loaded with game-changing talent even after Clemson's Travis Etienne opted to stay in school.
Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins has begun to rise up leaderboards after a strong finish to the 2019 season and Georgia's D'Andre Swift is a top prospect that can get involved in both the running and passing game. Other names to watch are Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor and Florida State's Cam Akers.
The revitalization of the running game has to be one of the biggest successes for the Vikings in 2019 and should mean good things as they will continue to use the Gary Kubiak-inspired zone blocking scheme in 2020.
The Vikings have already begun discussing a contract extension with Cook and it makes all the sense in the world to keep your foundational piece happy heading into next season. With Mattison behind him, the only area the Vikings could look to upgrade is Boone as the third spot or if they want to find a special teams ace to replace free-agent Ameer Abdullah.
In the grand scheme of things, the running back position will not be a priority for the Vikings this offseason, which means they can focus their energy on some of the other holes on the roster.