It wouldn’t truly feel like football season is just around the corner unless there was a report that an elite fantasy football running back is holding out. Star Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, coming off a career year, is reportedly skipping all team activities until he can reach a “reasonable” contract extension. According to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin, the magic number may be $13 million per season, which would place Cook among the top-five highest-paid running backs in AAV.
Where does that leave fantasy managers who were planning to invest a high pick on Cook? His early ADP was No. 4 overall as the RB3. There’s no way you can invest a top-five pick in him before he signs.
Unfortunately, fantasy football players have become accustomed to dealing with these pre-season situations lately. From Le’Veon Bell to Ezekiel Elliott to Melvin Gordon, at least one first-round running back had held out each of the last two seasons. Last year, Elliott got a deal done and didn’t miss any time (after making fantasy managers sweat for a while), but Gordon plummeted down draft boards and didn’t end his holdout until late September. The former Los Angeles Charger didn’t make his season debut until Week 5. Then there’s Bell.
Bell did the unthinkable by sitting out the entire 2018 season. He was going among the top three overall picks, much like Cook, before his holdout. Bell never returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers and didn’t return to the football field until the following season, when he signed with the New York Jets in 2019. His backup, James Conner, emerged as a late-round fantasy star in his absence. Could the same thing happen in Minnesota with Alexander Mattison?
While we’re only two years removed from Bell’s doomsday scenario, it’s incredibly unlikely Cook holds out for the entire 2020 season. That type of unwavering resistance to playing on a current deal is very rare and should be treated as such. It’s also June and Cook isn’t exactly holding out of much right now because of current health restrictions in place. That said, it’s still worth taking seriously so you don’t get burned on draft day. Before grabbing every possible share of Mattison, let’s break down what his upside could be in 2020.
To start, this won’t be a Conner-like situation for long because fantasy managers are more sensitive to holdouts now than in 2018, and this news is coming very early in the drafting process. Conner’s 2018 ADP was RB53 at 147.6 overall. Mattison’s current 2020 ADP is RB45 at 134.5 overall. While that’s not too dissimilar, Mattison is going to fly up draft boards by the time most players draft in July and August. How high is too high?
Cook missed the final two games of the 2019 regular season but Mattison missed the last three, so we don’t truly know what a Mattison-led Vikings rushing attack looks like. Minnesota rushed a grand total of 16 times as a team with no success against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. The following week, Mike Boone went off for 148 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against the Chicago Bears. That sort of boom-or-bust production could be a sign of things to come should Cook miss regular-season action.
For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume a Gordon-like situation. Cook sits out the first quarter of the season and eventually re-joins the team for Week 5 and beyond. What is Mattison’s worth in that scenario?
The Vikings averaged about 30.93 rushing attempts per game when Cook started last season. Cook received 57.74% of those rushing attempts (Mattison got 23.09% of the carries in that time frame, which includes one missed game). Assuming Mattison jumps to Cook’s level of touches for four weeks and returns to the roughly eight carries and one target per game he averaged last season the rest of the way, he should finish with around 771 rushing yards and 204 receiving yards on 30 catches over 16 games based on his per-carry/target averages from last season. Touchdowns are a lot flukier to predict, but let’s be aggressive and say he scores once per game with Cook out and twice more as the No. 2 back the rest of the season.
Totalling up all of the above and factoring in a couple of fumbles, Mattison would finish with 159.5 PPR points. That would’ve been good enough to rank as the RB23 in total points last season, right between Marlon Mack and (guess who?) Gordon.
Cook’s extensive injury history has to factor in the equation as well—it’s likely a big reason why he’s holding out as well. In this hypothetical scenario, there’s no guarantee he plays each of the final 12 games of the regular season after his holdout. Still, there’s no guarantee he misses any games in the first place.
As long as Cook is holding out, Mattison should be viewed as a potential low-end RB2/flex play (he’d flirt with RB1 territory during the time Cook is out). If I were drafting today, I’d take Mattison as the RB30, right around the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth round. He’ll go as an RB2 in some drafts and that’s not a horrible risk, but just keep in mind he needs 4-5 starts with Cook holding out or injured in order to return that draft-day value.