Hello and welcome to part one of a 15-part dissertation where I’ll explain the deep intricacies of why running backs don’t matter.
But we are talking about running backs today because very recently the rubber has met the road once again when it comes to both sides of running back value: the running back themselves and those who pay for his services.
The subject of this discussion is Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. It has been reported that Cook, the former No. 41 overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, will not be attending or participating in any team activities until he receives “a reasonable extension.”
Since Cook was not a first-round pick, his rookie deal was only for four years with no fifth-year club option. That means this upcoming season will be Cook’s last under his current contract no matter what.
If you’re looking at Cook from the ever so important lense of “what have you done for me lately,” he couldn’t be coming from a better place. In 2019, Cook had career highs in rushing yards (1,135) and rushing touchdowns (13), all while not even playing a full season (14 games). He also hauled in 53 receptions on 63 targets for an additional 519 receiving yards.
Versus his peers, Cook was top 10 in rushing yards and first downs gained while top five in rushing touchdowns. But according to Over The Cap, as it stands right now going into the 2020 season, Cook is slated to be just the 45th-highest paid player at his position at $1.3 million, and that would include him being behind players who haven’t even taken an NFL snap yet.
The timing of all this makes it interesting because a fellow draftee from the 2017 class, Christian McCaffrey, just became the highest-paid running back in the league. There were whispers of whether or not McCaffrey should hold out before this season kicked off, even with that potential fifth year of his rookie contract, simply because every season, every game, every play you touch the ball is a risk.
Cook and his camp recognize that, and they also are wise to try to get the Vikings to cave for a few reasons.
The first is that Cook hasn’t exactly been the most available back in the NFL since coming into the league. He played in only four games as a rookie, tearing his ACL in Week 4 of 2017. In 2018, a hamstring injury forced Cook to be sidelined for six total games, though he did try to play through it, at times. As stated before, 2019 was his most healthy season, but it still wasn’t a full one. All of that in mind, trying to get all the money you can now after the most healthy and most productive year of your career makes sense.
It also makes sense because the Vikings, a team with playoff aspirations, need Cook. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins is best when he can utilize play-action in the passing game. (I know, I know, you don’t need to have a good running game to utilize play-action, but you know teams don’t think like that.) His play-action execution and quarterback rating are top 10 in the NFL, and Minnesota will likely see Cook as a way to keep that number high.
However, there’s an interesting wrinkle here, and that is the new CBA that recently passed. NFL network’s Tom Pelissero broke that complication down.
"The new collective bargaining agreement makes it virtually prohibitive for a player in Cook's position to actually carry out a holdout," Pelissero said. "If Dalvin Cook does not report on the mandatory reporting date next month with his teammates, or at any point thereafter does not fulfill his contract for any material period of time, he would not accrue the fourth season he needs to become an unrestricted free agent next March. Instead, Cook would be a restricted free agent, meaning the Vikings could retain him with a first-round restricted tender worth between $4 and $5 million instead of having to apply a franchise tag that would be worth roughly double that."
All of that is context to how we got here and what might happen next, but the final big question is what is a “reasonable” extension?
It’s being reported that Cook is seeking a contract similar to that of Houston Texans running back David Johnson. Ignoring the fact that that is a terrible example to be made public, as the Arizona Cardinals regretted signing Johnson to his deal and have since traded him, that’s a payout of about $13 million per season.
Cook might be able to get something close to that number—Spotrac mentions a potential two-year $24 million dollar deal, which would be similar to that of about two years of being on a franchise tag—but it’s hard to see him getting anything more than that. A deal similar to Johnson’s would put Cook in the top five at his position.
Ultimately, this is going to come down to what Cook’s camp prioritizes in the contract: length or money per season.
I believe Cook could probably get a contract similar to the one Spotrac suggested, one that is short in length but pays him as a top back during those two years. But if Cook wants more years than that, it’s going to hurt his per-year price tag. How much guaranteed money is in the deal is also going to matter significantly—which is touchier for running backs than other positions due to how much punishment the position takes.
Ultimately, Cook’s injury history is really going to hurt him here. The Vikings have about $11 million in cap space right now. I can see them coming to an agreement with Cook, but only if Cook is fine with a short-term deal. If not, and if he won’t budge, his injury history paints this picture of a potential Melvin Gordon situation from the year before, a situation that did not go in favor of the player.