“Go get that bag $$!”
The Vikings had just defeated the Cowboys 28-24 on Sunday Night Football in Week 10. Dalvin Cook had scored the final touchdown of the evening at the end of the third quarter, and after the game, he and Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott swapped jerseys. Two months earlier, Elliott had signed a deal to become the league’s highest-paid running back. On that Sunday, Elliott scribbled a note onto the jersey he gave Cook, telling the Minnesota running back to get his “$$.”
Here's a photo of the jersey swap between Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott. pic.twitter.com/GET9LF4P0Z— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) November 11, 2019
Seven months later, Cook is following Elliott’s advice. Cook will not participate in any team activities until he gets a “reasonable” contract offer, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. He had reportedly been seeking a contract that would surpass the $16 million-per-year deal that Carolina signed Christian McCaffrey to in April. But ESPN’s Courtney Cronin reported Cook has since dropped that number to around $15 million and would accept a deal in the range of $13 million annually, which would put him in the top five at the position (the current top five: McCaffrey, Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Derrick Henry, who is on the franchise tag). Minnesota’s first offer was below $10 million annually, according to Cronin. Cook, who is scheduled to make $1.3 million this year, had participated in the Vikings’ virtual meetings until this week, but now a potential holdout by the team’s star running back looms over a crucial Vikings season.
There are essentially two ways this Cook situation can unfold, and we saw both of them play out last season. The first way is similar to Elliott’s successful holdout, which ended when he reached a large contract extension with the Cowboys. The second way would be similar to what happened with Melvin Gordon in Los Angeles. Gordon held out for a new contract through training camp and a month into the season, but was replaced so effectively by Austin Ekeler, a former undrafted free agent, that the team decided to not re-sign Gordon, a two-time Pro Bowler. In fact, the Chargers were worse when Gordon returned than they were when Ekeler had the job to himself, and Gordon eventually signed a deal with Denver for less money per year than Los Angeles had offered him. Considering the amount of running back contracts that teams have signed in recent years that were quickly turned into sunk costs—like Johnson’s deal in Arizona, Todd Gurley’s deal with the Rams, and Devonta Freeman’s deal in Atlanta—the question is whether the Vikings see Cook as worth paying, like Zeke, or worth replacing, like Gordon.
The biggest advantage Cook has in his push for a new deal is the Vikings offense, which is built around the run game. Minnesota was one of four teams that ran more than it passed in 2019. When adjusting for game script, Minnesota was the league’s most run-heavy team. But “run-heavy” does not properly describe the Vikings’ commitment to running. The rushing is all but coded into head coach Mike Zimmer’s DNA. “There’s something to be said about the root of football and the physicality of the running game and the toughness of your football team and being able to control the tempo of the game,” Zimmer told the Star Tribune in September. In this era of football, when the passing game is more efficient than running and paying running backs big money rarely works out, the Vikings seem like one of the most motivated teams to retain their star back.
It also helps Cook that he had a career year in 2019. He ranked seventh in yards from scrimmage (1,654) and touchdowns from scrimmage (13) despite playing just 14 games. On a per-game basis, Cook finished second only to McCaffrey in yards from scrimmage (118). Not only did he excel, but the Vikings did when he was on the field. The problem is that Cook is not on the field consistently. His 14 games last year nearly equaled the 15 games he played in his first two seasons combined. He tore his ACL just four games into his rookie season in 2017. He recovered for 2018, but a recurring hamstring injury kept him out of five games and limited him in other appearances. Last year Cook missed two games with a shoulder injury, and he had already undergone surgery on both shoulders before entering the NFL. (Cook, however, has dismissed the idea that he is a bigger risk than other players.) Cook may want a contract like Elliott, but Elliott has a sterling record of health and an unusual level of commitment from Cowboys ownership. Melvin Gordon had durability concerns after playing 43 of a possible 48 games for the Chargers in his first three years. Cook has played just 29 of a possible 48 regular-season games, or 60 percent.
If Minnesota pays Cook, it would signal that the team believes he can stay healthy. But whether he misses more time due to injury or a holdout, the Vikings may be well prepared to replace him in 2020. The team uses a zone-running scheme, which asks offensive linemen to go to a place and block whoever shows up instead of blocking a specific person. The system is famous for turning unknown running backs into stars. Sixth-rounder Terrell Davis made the Hall of Fame, undrafted Arian Foster became a superstar, and practice squadder Raheem Mostert broke records in last January’s NFC championship game by mastering zone-running concepts. This system was popularized by Mike Shanahan, the former head coach of the Denver Broncos, who dominated the league in rushing despite using late-round rushers. (His son, Kyle, now dominates the league doing the same thing as head coach in San Francisco.) Only six running backs drafted after the fifth round have rushed for 1,400 yards in a season in the past 25 years, and five of those six came on teams coached by Mike Shanahan. But Shanahan didn’t coach those teams alone. Two of his key assistant coaches in Denver, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison, now serve in the same positions for the Minnesota Vikings. Two-thirds of Minnesota’s runs last year used zone blocking, the fourth highest in the NFL, according to ESPN, and that number could go higher now that Kubiak has transitioned from offensive adviser to offensive coordinator. From a coaching and scheme perspective, the Vikings staff has experience replacing star running backs.
Whether any of Minnesota’s current running backs are up to the task is another question. Behind Cook the Vikings have Mike Boone, an undrafted back out of Cincinnati who has electrified in the preseason the past couple of years. They also have Alex Mattison, their third-round pick last year out of Boise State. Mattison had 100 carries for 462 yards for 4.62 yards per carry, which led the team last year, but Boone was the starter in the two games that Cook missed. Minnesota also has Ameer Abdullah, a former highly touted back out of Nebraska who washed out with the Lions, but his combine numbers put him in the 98th percentile in burst and 99th percentile in agility, according to Player Profiler. None of these guys are obvious replacements for Cook, but Mattison and Abdullah are both much higher draft picks than players who have succeeded in zone-running schemes in the past.
Not only could Cook be replaced, but the collective bargaining agreement ratified between players and owners in March doesn’t help him with his holdout. If he doesn’t show up to training camp, he can be fined $40,000 per day. Cook, who is scheduled to make $1.3 million in 2019, could be looking at $1 million in fines in less than four weeks. Whereas it was common practice for teams to forgive these fines when a contract extension was reached, the new CBA forbids it. Cook could also be at risk of affecting his free agency status for the 2021 offseason if he does not report to training camp, per new rules in the CBA, though there are workarounds to these issues. In 2018, safety Earl Thomas had an unsuccessful holdout in Seattle, so he did a “hold-in” by showing up to practices but not participating. Last year around the same time that Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey demanded a trade, he developed a mysterious ailment that kept him out of Jacksonville’s games for a month but seemed to miraculously disappear once he was dealt to the Rams. Surely Cook can find a creative solution to any CBA legalese that is in his way. The real question is whether the Vikings want to pay him.
When Vikings general manager Rick Spielman wants to keep one of Minnesota’s players, he makes it work. In a league marked by turnover, he kept the team’s defensive core together for a long time, in part because Zimmer’s scheme is so complex that the Vikings value veterans who can play in it. And when the Vikings do give players extensions, it often happens at the beginning of training camp. Receiver Stefon Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, kicker Blair Walsh, and even Zimmer have all signed contract extensions either just before or just after the start of training camp in the past five seasons. If the Vikings really want Cook back, the situation might be resolved before camp begins. For a Vikings team that finished second in the NFC North last year and were wrecked by the 49ers in the divisional round, making sure the offense is together in training camp would probably be best for their Super Bowl hopes.
Cook’s negotiation has implications beyond himself or the Vikings. He is just one member of the ludicrously talented group of running backs from the 2017 draft class, which includes McCaffrey, Cook, Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, James Conner, and Chris Carson. That is a quarter of the league’s projected Week 1 starting running backs, and that does not include fellow 2017 draftees Tarik Cohen and Kareem Hunt. While McCaffrey got his contract extension, all of these other players are set to be free agents next year and are negotiating their next deal. Mixon may be another holdout candidate in Cincinnati. Kamara will be a tough decision for the Saints. Green Bay drafted Boston College running back A.J. Dillon in the second round, suggesting they are prepared to move on from Jones. The Steelers seem prepared to move on from Conner, who earned his starting job after Le’Veon Bell held out the entire 2018 season. The Seahawks could easily let Carson walk after this year if 2019 first-round pick Rashaad Penny recovers from an ACL tear. Whatever happens with Cook, it will be against the larger backdrop of a fourth of the NFL’s starting running backs all navigating different situations but dealing with the same problem: How do they get that money?
“It’s all about what the person believes in, what the owners believe in, the GM believes in,” Cook told the Pioneer Press in April. “And I firmly think the Vikings believe in me.”