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The future of the Vikings, part 2: Running backs

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the running backs…

PART 1: Quarterbacks

A Pro Bowler 

Heading into 2019 the biggest question for the Minnesota Vikings’ offense was how good they could be with a fully healthy Dalvin Cook. The answer: They finished sixth in rushing yards per game and per Pro-Football Reference saw an Expected Points Added gain of 22 points from 2018 to 2019.

Cook finished the year as Pro Football Focus’s fifth best performer in the ground game, behind only Nick Chubb, Josh Jacobs, Christian McCaffrey and Aaron Jones.

He ranked seventh by PFF’s “Elusive Rating” metric, which combines missed tackles and yards after contact.

RB Elusive rating (min. 200 carries) Yards after contact/rush
Josh Jacobs 103.6 3.48
Nick Chubb 89.1 3.77
Chris Carson 85.2 3.63
Derrick Henry 82.1 4.18
Leonard Fournette 64.7 3.34
Saqon Barkley 63.6 3.23
Dalvin Cook 61.7 3.06

This tells us that while the Vikings were an improved run blocking team, ranking 11th by PFF grades, Cook’s explosiveness and tackle-breaking ability was a major factor in the massive improvement from ’18 to ’19.

During quarterback Kirk Cousins’s best career season by PFF grades and quarterback rating, Cook was his safety blanket. He led the NFL with 11.3 yards after catch and picked up a remarkable 9.6 yards per attempt on throws from Cousins that did not clear the line of scrimmage.

Even in games where the rushing attack was slowed, Cook often found explosive plays through the air. In matchups with Kansas City and Dallas, Cook was held under 4.0 yards per carry but totaled 11 catches for 131 yards between the two contests.

And while he was slowed in the final game of the season against San Francisco, the 2017 second-round pick touched the ball 31 times in the Wild Card round win over the New Orleans Saints, including 36 yards on three catches out of the backfield.

When we analyze his 2019 season in a bubble, it’s hard not to wonder where Cook’s numbers might have ended up had he not sustained an injury against the Denver Broncos and then an additional ailment versus the Los Angeles Chargers that forced him to miss the final two games of the season.

But we do have an answer to how good he can be in a full season: Top five, Pro Bowl.

The contract

With Cook’s deal set to expire after 2020, he will likely be pressing for an extension before the start of the 2020 season in a similar fashion to Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott, who worked out by himself in Mexico while his team went through training camp. Cook could also sit on the sidelines with any bump or bruise in NBA fashion. Either way, it wouldn’t be smart for him to step on the field next season without guaranteed money in the future.

So the Vikings will have to decide on his first three years how they think Cook will perform over the next 3-5 years.

With running backs we often see players succeed in small samples but they ultimately come back to earth with more carries and varying circumstances. For example, Seattle’s Thomas Rawls led the NFL in yards per carry in 2015 with 5.6 yards per rush. Over the following two years he picked up 3.0 yards per carry and did not play in 2019.

Cook’s sample size is still somewhat limited by injuries in 2017 and 2018 but he’s reached a plateau of carries where we can begin to know the truth about a rusher. He ranks in the top 25 running backs (with at least 450 runs) in yards per carry since 2005 (per Pro-Football Reference).

As you can see, Cook is in impressive company.

The age curve is always a conversation with running backs but the players who reached the 4.5 yards per carry threshold had success late into their careers. Fred Taylor’s five years from 2005 to 2010, for example, were years 8-13 of his career. He picked up more than 5.0 yards per rush in years nine and 10.

Tiki Barber, likewise, managed two of his three 5.0-plus seasons when he was 30 and 31 years old. And Baltimore’s Mark Ingram gained 5.0 yards per carry this year at age 30.

It isn’t easy to project any NFL player’s future, especially with an injury history, but Cook’s performance over his first three years does put him in the company of players who sustained high quality performance into their late 20s and early 30s.

Chart via ApexFantasyLeagues

Even if the Vikings are confident Cook will remain effective, there are still plenty of questions pertaining to a contract extension, starting with: What is his asking price? What is too much to pay for a running back? Can the Vikings afford him with their future salary cap? Can his production be replaced?

The most recent contract handed out to a running back after an elite performance on his rookie deal was Elliott last offseason. The Cowboys’ star received a six-year, $90 million contract extension with $50 million in guarantees, $28 million of which is fully guaranteed at signing. His cap hits are $10.9 million, $13.7 million and $16.5 million in the first three years. After 2022 the structure allows the Cowboys to part ways with a small cap penalty.

If Cook’s ask was in the same ballpark, the Vikings could reasonably afford to keep him, especially if they move on from Cousins after 2020. Even if they sign Cousins to a new deal in the range of $35 million, veteran players like Xavier Rhodes, Riley Reiff, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen will have come off the books — though new contracts for first-round corner Mike Hughes and second-round tackle Brian O’Neill will take their place.

But an extension won’t come down to finding space in the cap to keep Cook, it will come down to whether they believe resources should be allocated elsewhere. In other words, if the value of what he brings to the table over a replacement is worth the same as spending $15-$18 million on a free agent cornerback or tackle or edge rusher etc.

This year’s rookie class saw six running backs carry the ball more than 100 times and Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary and Vikings No. 2 Alexander Mattison all averaged the same or more yards per carry as Cook.

The San Francisco 49ers ran for over 2,300 yards as a team with no backs rushing for over 1,000 yards and two of their three runners gaining more than 5.0 yards per carry.

That isn’t to say Cook’s production is easily replaced with the offense built around him and the O-line struggling at times to plow opposing defenses but it would give the Vikings pause about spending on a running back rather than another position.

Here’s how the highest paid running backs performed last year:

Running back Avg Salary Touches Yards per touch
Ezekiel Elliott $15 million 355 5
Todd Gurley $14.3 million 254 4.2
Le’Veon Bell $13.1 million 311 4
David Johnson $13 million 130 5.5
Devonta Freeman $8.3 million 243 4.4
Mark Ingram $5 million 228 5.5
Dalvin Cook ????? 303 5.5

The backups

When the Vikings picked Alexander Mattison at the end of the third round, their selection was scrutinized by draft analysts who did not have the Boise State running back going until the later rounds but Mattison became an effective weapon for the Vikings especially late in games. Mattison rushed 42 times for 220 yards (5.2 yards per carry) in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of opponents who had been worn down by Cook over the first three quarters. Overall he gained 3.2 yards per carry after contact.

A late-season injury took away Mattison’s opportunity to step into a full-time role for one game against Green Bay but he did shine when Cook left with an injury against Chicago. The rookie gained 22 yards on four carries and caught four passes for 51 yards.

If the event that Cook and the Vikings have a contract dispute that lasts into the season, Mattison’s ability to be the full-time back would be tested.

The backfield next season will likely include No. 3 running back Mike Boone, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 49 runs. He struggled at times against Green Bay in his first start and then turned the ball over against Chicago in Week 17, pouring some cold water on an overall impressive 148-yard day. Boone was strong on special teams and has the explosiveness to be a change-of-pace back going forward.

The future of the franchise 

As with Kirk Cousins, the Vikings’ overall feelings on the future will play a role in how they handle the backfield. If they see 2020 and 2021 as seasons to restock the cupboard, they may consider trading Cook to a team that’s willing to pay him top-notch running back money. But if they feel 2020 is another season to take a shot at the Super Bowl, it would not make much sense to play hardball or trade the player who the offense is built around.


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