Running backs are not in an enviable position these days.
They touch the ball more than anyone on the field. They earn the toughest yards and take the most punishment. If they can do it all, they are game changers. Yet they are badly losing the battle to get paid.
The formula for teams just doesn’t add up. Running backs wear out quickly and in terms of rushing success they have largely been found to be a product of their environment. And even if they were making offensive lines and run schemes better early in their careers, losing one step usually means the end of that.
So we have seen running backs like Melvin Gordon and Le’Veon Bell fight the good contract fight and mostly lose. Gordon missed the first part of the season on a holdout and ultimately returned without a new deal. In the meantime, Los Angeles found that Austin Ekeler was just as effective. Bell sat out an entire year only to return with a reasonable contract in New York but his performance was more proof that the Steelers played things the right way.
That brings us to Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings are in a difficult situation with their star running back. After two injury-plagued seasons, Cook was largely healthy in 2019 and was every bit of the player they dreamed about on draft day 2017. He ranked as the fifth best RB by Pro Football Focus and gained the second most yards from scrimmage per game, only behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey.
But there’s two issues: Salary cap and value. The Vikings can create space this offseason and work out favorable deals in the future but they also have to decide on an extension for Kirk Cousins. With two significant receiver contracts and a tackle contract (Brian O’Neill) on the way, the value over a replacement (or replacements) might not match up to the other positions.
Unless Cook’s value in the passing game continues to rise.
Last season passing plays in Cook’s direction were good for 0.47 Expected Points Added per play (per Pro Football Focus). Receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were both nearly identical to Cook with 0.47 and 0.45 per play, respectively.
Here’s how some other RBs stacked up in their passing game impact:
— Saquon Barkley: 0.15
— Ezekiel Elliott: 0.06
— Joe Mixon: 0.33
— Aaron Jones: 0.21
— Le’Veon Bell: 0.34
— Austin Ekeler: 0.41
— Damien Willians: 0.49
— Christian McCaffrey: 0.46
Just like the ground game, can be difficult to parse out whether a running back’s impact on passing success was his own doing or the play design or quarterback play. In Cook’s case, he led the NFL with 11.3 average yards after catch and ranked in the top 10 in PFF’s “Elusive Rating,” which combines broken tackles and yards after contact.
Overall he ranked sixth in yards per reception (9.8) and fourth in first downs gained through the air despite only totaling 53 receptions. The RBs ahead of him in first downs all had at least 72 grabs.
Cook’s ability in the passing game may not have even reached its ceiling yet. The Vikings largely used him on swing passes and screens. If they started viewing him as a playmaker like McCaffrey there could be more value to squeeze out of his talent. The options are numerous. He could line up in the slot while backup Alexander Mattison was in the backfield or could even be split out wide more often. In Week 2 of the 2018 season Cook ran a slant route as an outside receiver against the Packers and went for 24 yards. We haven’t seen that since.
Getting more passing value out of Cook would be key to making an extension worthwhile. While his yards per carry is in rare air compared to career carries, the difference between 4.3 and 4.6 per rush doesn’t make the same impact on winning as having a dangerous passing weapon. The last eight teams to reach the Super Bowl ranked first, fourth, third, fifth, first, second, first and second in passing Expected Points Added.
Reducing Cook’s runs and increasing his targets might also be a key to longevity.
Since 2000 we have seen 39 running back seasons in which a RB over 27 years old has picked up 75 targets or more (per Pro-Football Reference’s Play Index). The backs who continued to play well past the age curve tended to be impact players in the passing game like Matt Forte, who had 130 targets at age 29 or Marshall Faulk (113 targets at age 27), Jamaal Charles (104 targets at 27), Priest Holmes (90 targets at age 30) and Ladanian Tomlinson (77 targets at 29).
That isn’t to say there’s no risk. Both Todd Gurley and David Johnson were dominant receiving backs but have fallen off since signing big contracts. But if the Vikings are set on signing Cook to a contract that will take up somewhere between 5%-7% of the salary cap going forward, they should focus on how they can maximize his value as a playmaker.