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Zulgad: Back pay: Dalvin Cook gets his money, now Vikings must get durability from him



The Vikings’ offseason negotiations with Dalvin Cook had enough stops-and-starts that you wondered if the running back would become the rare player under Zygi Wilf’s ownership not to be rewarded with a significant second contract after being drafted by the franchise.

Cook had dropped out of the Vikings’ offseason program (albeit, virtual) in June and indicated he would not show up for training camp. Cook did arrive on time, but suffered what appeared to be another setback just after mid-August when it was reported contract talks had broken down again. When Cook appeared on a Zoom call with the media this past week, he sounded like a guy who remained hopeful of getting the contract he thought he deserved, but there was little confidence in his voice that it was closing to happening.

Perhaps Cook was putting a deke move on the media, like he does to opposing defenders. On Saturday, after all that haggling, Cook got what he wanted. He will enter the Vikings’ regular-season opener against Green Bay on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium as a rich man. The reports from NFL Media were that Cook agreed to a five-year, $63 million contract that includes $28 million in guarantees, including a $15.5 million signing bonus. That is the largest signing bonus for a non-quarterback in franchise history, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.

The fact the contract comes a day before the season isn’t a surprise, considering the Vikings agreed to a seven-year deal with running back Adrian Peterson a day before the 2011 season began. That contract contained $36 million in guarantees.

What’s interesting about Cook’s contract is the amount of time it took to get it done. The assumption all along was the Vikings were trying to stay away from giving him the exact contract he ended up getting. This made sense. Cook, the 41st pick in the second round of the 2017 draft, is a big-time talent and he’s coming off an impressive season.

He established career-highs across the board, rushing for 1,135 yards on 250 carries with 13 touchdowns and catching 53 passes for 519 yards. Cook also can pass protect, meaning he’s a three-down player, or everything that Peterson wasn’t.

But there is one figure in Cook’s stats that has to be considered a concern. That would be his games played. Cook is only 25 years old and entering his fourth NFL season, but he has yet to play in all 16 games in a year. He was lost after four games of his rookie season because of a torn ACL and missed five games in 2018 because he was dealing with a hamstring issue. Last season, Cook only missed two games but he was impacted by a shoulder and chest injury that became a problem in December and limited him to nine carries in two separate games.

But the Vikings also look at Cook and see a dynamic player who rushed for 94 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 36 yards in an upset victory at New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs.

The latter paragraph gives the Vikings reason to pay Cook like they did. The former paragraph is why they will have to hold their breath that he can remain on the field and earn the money he has coming in a salary-cap league, where the cap could drop from $198.2 million in 2020 to as low as $175 million in 2021, depending on how much revenue is lost because of the ongoing pandemic.

It was that potential drop of the cap that resulted in the assumption that the Vikings were playing hardball with Cook’s agent. The Vikings had all the leverage in this situation. The NFL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement took a potential holdout by Cook off the table because it would have cost him an accrued season and meant that, if he did miss the first day of camp, or any other significant portion of time, he would be a restricted free agent after this season, instead of unrestricted. That would have meant the Vikings could have retained him pretty easily at a bargain price.

Cook also appeared to be in a terrible situation because he was due to make only $1.3 million in the final season of his rookie deal and, yet, it appeared as if he had to play. So what would have happened if he got hurt? It looked as if Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, who manages the cap, had Cook backed into a corner and the only real option would have been to take what the Vikings offered.

There is a chance that Cook and his agent, Zac Hiller, told the Vikings that if they didn’t pay up by Sunday that Cook wasn’t going to play and Minnesota was free to find out exactly how good second-year running back Alexander Mattison was as the primary option in the backfield.

There have been many debates about how much a running back, no matter how successful, should be paid in 2020. The reality is it’s a position that gets cycled through quickly, at which it seems like replacements can be found pretty easily and where once a player approaches the age of 30 it’s usually over.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of running backs who got paid this offseason. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry signed deals in which they will make $16 million and $12.5 million per season, respectively. Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon will get $12 million per year after signing a four-year extension this month, and Cleveland’s Kareem Hunt agreed to a two-year, $13.25 million extension this past week. You have to wonder how the Mixon contract impacted the thinking of Cook’s agent and potentially the Vikings.

Mixon was taken with the 48th selection in the second round of the 2017 draft, seven picks after the Vikings grabbed Cook. In fact, the teams had traded those picks, enabling the Vikings to get Cook and establishing that Cook was the guy Minnesota wanted. They have had very similar careers so far, although Mixon has played in 44 games and Cook 29.

While Cook got rich on Saturday, he didn’t get the payday that New Orleans gave running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara, taken in the third round of the 2017 draft, got $75 million in new money in his contract extension, according to ESPN. Kamara’s contract now has a total value of $77.133 million  and includes $34.333 million guaranteed. The average annual value of the extension will be $15 million, equaling what Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott got last season and only trailing McCaffrey.

Cook will have to settle for checking in around $12.6 million per year, putting him just outside the top five for running backs. “I’ve never been a guy that you look at this guy, you look at that guy, but everybody’s human,” Cook said this past week when asked about seeing other running backs cash in. “You go out and you bust your tail and you do what you’ve got to do and you expect new rewards to come behind that. I just hope the Vikings and my agent come to an agreement of a deal that values me. Until then, I’ve just got to wait my turn.”

That turn came Saturday.





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