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Dalvin Cook’s latest injury brings up more questions about Vikings’ decision to pay him

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Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook runs with the ball during the first half an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 27-26. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

The offseason debate about whether Dalvin Cook should get the type of contract extension he wanted never revolved around his abilities. Cook is a multi-talented running back with the skill to break off a long run, make plays in the passing game or stay in and pass protect. The main sticking points for those of us who questioned giving Cook a rich deal were twofold: 1) His inability to stay healthy in his first three seasons was a concern; and 2) He plays a position at which careers are short and replacements can be found rather easily.

The Vikings knew all of this and spent several months attempting to work out what they considered to be a fair deal with Cook. A day before the regular-season opener against Green Bay, Cook agreed to a $63 million, five-year extension that included a $15.5 million signing bonus and $28.1 million in guarantees. That made Cook the fifth-highest paid running back in the NFL with an average salary of $12.6 million.

The 25-year-old — who is still playing on the last season of his rookie deal in 2020 — looked to be worth every penny through the Vikings’ first four-plus games. He entered Sunday leading the NFL in rushing with 424 yards on 75 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and six touchdowns and also had seven receptions for 40 yards. Cook had run for a career-high 181 yards in a Week 3 loss to Tennessee and then tied his career-high with 27 rushing attempts that resulted in 130 yards in a Week 4 win at Houston. Cook had 29 touches in that game, and was at 22 touches after catching a pass on the Vikings’ first play from scrimmage early in the third quarter Sunday in Seattle. He had carried the ball 17 times for 65 yards and a touchdown in the opening half as the Vikings took a 13-0 lead.

It was on that reception that Cook’s injury history reared its ugly head once more. Cook went out of bounds after losing 5 yards and then began to hobble. Although he returned for one play, Cook’s night was over because of a groin injury. Chad Graff of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Cook suffered an adductor strain and is expected to miss Sunday’s game against Atlanta. The Vikings have a bye week after that and Cook will be evaluated before a decision is made on whether he can play on Nov. 1 against the Packers in Green Bay. In other words, it’s not certain how much time he might miss.

When Cook does sit out on Sunday that will mean he has played in 34 of a possible 54 regular-season games since the Vikings selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. He played in four games as a rookie before suffering a torn left ACL. He was limited to 11 games in his second season because of a hamstring injury, and last season missed two games because of chest and shoulder issues that also limited his carries in three other late-season games.

Cook put up impressive numbers when he was able to play — he rushed for 1,135 yards on 250 carries (a 4.5-yard average) with 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards — and also had a key role in the Vikings’ playoff upset at New Orleans. Cook rushed for 94 yards on 28 carries and scored two touchdowns and also caught three passes for 36 yards in the win.

But with Cook it always comes back to this phrase: When he’s able to play. The last great Vikings running back, Adrian Peterson, missed only three of a possible 64 games in his first four regular seasons and played full 16 game seasons twice in that time. Cook has yet to do that and his new contract doesn’t even kick in until next season when he will be 26 years old.

The Vikings’ dilemma, now that they have signed Cook through 2025 (there is a potential out in 2023), is how to keep him healthy? The answer is likely this: They can’t. The way the Vikings were using Cook before his injury is how he needs to be used. He’s a huge part of the offense when healthy — his presence on the field helps to open up the passing game — and giving him touches is an absolute necessity.

The Vikings could try to rotate Cook more with second-year running back Alexander Mattison, but if they do that what was the point of paying him like a star running back?

Mattison will take over for Cook in the short term — or long term, depending on how much time Cook misses — and that could raise more questions about the decision to devote a large sum of money to Cook. Mattison rushed for a career-high 112 yards on 20 carries and also caught three passes for 24 yards after replacing Cook in Sunday’s loss at Seattle. A third-round pick in 2019, Mattison did fail to cut outside on the fourth-and-1 play that gave back Seattle the ball to set up the Seahawks’ winning drive, but the 22-year-old has proven himself to be a solid player and will get better with experience.

Last season, he rushed for 462 yards on 100 carries with one touchdown and caught 10 passes for 82 yards in a solid rookie year playing behind Cook. The Vikings’ goal entering this season was to have Mattison again sub in for Cook on occasion, but the hope was that Cook would prove this was the season in which he could remain on the field for all 16 games.

If that had happened, the Vikings would have gone a long way toward proving their decision to reward Cook was a wise one. Instead, Cook is again nursing an injury that could be a season-long issue and the Vikings are facing questions about their decision to reward a player whose injury history too often overshadows his ability.