Running back Dalvin Cook’s decision to not participate in any activities with the Vikings until he receives a new contract puts the ball in the team’s court when it comes to deciding what’s next. The Vikings have a few options as training camp approaches. Here they are:
GIVE COOK WHAT HE WANTS
Cook reportedly wants a contract that would equal the $13 million Houston will pay David Johnson in 2020, or something north of that total. The top three paid running backs in the NFL are Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey ($16 million per year), Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ($15 million) and the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($13.1 million).
There is no doubting Cook’s importance to the Vikings’ offense. The second-round pick in 2017, is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes in 14 games. Cook’s versatility makes him a headache for opposing defenses and a dangerous player each time he touches the ball.
There are many who believe that Cook will get what he wants because of the fact that coach Mike Zimmer loves to run the football and, if Cook isn’t on the field, the Vikings’ ability to pound the ball is diminished. Gary Kubiak, the veteran coach and offensive coordinator, also might have his work cut out for him if Cook isn’t available to him in 2020.
There will be some who believe that Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ executive vice president of football operations and salary-cap genius, will be able to again work his magic. But at some point somebody, or mutiple players, have to go. The salary-cap magic runs out. There’s a reason below why it really might run out this time.
LET COOK HOLDOUT
Cook is due to make a base salary of $1.3 million in the final season of his rookie contract. Because he was not a first-round pick there was no fifth-year option on his deal and that base salary is incredibly low for a player as talented as Cook.
The issue isn’t Cook’s ability, it’s his availability. Running backs often have short careers because of the punishment they take and, in Cook’s case, he has yet to play 16 games in a season. McCaffrey, taken eighth overall the same year Cook went to Minnesota, hasn’t missed a game in his career.
Cook had his rookie season ended after four games because of a torn ACL in his left knee. He was limited to 11 games in his second season because of a hamstring injury and then missed two games last season because of a chest injury. Cook will turn 25 on Aug. 10, and the fact he hasn’t played a full season has to concern the Vikings.
As far as recent holdouts by running backs, Elliott got what he wanted from Dallas last year by staying away until just before the regular season started. He landed a six-year, $90 million contract with $50 million in guarantees.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon also held out last summer trying to get an improvement on the $5.6 million he was due in the last year of his rookie contract. He reportedly was offered $10 million per season but did not take it. Gordon did not get a new contract and returned to Los Angeles after missing the first four weeks of the regular season.
Gordon had a disappointing year. He rushed for a career-low 612 yards and had 296 receiving yards, his lowest output since his rookie season. Gordon received a two-year, $16 million deal ($13.5 million reportedly guaranteed) from the Denver Broncos in March.
If the Vikings don’t meet Cook’s demands, will he see what happened with Gordon and decide to return before the season starts?
When it comes to Cook, the Vikings also have to be concerned about recent reports that the NFL salary cap for 2021 could drop by $40 million, or more, per team because of the expected impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on league revenues in 2020.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is scheduled to have salary-cap hits of $21 million this season, $31 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, assuming he’s still on the roster. It’s one thing to have a quarterback eat up a significant portion of cap space, but does it make sense to be on the hook for a big cap hit from the running back position?
Maybe, if you were certain the cap was going to continue to grow. But if it plummets in 2021, the answer might be no.
LOOK TO TRADE COOK
If the Vikings decide they aren’t going to be able to give Cook what he wants and that he is indeed willing to sit out into the regular season, it would make sense to explore his value on the open market and consider installing second-year running back Alexander Mattison as the starter.
Dealing Cook right now would leave $690,147 in dead cap money on the books and would result in cap savings of $1.3 million. Trading him would be far from ideal as far as 2020 is concerned, but if the Vikings can find a taker that would be willing to give up a second-day draft pick the Vikings might have to consider a trade.
What makes the situation more complicated is that general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer are both entering the final season of their contracts and they likely will do everything they can to have Cook on the field this season. This is what makes having a GM and coach working in their final seasons of their contracts a potentially flawed move by ownership.
Mattison, a third-round pick by the Vikings a year ago, had 462 yards rushing on 100 carries with a touchdown as a rookie and also caught 10 passes for 82 yards. Mattison isn’t Cook but he certainly has potential and is under contract through 2022 with a 2020 base salary of $675,000.