The fact the Vikings will be facing the Dallas Cowboys and standout running back Ezekiel Elliott on Sunday night provided media outlets with the perfect opportunity to broach the topic of Dalvin Cook’s contract situation.
Elliott and Cook are two of the best young running backs in the NFL and the former staged a training camp holdout that ended with him becoming the highest-paid running back in league history two months ago. Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million deal that included more than $50 million in guarantees and set his annual salary at $15 million. Elliott was the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 draft and led the league in rushing in 2016 and 2018. His holdout came with two years remaining on a rookie deal that was scheduled to pay him $3.9 million in 2019 and $9.1 million in 2020.
Cook, a second-round pick in 2017 by the Vikings, is making a base salary of $1.042 million this season and is due $1.3 million next year in the final season of his rookie deal. It’s difficult to believe that Cook will show up for training camp next summer unless he has a new contract. He is eligible for an extension following this season and will enter Sunday as the NFL’s leading rusher with 894 yards on 177 carries in nine games. He also has caught 33 passes for 338 yards.
The Vikings traditionally reward their draft picks who produce in the way that Cook has this season but his almost-certain desire for a rich extension (something close to what Elliott received) presents an interesting conundrum for the team. Among the issues: Cook is in his third season and, so far, this is the first in which he has remained healthy. He played in only four games as a rookie before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament. Last season, Cook missed five games because of a hamstring injury and was put on a “pitch count” of carries at one point.
Cook also plays a position at which careers don’t last long and declines come quickly. The average length of a running back’s career is only 2.6 years, according to the NFL Players Association. That is the shortest of all positions in the league.
Then there is the question of just how much value a team puts on a running back, compared to other positions. In today’s NFL, many running backs are considered to be easy to replace and poor investments in a salary-cap era when payroll has to be monitored closely. The Vikings struggled with paying a running back too much before Adrian Peterson was jettisoned after the 2016 season. Peterson had signed a seven-year, $96 million deal with the Vikings in September 2011 that made him the highest-paid back in NFL history at that time.
The Vikings just spent an offseason in which making improvements to their roster was extremely difficult because they were so close to the salary cap and they also are in the midst of a significant investment in quarterback Kirk Cousins, meaning that other players can’t be paid. Cousins will be entering the final season of his three-year, $84 million deal in 2020, but do the Vikings want to turn around and give money that would go to Cousins, or his eventual replacement, to Cook?
This might be easier if the Vikings thought they could draft a starting quarterback in 2020 or 2021 — thus getting that player on the cheap potentially for four years — but do you trust the current brain trust to do that? Nope.
The Vikings also are soon going to have to take stock of where they are at as a franchise. They are 6-3 heading into Sunday’s game in Dallas but don’t really have an impressive win this season. What they do have is three bad losses — at Green Bay, Chicago and Kansas City — and some seroius questions about whether they are an actual contender or just a fringe playoff team. The next month should provide an answer on not only the 2019 but the 2020 Vikings and where they are headed.
Minnesota will face Denver a week from Sunday at home — a game it should win — and then have a bye week before facing the Seahawks in a Monday night game in Seattle. If the Vikings are an actual threat to make a deep playoff run, they will beat both the Cowboys and Seahawks. If they lose those two, it will be safe to say that the window of opportunity everyone thought was present when Cousins signed is now closed. This isn’t all Cousins’ fault either. A defense, once considered to be one of the best in the NFL, also is aging and some once-key players, such as cornerback Xavier Rhodes, are no longer the same.
That will impact Cook because if that window is closed — and the Vikings must embark on what could be called a soft rebuild — do they want to be paying a substantial amount of money to a running back whose best years soon will be past? Quarterback, left tackle, pass-rushing ends, cornerbacks, these are the positions that you want to reward. It might not be fair to Cook, because he is a very good player, but it’s the reality of the league.
The other question is what could you get in a trade for Cook, if he does threaten a holdout and you don’t want to pay him what he wants? All of these questions must be considered.
Ultimately, the guess here is the Vikings will pay Cook — assuming Rick Spielman remains as general manager — but it’s not as easy of decision as many might assume and if the Vikings open training camp in 2020 with Cook holding out nobody should be surprised.