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Zulgad: Something cooking? Dalvin Cook still waiting for contract extension as others are rewarded

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 25, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL contract extensions came at a rapid rate on Thursday. First, tight end George Kittle agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal with San Francisco. Then, Kansas City and tight end Travis Kelce reportedly came to terms on a four-year contract that will pay him just under $15 million per year. Finally, Buffalo left tackle Dion Dawkins and the Bills reached agreement on a four-year, $60 million contract extension, according to ESPN.

All of this activity left those in Minnesota wondering one thing: Is Dalvin Cook next? Cook is likely wondering the same thing.

The Vikings have long rewarded their productive young players with contract extensions in training camp and, in an ordinary year, it would be expected that Cook would join that list. The running back is entering the final season of his rookie deal and is set to make only $1.3 million, making him one of the NFL’s biggest bargains. Kittle and Dawkins, like Cook, were selected in the 2017 draft and were entering the final season of their rookie contracts. They have been paid, while Cook waits.

Cook and his representatives tried to force the Vikings’ hand in June when Cook stopped taking part in the virtual meetings that were made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic. There also was the threat that Cook wouldn’t show up for training camp, although no one believed that since doing so would have left him as a restricted free agent, instead of unrestricted, after this season.

It now has been more than two weeks since Vikings’ veterans reported to training camp and there has been no indication that a Cook contract extension is near. There have been assumptions a deal will get done, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the reason Cook decided to drop out of the Vikings’ offseason program was because he reportedly felt disrespected by the team’s initial offer.

The Vikings entered the offseason in rough shape when it came to the salary cap, but that is no longer the case. Minnesota now has $12.7 million in available cap space for 2020 and giving a portion of that to Cook on an extension is a possibility but not a given. It has to be factored in that lost revenues from playing during a pandemic in 2020 could cause the salary cap to go from $198.2 million this season to as low as $175 million in 2021.

There also is the question of what type of payday the Cook camp is looking to get? Here are the top five average annual salaries for running backs, according to Over the Cap.

1. Christian McCaffrey – $16.5 million

2. Ezekiel Elliott – $15 million

3. Le’Veon Bell – $13.1 million

4. David Johnson – $13 million

5. Derrick Henry – $12.5 million

The early word was that Cook was looking to get a deal similar to what Dallas gave Elliott (six years, $90 million, $50.1 million guaranteed), but that isn’t going to happen. Cook is an outstanding running back who can catch the ball and pick up blocks in pass protection. Last season, he rushed for a career-high 1,135 yards on 250 carries (a 4.5-yard average) and 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards (a 9.8-yard average). Cook also rushed for 94 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns and caught three passes for 36 yards in the Vikings’ 26-20 upset victory at New Orleans in a first-round playoff game.

But Cook has yet to play a full season in his first three years and his durability is a concern. Cook turned 25 years old on Monday, but injuries have caused some very good running backs to go off the cliff sooner than expected.

So what type of contract might Cook have to accept, if he wants to remain in Minnesota? That answer could have been provided last month when Henry agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal with the Tennessee Titans that included $25.5 million in guarantees.

Would Cook accept that contract, if it was offered, or would he take his chances, hope to remain healthy and then look to sign elsewhere next March? The Vikings could place the franchise tag on Cook — that figure was $10.3 million for this season — but they also might decide to let Cook walk and turn over the running back job to 2019 third-round pick Alexander Mattison.

That wouldn’t be business as usual for the Vikings, but this might be one case where they decide business as usual isn’t the best idea.