Without Cook’s presence in the backfield, the team might as well be a slab of ribs on the grill without the rub.
With only one year and $1.3 million left on his rookie contract, the perennial playmaker is preparing to serve the franchise a cold dish by way of a season-long holdout if he’s not presented with a reasonable new deal.
Cook joins a recent list of displeased running backs like Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon who looked to flex mostly-lacking financial muscle.
Should the Vikings cave in to Cook and open the coffers with a new contract? Or should general manager Rick Spielman stand his ground, force the star to play out his rookie deal and risk alienating his Pro Bowl running back?
In this contract spat, the Vikings have the leverage and stronger grip on negotiations. But if they don’t soon add additional zeroes to Cook’s bank account, the team’s ship will sink faster than the Love Boat, and they'll extend their Super Bowl drought to yet another year — which is a different kind of zero.
The Vikings’ window to win the Lombardi Trophy is now, and it will get colder than a winter’s day in Minnesota if they don’t soon handoff most of the remaining $12.2 million in cap space into the hands of Cook.
The dual-threat halfback netted 1,135 yards rushing for 13 touchdowns and an additional 519 receiving yards off 53 receptions last year in just 14 games. His 1,654 total yards from scrimmage was still good for seventh in the league.
The Vikings are dealing with a different and more difficult situation than the last time they had to make a decision on paying a pivotal playmaker. During the 2017 offseason, the Vikes opted to move on from the best player to ever suit up for the franchise when they declined to pick up the $18 million option on Adrian Peterson’s contract. Weeks later, they drafted Cook.
Peterson was then 31 years old and perceived to be on the decline. Cook is just 24 and entering the prime of his career.
The Vikings have a history of retaining the talent they’ve drafted. In recent years, they’ve offered second contracts and extensions to the homegrown likes of Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr and Kyle Rudolph. Former standouts who just left for other teams in Stefon Diggs and Everson Griffen have also enjoyed extensions before moving on from Minnesota.
Cook should enjoy the same admiration from management.
After all, the Vikings have paid Kirk Cousins handsomely since signing the quarterback in 2018. They added two more years to his contract this offseason, and by the time it culminates in 2022, Cousins will have earned $150 million over five seasons. Surely for Cousins, there is everything to like about his sweet deal.
The pay parity between positions is yet another case for parents not to raise their children to be running backs. The NFL will never not be a quarterback league, which is a hard pill to swallow sometimes for ball carriers, who are mostly viewed as expendable with a next-man-up mantra.
Bell was so convinced with his market value, he chose not to play under his $14.5 million franchise tag for the Steelers and sat out the entire 2018 season — only to later land a similar deal on an annual average in free agency when he signed with the New York Jets.
Christian McCaffrey ($16 million), Elliott ($15 million), Bell ($13.1 million), David Johnson ($13 million) and Derrick Henry ($10.2 million) are the league's top-five paid running backs, based on yearly averages.
Cook is commanding a deal with a figure that will land him somewhere in the middle of that pack, and he’s pointing to his value on the field to speak in his defense.
The Vikings’ offense — and much of Cousins’ success — is predicated by establishing a prodigious run game, and thus, opening up the playbook for other position players to shine.
Remember Cousins’ overtime heave to Adam Thielen in the playoffs versus the Saints that set-up the short game-winning touchdown throw to Kyle Rudolph? The defense bit on play action because Cook was blazing all game long.
If Cook’s contract situation gets contentious, Alexander Mattison, a 2019 third-round pick, has the makings to be a top-starting running back if his number is called. The Vikes won’t have to pay Mattison an extra penny if they gamble to get a somewhat similar return from him than they would’ve from Cook.
The Vikings have one of the league’s strongest units in the backfield led by Mattison, Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah. The trio combined to rush for 850 yards and 4 touchdowns while spelling for Cook. None of them however can mirror Cook, who is already a top-five running back in the league with his talent. He just wants to now fall in that same tax bracket, too.
One concern around Cook is if he can stay healthy, or not. The Rams had buyer’s remorse soon after handsomely rewarding Todd Gurley, who was then riddled with injuries. The Vikings may have cold feet simply based on the number of visits Cook has made to the doctor’s office.
Cook was a durable player in college at Florida State but was suited for just 15 games in his first two seasons. His rookie campaign was shortened due to a left ACL tear after just four games. He suffered a hamstring injury during his sophomore season, playing just 11 contests.
In 2019, Cook missed a pair of games due to a shoulder injury, and his presence was sorely missed.
Cook entered the 2017 NFL Draft with first-round talent but slid to the second round and the No. 41 overall pick because he had what were called “character concerns” at the time. Cook has had a clean slate in the pros free of negative headlines.
He finished last season with 13 rushing touchdowns, tied for the second-most in a season in Vikings history next to Peterson’s 18 TDs in 2009.
Cook’s pass-catching skills developed tremendously as he served as a security blanket for Cousins. The scatback's superior skills allowed the Vikings to get by with a mostly sub-par offensive line.
If Cook is not suited up in the backfield Week 1 at home versus the archival Packers, the Vikings — leverage be damned — will only have themselves to blame for letting the competition pass them by once again in a make-or-break year.
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