The Fuzzy Future of Dalvin Cook in Minnesota

That Was Fast
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Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

According to Spotrac, the Vikings currently rank dead last in cap space among NFL teams, with $1.3 million of room. That only encompasses their top 51 players, which is what counts until the final cut in September. They’ll need to free up more cap room as this year progresses to add free agents (above minimum salary level), sign their upcoming draft class, extend Justin Jefferson, cover the remaining players beyond the top 51, including any players landing on injured reserve, and pay their practice squad. 

In other words, more player cuts and restructures/extensions are coming over the next few months. Kirk Cousins’ contract was restructured to free up $16 million in cap room, and the team can gain additional cap savings if they extend his contract that expires after the upcoming season.

The Fuzzy Future of Dalvin Cook in Minnesota

When March 17 passed, $5.05 million of Za’Darius Smith’s 2023 salary was guaranteed, and after signing edge rusher Marcus Davenport in free agency, the Vikings likely are trying to trade Smith in order to free up $12.1 million of cap room and recoup a mid to late round draft choice in return. They can release him if he’s not tradable due to his high salary and injury history and save $7.1 million against the cap or restructure his deal to reduce his cap number and keep him this season (which is unlikely). 

I think GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is taking a similar approach with Dalvin Cook (who is currently carrying a $14.1 million cap number for 2023) in terms of seeking a trade but being prepared to release Cook after signing a solid back in Alexander Mattison to a two-year, $7 million deal (with $6.35 million guaranteed).

The Fuzzy Future
Dec 20, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook.

A team trading for Cook would have to be willing to take on his $11 million in base salary, roster, and workout bonuses, or Cook would have to agree to a pay cut with a new team as part of a sign-and-trade deal. $11 million is a big number in this NFL era of running backs being devalued.

For example, Miles Sanders is a Pro Bowl back like Cook, who signed with Carolina in free agency for $6.35 million per year. Sanders had a $1.7 million cap hit on the final year of his rookie deal in Philadelphia while Isiah Pacheco made $784,000 as the starting back for the other Super Bowl participant—the winning Chiefs (further evidence that teams can win big with cheaper backs). 

While Pro Bowl receivers such as Jefferson are making $30 million or more per year, the top backs like Cook—even if they are productive as receivers out of the backfield– are considered replaceable parts except in rare cases for multipurpose backs such as Christian McCaffrey with his $16 million per year salary (and even he was traded by Carolina to San Francisco last year and the 49ers owe him $12 million this year while the Panthers take an $18.3 million dead money hit which is another cautionary tale to NFL teams regarding long-term deals with big signing bonuses/guarantees to running backs). 

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Further complicating matters is the shoulder surgery Cook had last month, from which he is expected to fully recover prior to the upcoming season. But $2 million of Cook’s 2023 salary was guaranteed as of March 17 as the team did not want to deal with the repercussions of releasing an injured player and apparently could not find a team willing to trade for Cook before that guarantee hit the Vikings books. 

The Vikings can still save $7.9 million by trading Cook pre-June 1 or $11 million by trading him after June 1, when they could split his dead money hit over two years. In the scenario of a release after June 1, when he is presumably healthy, they could then split his $6.2 million dead money hit over two years and gain $9 million in cap savings this year (after absorbing the $2 million already guaranteed).

With a promising trio of young backs in Mattison, third-year man Kene Nwangwu (a former fourth-round pick), and second-year man Ty Chandler (a fifth-rounder last year), I don’t see the Vikings keeping Cook as they consider their cap situation and Cook’s slight decline in production last season.

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His rushing average dropped to a career-low 4.4 yards per carry, and his number of carries fell from 22 per game in 2020 (when he rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 TDs) to 15.5 per game last season (when he ran for 1,173 yards and 8 TDs). His 39 receptions while playing in all 17 regular season games in 2022 fell far short of his career-high 53 catches in 14 games in 2019.

Mattison was the better short-yardage back last season, with five TDs (plus one receiving TD) in only 74 carries. Nwangwu has Cook’s speed, and Chandler appears to be a good cutback runner, but it remains to be seen—and is probably unlikely—that these two younger backs can produce as Cook did. But Mattison will be a very good starting running back if he stays healthy.  

After four straight thousand-yard plus rushing seasons that landed him in the Pro Bowl all four years, it’s sad to think the 27-year-old Cook is expendable, but that’s the reality in today’s NFL and Kevin O’Connell’s offense. But I do think the Vikings have a decent chance to trade Cook for a mid-round draft pick if he agrees to a pay reduction as part of a sign-and-trade deal to a team Cook is interested in playing for. 

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. Lamar Jackson has asked the Ravens to trade him as his ongoing contract dispute with the team remains unresolved after he was hit with the $32.4 million franchise tag. He really doesn’t need to ask the team to trade him since, under the non-exclusive franchise tag, he can go out and get an offer from a team willing to give up two first-round picks in compensation.

But after missing six games (including the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Bengals) with a knee injury last season and five games the year before, along with his 1-3 playoff record, I don’t see any team willing to meet Jackson’s demand for a fully guaranteed five-year $230 million or more contract (the Deshaun Watson deal in Cleveland, but Watson had a no-trade clause in his contract so he could dictate to the desperate Browns). 

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

Plus, I don’t see any team giving up the type of compensation the Ravens would demand in a sign-and-trade situation (multiple No. 1 picks and other high picks or players, as in the Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson trades) for the 2019 league MVP who is only 26 years old and does have a 45-16 regular season record as Baltimore’s starter. 

2. Pro Days are winding down, and the conjecture over Carolina’s choice at quarterback in the No. 1 overall spot is picking up. The mock drafters are mixed between Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Alabama’s Bryce Young, but perhaps the Panthers prefer Will Levis (Kentucky) or Anthony Richardson (Florida). Houston, at No. 2, also will be picking a quarterback, with Arizona at No. 3, likely swapping spots with Indianapolis (No. 4) as the Colts also are very likely to take a QB. 

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl