EAGAN, Minn. -- Running backs tend to stick together.
So it’s not surprising that notable former backs Chuck Foreman and Herschel Walker are among those who believe the Vikings should lock up Dalvin Cook soon to a lucrative long-term contract extension. Some others, though, wonder if that would be prudent considering the performance of many recent top running backs after getting big extensions.
There’s no question that Cook, when healthy, is one of the NFL’s top backs. In his third pro season in 2019, he missed two games and sat out nearly an entire half in two others, and he still finished 10th in the league in rushing with 1,135 yards. He also caught 53 passes for 519 yards, finishing seventh in the NFL with 1,654 yards from scrimmage.
“My thoughts are that they need to pay him,” Foreman said. “There’s not a better back in the league, so why would you even jeopardize that? … Without him, their offense is stagnant.”
Foreman was a versatile running back for the Vikings from 1973-79. He rushed for 1,000 yards in three seasons, and led the NFL with 73 catches in 1975.
Walker was a versatile NFL back from 1986-97. His years in Minnesota, from 1989-91, weren’t great, but he did have 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 75-catch seasons with both Dallas and Philadelphia.
“When they talk about great running backs in the league now, I say Dalvin Cook,” Walker said. “He’s an all-around back. I love backs who can run the ball and catch the ball, and that makes a team great. I’m always going to be partial to running backs, and he’s one of the top producers when he’s healthy, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t get a good contract.”
Cook, a second-round draft pick in 2017 out of Florida State, is on the books in 2020 to make a base salary of $1.331 million in the final year of his rookie contract. The Vikings have had discussions about a possible extension for Cook. General manager Rick Spielman said at the scouting combine in February that any extension for Cook likely wasn’t something that would be addressed in earnest until after the April 23-25 draft.
“I consider Dalvin as one of those core group of players that we definitely want to try to keep,” Spielman said then.
But at what price? The Vikings have salary-cap issues, and it remains to be seen if Cook would be willing to agree to a deal this offseason that makes the team comfortable.
If Cook doesn’t sign an extension, he would be in line to become a free agent next March. The Vikings then would have the option to place either a one-year franchise or transition tag on him. The franchise tag for this year is $12.474 million, and transition tag is $10.189 million.
“He’s going to be looking for a bunch of money,” salary-cap analyst Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the site OvertheCap.com, said of Cook this offseason. “He’s not going to be taking a team-friendly deal. But you look at all the running backs that have signed big deals recently and, quite honestly, they’ve all flopped, although Ezekial Elliott has been the only one somewhat productive. Todd Gurley was a disaster. Le’Veon Bell, a disaster, David Johnson, a complete disaster. Devonta Freeman, a disaster.”
Just before the start of last season, Elliott signed a five-year, $90 million extension with Dallas that runs through 2026. He rushed for 1,357 yards in 2019. But he averaged 84.8 yards per game, down from 98.7 over his first three seasons.
Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Rams in July 2018 after a season in which he rushed for 1,305 yards. He had injury issues over the next two seasons, and rushed for just 857 yards in 2019. He was released by the Rams last month with three years left on his contract, and then agreed to a one-year deal with Atlanta.
After starring for Pittsburgh and sitting out 2018 because of a contract dispute, Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal last year with the New York Jets. He rushed for just 789 yards in 2019.
Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension with Arizona before the start of the 2018 season that runs through 2021. After Johnson rushed for just 345 yards last season, he was traded last month to Houston.
Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with Atlanta in 2017. He was released last month with three years and $21 million left on his deal.
Running backs usually wear down more quickly than players at other positions, and are usually more injury prone. Injuries already have been a significant factor for Cook, who turns 25 in August.
He missed the final 12 games as a rookie in 2017 with a torn ACL, then sat out five games in 2018 with hamstring issues. Chest and shoulder injuries in 2019 resulted in him missing two games and about half of two other games.
“At the running back position, most teams that hand out big second contracts have buyer’s remorse,” said Solomon Wilcots, a former Vikings safety who is now an analyst for Pro Football Focus and SiriusXM NFL Radio. “That puts the Vikings in the crosshairs with Dalvin Cook. They desperately want to sew him up but, as we move forward, teams don’t want to spend a lion’s share of the salary cap on a running back. … Running backs aren’t as healthy and productive as the years mount up.”
Of the NFL’s top 10 rushers last season, none was over the age of 25.
Wilcots said the Vikings should not sign Cook to an extension this offseason and, if he has a strong 2020 season, should then consider placing the franchise or transition tag on him. The franchise tag locks up a player for one year while the transition tag gives other teams a right to make an offer, with the Vikings able to match the offer.
“That’s what I would do, and I would continue to draft at that position,” Wilcots said. “They’ve already got Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone, and draft another guy, too. The 49ers last year had three guys (Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman) rush for more than 500 yards (each), and then you don’t have to worry week to week about if one guy is not healthy.”
Foreman, though, said Cook is too important for the Vikings not to lock up long term. He pointed to the signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins last month to a two-year, $66 million extension, which keeps him under contract through 2022.
“Without Dalvin Cook (the Vikings’) offense is nothing,” Foreman said. “They gave Cousins all that money and he hasn’t proven anything as far as I’m concerned as far as being able to win big games. … In their system, the way the running back is set up, Dalvin Cook is the key to everything.
“You overpaid the quarterback. He’s not in the top 20 quarterbacks in the game. That’s just my personal opinion. I like Kirk. He’s hard-working and everything, but he’s just limited in what he can do. … They signed Cousins, but without Cook there to support him, it’s not going to work.”
When Cook missed a crucial late-season game against Green Bay on Dec. 23 because of a shoulder injury, Cousins completed just 16 of 31 passes for 122 yards in a 23-10 loss. After a chest injury early in the second half sidelined Cook in the Dec. 2 game at Seattle, the Vikings slipped quickly from a 17-17 tie to a 34-17 deficit in a game they lost 37-30.
“There’s always going to be all these debates,” Walker said of signing running backs to big-money contracts. “But I’m going to say this: He fits the Minnesota system very, very well. I think people have got to look at that. You can bring in another running back, but he may not fit the system. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good back, but (Cook) fits the