Dalvin Cook may be hoping for a big reward, but a potential holdout from the Minnesota Vikings running back would carry a great deal of risk.
An ESPN report this week stated Cook may be extending social distancing measures well into the preseason and beyond, having informed the team he will not participate in any further activities until he receives a new contract. According to the report, the 2019 Pro Bowler is prepared to sit out training camp and perhaps the entire 2020 season if fresh terms are not agreed.
Cook's rationale is both sensible and obvious. He is slated to earn just over $1.3million in the final year of his rookie contract, an absolute bargain rate for a player of his calibre and production, and faces the daunting prospect of entering a potentially flooded 2021 free agent market for running backs that could include impact performers such as Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson and Joe Mixon.
There is also plenty of incentive for Cook to want to remain in Minnesota. The Vikings ran the ball on 49.1 per cent of their offensive plays in 2019, with only the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers doing so at a higher rate last season. And although offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has moved on to Cleveland to be the latest head coach to attempt to end the Browns' embarrassing stretch of futility, Minnesota's strategy does not figure to deviate much under Gary Kubiak, who has historically placed a heavy emphasis on the ground game during previous stops as both a play-caller and a head coach.
Cook's value to the Vikings is easily evident as well. Including the postseason, Minnesota are 12-2 when he has recorded 108 or more yards from scrimmage and 6-10-1 when he has gone below that number.
Given all those factors, there would seem to be both a high importance and desire on both sides to get a new deal done. A closer look, however, would show the Vikings may not be in such a rush to dole out another big contract to a perceived core player.
Cook's dependability on the field is not in question, but availability has certainly been an issue at times. He has missed 19 of a possible 48 regular-season games over his three NFL seasons due to various injuries, the most serious being a torn ACL that sidelined him for most of his 2017 rookie campaign.
Those durability concerns could very well make the Vikings pause at giving Cook the likely $13m per year he is seeking, and it is certainly a reason why he has reportedly threatened to sit out the entire upcoming season rather than play on his rookie deal. But while that wish to eliminate injury risk is understandable, Cook would be still taking quite a gamble of another sort if he indeed decides to adopt that stance.
This is not a situation akin to Le'Veon Bell's of two years back, when the then-Pittsburgh Steeler held out the entire 2018 season before inking a four-year, $52.5m contract with the New York Jets. The NFL's new collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from accruing a season if they skip training camp, meaning Cook would still have three years of service time and would be a restricted free agent for the 2021 offseason.
Considering the surplus of quality veteran running back options that may be available next offseason, there may be some benefit in Cook entering the market a year later. He would also be going in a year older, however, and quite possibly with fewer options to select from - including his current team. The Vikings' cupboard is not bare at the position, as backup Alexander Mattison acquitted himself well as a rookie last season and is under contract for three more years, while third-stringer Mike Boone ran for 148 years in a spot start in the Week 17 finale. Either could prove to be a capable alternative if given the opportunity to start, and at a far cheaper price than Cook would command.
And do not discount the presence of Kubiak, a strict disciple of the Mike Shanahan system that has turned its share of nondescript running backs into viable starters over the years, as evidenced by career journeyman Raheem Mostert's emergence during the 49ers' NFC title following the 2019 season.
There is also the uncertainty of next year's salary cap to consider, as teams may have less money to spend in 2021 if the coronavirus pandemic leads to decreased revenue in the form of lower attendances and in a worst-case scenario a reduction of games. The Vikings are not flush with cap space to begin with and are still attempting to hammer out a long-term deal with standout safety Anthony Harris, whom the team may view as a more indispensable player than Cook.
With so many variables at hand, Cook's situation does not appear to be one that will be resolved either easily or imminently.