The new Minnesota Vikings regime’s goal this offseason was to get younger and offload the team’s financial commitments to players past their prime.
That came with the painful decision of parting ways with some of the franchise’s most beloved players like Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, and most recently, Dalvin Cook — who was released the first week of June after months of speculation.
Thielen, appearing on “The Rich Eisen Show,” wasn’t shocked by the move given the months of rumors surrounding Cook’s future but floated his interest in a reunion with Cook.
“Well, I kind of figured it was coming, so it wasn’t too surprising but with that being said, one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Thielen said of Cook on June 24. “He’s a special person, special player. I would love to compete again with him on my team, but I’m excited to see where he lands. He’s going to make a big impact.”
The Carolina Panthers, who signed Thielen to a three-year, $25 million contract in March, has been floated as a potential destination for Cook given their desire to give Bryce Young a talented supporting cast and available cap space ($26.6 million, Over The Cap). Cook has also been linked to the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots.
Meanwhile, the Vikings will move on without two of the offense’s longest-tenured players in hopes of becoming a more efficient unit in 2023.
Can Vikings’ Jordan Addison Be an Upgrade Over Adam Thielen?
Last year, the Vikings offense ran a league-leading 1,118 plays, which lended itself to some impressive statistical performances across the unit. However, the amount of plays ran is not a result of their dominance, but the defense’s deficiencies.
Minnesota finished with the ninth-highest Expected Points Added (EPA) per play, which grades performance versus situations. The Vikings will need to improve their efficiency if they hope to be a true Super Bowl contender that is led by their offense.
The hope is first-round pick Jordan Addison can slot in immediately as a replacement to Thielen, who had lost a step in recent years — and there’s reason to believe he could be an upgrade.
For starters, the offense’s passer rating when targeting Thielen was 95.8 compared to 107.9 when targeting Justin Jefferson and 105.8 when targeting K.J. Osborn, per Pro Football Focus. According to ESPN, Kirk Cousins‘ QBR was 20 points lower when Thielen was on the field, although it was a small sample size.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thielen ranked 88th among 103 qualifying receivers with 1.06 yards per route run (YRR) last season — a dramatic drop off from his 1.63 YRR in 2021 and 1.84 YRR in 2020.
Addison was a high-profile prospect in this draft as one of the elite separators in his class. Although there’s a range of outcomes that can be anticipated for a first-round rookie wide receiver, he’s a safe bet to improve upon Thielen’s numbers from last year given his strengths and the explosion of talent that has come out of the draft in recent years.
From Pro Football Network:
The average first-round receiver since 2010 generated 1.72 yards per route run. In the last five years, when receiver classes have been seemingly chock full of talent, that average is 1.83. Last year, those averages would have ranked 37th and 29th among NFL receivers.
In total NFL yards, the average active first-round rookie receiver generated 803.9 receiving yards in their first season over the past five years and 750.3 since 2010. That would have ranked 34th and 40th among receivers in the NFL in 2022.
All of that is to say that the addition of Addison is likely to help more than losing Thielen will hurt the offense.
Vikings Running Game Looking to Get on Base in 2023
Cook flashed that he is still one of the most dynamic playmakers at his position last year.
He broke off the longest touchdown of his career, an 88-yard scamper in the third quarter that sparked the Vikings’ miraculous 33-30 comeback victory over the Bills. He also came through with clutch touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts, a 63-yard receiving touchdown, and a 54-yard touchdown to clinch a win over the Dolphins.
However, in between the explosive plays were too many runs that went for no gain. Cook led the league with 62 rushes of zero or negative yards, per ESPN.
The Vikings’ decision to release Cook was ultimately a financial one, and they’ll move forward with trying to find more efficiency in the running game.
Alexander Mattison is a piece to that puzzle, but should not be expected to “replace” Cook.
Mattison is a back that will largely take what he’s given and struggles to create in space like Cook can. Cook’s playmaking abilities were a double-edged sword last season given the number of times he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
The chart below shows both backs rushing yards over expected (RYOE) — a metric that grades every run on whether they gained more, less or what was expected compared to an average running back in the NFL.
Cook had a higher level of variance than Mattison, who cannot be expected to replace the explosives that Cook brought to the offense.
However, the goal this season is to create better situations later downs by having more consistency in the running game by getting on base instead of hitting home runs. The offense will have more possibilities when faced with third-and-4 versus third-and-8.
The Vikings signed one of the league’s top run-blocking tight ends in Josh Oliver and should be expected to run more plays out of heavier personnel packages. That will also open more opportunities in play action and avenues to incorporate other diverse weapons in the running back room like Ty Chandler, DeWayne McBride and Kene Nwangwu.
The running game may not be as productive without Cook in 2023, but it has a chance to be more impactful to the offense’s efficiency.