Four-Time Vikings Pro Bowler’s Future in the Air After Team Confirms Cousins

O'Connell, Cousins, Vikings

Getty Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell (left) and quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah left many questions regarding the roster after his end-of-season press conference — but the one certainty he offered was that Kirk Cousins would be the team’s quarterback for the 2023 season.

The rest of the roster, brimming with veterans that are approaching or have already fallen off the precipice of their prime, remains uncertain. With the Vikings $23.3 million over the salary cap, no veteran appears safe other than Cousins.

That includes running back Dalvin Cook, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert asserted.

“Cook will turn 28 in August, a past-prime age for running backs, and crossed the 1,500 mark for career touches last season. Most notably, he is due $11 million in 2023, the third-most cash on the books for a running back, and is set to count $14.1 million against the Vikings’ salary cap,” Seifert wrote in a January 26 article.

“Asked about Cook and a number of other veterans whose age and contracts make them vulnerable, Adofo-Mensah said: ‘It’s this complex equation we’re always trying to solve.’ He said the team knows that Cook and others ‘are great football players, great people [and] core foundational elements of our culture.’ But after making clear that quarterback Kirk Cousins would return as a 2023 starter, he made no such commitment to Cook and the others.’ ”

Cook, who was added to the fourth Pro Bowl of his career last week,  is among a handful of veterans still under contract who the Vikings may move on from to free up cap space to retain other pending free agents or add outside talent.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to meet a talent threshold,” Adofo-Mensah added, per Seifert “a way of playing, a vision for this team that’s a championship standard. How we get there will look different year in and year out, but we’ll consider all those things as we go forward.”

Despite Regression, Dalvin Cook Offers Strong Reason for Vikings to Keep Him

Dalvin Cook, Vikings

GettyRB Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball during a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on January 8, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Cook is coming off the first season he’s played every game and was adored by coach Kevin O’Connell who deployed him a career-high 813 snaps, 68% more than his average over the past five seasons, according to ESPN. In turn, Alexander Mattison, who is a pending free agent, saw a career-low 89 touches last season.

Cook dominating usage in the running back room is a product of his ability to be a true dual threat in the backfield. No other running back last season possesses the ability to be a three-down bell cow and a threat as a receiver. In an offense that’s predicated on giving the “illusion of complexity,” a dual-threat back is vital to keeping defenses guessing.

That puts the Vikings in a predicament of what to do with Cook.

His efficiency fell off a cliff in 2022. Cook led the NFL with 62 rushes of zero or negative yards, nearly a quarter of his total carries, per ESPN. According to Pro Football Focus, Cook left plenty of meat on the bone, gaining 200 yards fewer than an average running back in the league on his opportunities — the most of any starting running back.

However, a case can be made that Cook wasn’t afforded the same opportunities to thrive as he had earlier in his career due to poor run-blocking by a battered offensive line late in the season.

“It will be up to Adofo-Mensah to determine if that [regression] was because he was slower to hit the hole, if his explosiveness has faded, or if the Vikings’ offensive line and scheme were largely to blame,” Seifert wrote. “Anecdotally, he faced numerous instances of backfield penetration, and first contact with a defender came after 2.8 yards on average — the lowest mark of his career.”

The Vikings’ Options With Dalvin Cook

The Vikings are currently assessing what areas of the roster they can trim and what areas they can splurge on. Analytics notoriously knock teams for offering a running back a second contract and overspending on due to the small window of prime play at the position. Age, wear and tear, and regression tend to hit running backs much earlier in their careers.

Minnesota may approach Cook to restructure his contract and lighten his $14.1 million cap hit for next season. If he doesn’t agree the Vikings could pursue a trade.

And the Vikings may take anything they can get to move on from Cook.

Darren Wolfson of KSTP spoke with former NFL agent Joel Corry of CBS Sports on the SKOR North podcast on January 24. Corry suggested the Vikings could field a third-round pick for Cook — an offer Wolfson said Minnesota wouldn’t second guess.

“I would be shocked if the Vikings could get a third for Dalvin Cook,” Wolfson said. “If they can get a third for Dalvin Cook, done deal. They will make that move. They will take the dead money cap hit but also get some cap relief.”

Minnesota would still be on the hook for $6.2 million of his earnings — a pair of $3.1 million signing bonuses — however, the Vikings could clear nearly $8 million in cap space along with receiving draft capital, according to Over The Cap.