Minnesota Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook is nursing an ankle injury this week that has forced him out of practice as his team prepares to take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The winless Vikings can’t afford to fall to 0-3. Their already bleak playoff odds will become nearly erased with another defeat. Head coach Mike Zimmer knows this, and it ups the pressure for Cook to be on the field.
"You know, at this stage, it's time to get some wins," Zimmer said Thursday. "Dalvin's a tough guy. If he can't play, there's a reason why he's not playing. But he makes us go, so we're going to continue to play him."
Cook certainly does make the Vikings offense go. He’s one of the best running backs in the NFL when he’s been healthy enough to play over the last several seasons, but if anything’s become clear about Cook since entering the NFL as a second-round pick out of Florida State, it’s that his body tends to break down.
Cook played just four games his rookie season (2017) because of a torn ACL. In 2018, he made just 10 starts in 11 appearances. He missed two games in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Four seasons, 21 games missed.
Now, just two games into 2021, there’s a chance he won’t be able to go Sunday. At the very least, his ankle won’t be 100%.
"I know I play running back, I'm going to get banged up,” Cook said Thursday. “But the recovery is key. I'm in the training room a lot with the conditioning coach, just getting to it, trying to get my body back up."
Cook enjoyed his career-best season last year when he totaled 312 carries for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns. He finished second in the NFL in rushing behind only Derrick Henry. It was his second-straight season of more than 1,000 rushing yards; Cook ran for 1,135 and 13 scores on 250 carries in 2019.
The theory behind giving Cook a high-volume workload is obvious: He produces. His average yards per carry since entering the NFL is an elite 4.8. Sometimes, coaches make football more complicated than it needs to be. In the case of Cook, it’s simple: give him the ball. But Cook can only help the Vikings win games if he’s on the field. Hence, Minnesota’s dilemma.
The more they give Cook the ball, the more likely a player with his injury profile will get banged up, and the less likely they are to win games if he’s missing time. Fantasy football managers aren’t going to like the logical fix to Minnesota’s running back issue: a managed workload for Cook.
Cook’s 312 carries last season ranked second-most in the league. He averaged more than 22 carries per game—and had he played the full 16-game season, he would’ve trailed Henry for the most carries in the league by just 22. That’s a ton of work for a guy who’s listed at 210 pounds.
Cook’s workload hasn’t slowed in 2021. He entered Week 3 third in the NFL in carries (42) and is close to matching his per-game totals from last year. He’s also third in the NFL in rushing yards, so feeding him the rock remains something of a Siren song.
With each passing season, Cook gets a little older and his body a bit more fragile. He’s still a few seasons away from the dreaded 28-year-old mark for a running back, but his frame has aged at a rapid pace for a player who just turned 26. At some point, the proverbial wheels are going to fall off.
The Vikings can—and should—begin to involve backup Alexander Mattison into the game plan more. Mattison isn’t a game-changing weapon and he won’t do the field-flipping things Cook does with the ball in his hands, but he’s a competent early-down back who, even if he gets five-to-seven carries per game, can help reduce Cook’s workload by nearly 100 carries at year’s end.
Remember: Mattison was impressive in limited action in 2020. He earned an 80.9 season grade from Pro Football Focus after logging 96 carries for 434 yards and two scores. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 106 carries in 2019. In 2020, Mattison filled in for Cook midway through Week 5 when Cook exited the game with a hamstring injury. He totaled 30 carries for 138 yards over the 1.5-game stretch through Week 6.
Cook was able to rest during the team’s Week 7 bye and returned in Week 8 to a 30-carry workload. He totaled 30 carries in Week 10, too. And 27 carries in Week 11. And 32 carries in Week 13. Meanwhile, Mattison didn’t have a game (in which he appeared) with more than two carries until the season-finale. Now, through two games this year, Mattison’s totaled four carries.
Aside from the on-field production, the Vikings need to be careful with their sizable financial investment in Cook, who signed a five-year, $63 million deal at the start of the 2020 season. His contract doesn’t have a team-friendly out until 2023. The last thing the Vikings can afford is a sizeable paycheck given to a player who can’t stay on the field.
It may be time to give Mattison touches not as an injury replacement, but as an injury preventative. Otherwise, Cook—the most important piece to the Vikings offense—simply won’t be there for a full 17-game season.
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