Dalvin Cook has been the best running back in the NFL in 2020 with the big numbers to prove it. The Vikings should be pleased with that return on investment after making him the fourth-highest paid player at his position right before the season.
Cook, going into Monday night’s game against the Bears in which he can help Minnesota (3-5) get right back into NFC playoff contention, leads the league in rushing yards (852) and rushing TDs (12), despite missing one game with a groin injury.
Cook also is on pace for 2,209 yards from scrimmage while averaging 23 touches per game, which would be a career-high. After destroying the Packers for 226 scrimmage yards and 4 TDs in Week 8, he ripped through the Lions for 252 scrimmage yards and 2 TDs.
The MVP race is led by several strong QBs, including Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. But if there was a sole backfield candidate, Cook would be the guy, because he’s truly “most valuable” to the Vikings’ chances of winning enough to turn around their disappointing first half.
Cook is signed through his age 30 season in 2025 after agreeing to a new five-year, $63 million deal in September. He got $28.125 million in guaranteed money and is averaging $12.6 million per season. When factoring value of overall contract, only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey are better compensated running backs.
While Elliott has been ineffective and McCaffrey has been injured, Cook and Kamara — who had the lead in scrimmage yards (1,036 yards) — have been indispensable to their teams’ offenses.
Cook really took off in his third season of 2019 because he shook off injuries and was put in the effective zone-blocking scheme of Gary Kubiak. The Vikings focused their offense around his versatile, explosive talent, using the heaviest 12 personnel (two tight ends) in the league. The result was quarterback Kirk Cousins having his highest efficiency with low volume, a 10-6 record and a trip into divisional playoffs.
The Vikings have been forced into pass-happier situations in 2020 because of a defense that’s struggled, especially on the back end. When teams can jump on weak, inexperienced cornerbacks for big plays early and build significant leads, Minnesota has been in trouble with Cousins needing to drop back often in catchup mode. He operates best playing off the run, using play-action to get the ball downfield effectively to wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Cousins isn’t meant to carry the team in one-dimensional mode with teams teeing off on him, as the Vikings aren’t deep in reliable playmaking wideouts. They have two strong tight ends in Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. Their athletic line is better suited to run-block than pass-protect.
Cook is the critical catalyst to everything the Vikings do offensively. He also eases the burden on their defense when he’s running for chunks and spotting the Vikings for consistent scoring. Second-year back Alexander Mattison is good No. 2, but the Vikings lose a special gear without Cook.
When Cook missed the Week 6 game against the Falcons, the Vikings struggled to run the ball and Cousins was forced to throw too much after facing a 20-0 halftime deficit. The led to three interceptions and a 40-23 blowout loss that in the end could cost them a wild-card berth.
Cook is the perfect player in the perfect scheme, much like Adrian Peterson was in the prime of his Vikings’ career. The Vikings had no issues splurging on Cook, despite needing to make significant moves to control their salary-cap issues earlier in the offseason, including trading wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Rick Spielman knows how much Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball. When he hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with previous offensive coordinator, it’s when the Vikings have focused too much on throwing the ball. Thielen and Jefferson have had their share of big games, just like Thielen and Diggs did. But Minnesota still wants what Cousins can do passing downfield to complement Cook, because that’s the current necessary formula to win games.
Beyond the gaudy numbers, Cook is the heartbeat of the Vikings’ offense. Some would say it’s silly to pay a running back that much in 2020, and in most cases, they would be right. Like McCaffrey and Kamara, however, the Vikings are getting the bonus of an elite receiver who can also take over in the passing game.
Cook didn’t waste time to prove to the Vikings he was worth every penny. They were right on the money to recognize he was about to raise his importance to the team.
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