Strong confidence in and success in the running game has been a common trait throughout most of the Minnesota Vikings’ successful seasons over the past two decades. Mike Zimmer’s philosophy and two generation running back talents in Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook made sure of that.
That certainly wasn’t the case this season. New Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell focused his attention on Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and the passing game.
Whether by design or necessity, the running game became an afterthought and an Achilles’ heel for Minnesota’s otherwise dangerous offense.
Pretty much every metric tells the same story. The Vikings placed 28th in rush attempts, 27th in yards, and 26th in yards per attempt. They placed 28th in the Football Outsiders DVOA. In expected points added per rush they placed 29th. They placed 25th in the success rate.
In the playoffs against the Giants, one of the bottom five runs in the league, Minnesota yarded just 61 yards. The Eagles rushed for 268 yards on the same defense over the next week.
Those numbers alone imply a change is needed, but given the contracting situation in the running back room, it would likely happen this offseason anyway.
Will they continue from Dalvin Cook?
Cook’s 2023 cap is currently $14.1 million (6.4% of the team’s total salary cap, the highest percentage of Cook’s 5-year contract). If the Vikings cut it or traded it before June 1st, they would save about $8 million against the cap. If they wait until after June 1st, they would save about $11 million. With the Vikings currently already $24 million over the cap, that’s a not inconsiderable saving – and given Cook’s performance this season, it might be justified.
Cook averaged a career-low 4.4 yards per carry. More than that, however, was the lack of consistent explosiveness. Cook’s 50 first downs on rushes are the lowest since he became a full-time starter – despite playing all 17 games in a season for the first time in his career. He particularly struggled with creating yards from contact, which is now a two-year trend.
In both 2019 and 2020, Cook averaged 2.4 yards after contact per rush. That dropped to 1.9 in 2021 and 1.8 in 2022, ranking 24th among running backs. Similarly, Cook is breaking tackles less frequently than ever. He has a total of 28 broken tackles over the past two seasons. He had 33 in 2020 alone. The continued lack of pop in the running game plagued Minnesota’s offense. Is there reason to believe he will return to the runner he once was? Especially considering he’s said to have the sixth-highest cap hit among running backs?
Nor was it the product of the Offensive Line. While the unit certainly had its issues, Cook averaged 2.6 yards before contact, which ranked 14th among running backs with at least 100 carries. That also fits every other year of his career.
With a new regime in power, one that did not grant him his five-year extension, it seems far more likely that they will sever ties. If Zimmer and Rick Spielman were still in charge, the question would probably be harder to answer.
Scroll to Next
Still, there’s a world Cook could return to – possibly in a cheaper restructured deal. Cook is no longer owed guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap, so a brief reorganization guaranteeing him some cash up front could tempt a runback. It might also lure the Vikings – depending on their answer to the next question.
Is Alexander Mattison as good as gone?
All season it was assumed that Mattison would play somewhere else in 2023. Its use this season suggests the same thing. Firmly behind Cook on the depth chart, Mattison had career lows in both carry and yards — a result of Cook’s continued health. His 3.8 yards per carry was near the lowest of his career. After being targeted 39 times in the passing game in 2021, that number has dropped to 18 this season. By all accounts, Mattison’s role has dwindled.
If Cook is retained, the assumption will almost certainly become a reality. But if Cook becomes a Cap victim, could Mattison be a target for retirement?
The price will probably be modest. The top free agent to run back last year was Leonard Fournette. His deal was for 3 years and $21 million. However, Mattison’s track record is not as strong. He might not even get anything close to what Chase Edmonds and Cordarelle Patterson got, which is a two-year deal worth about $5 million to $6 million a year. Considering this year’s running back class is filled with a lot of potential options — Josh Jacobs, Kareem Hunt. Rashaad Penny, Jamaal Williams, Raheem Mostert – the market for Mattison could be quiet, especially after a year in which he has barely played. Spotrac estimates Mattison’s value at around $2.2 million per year.
If Minnesota decides to go all-in again, Mattison could be a cheaper option than Cook, which is likely to get roughly the same results. It would allow the Vikings to advance a win-now mantra without committing the kind of resources they did to Cook. In this scenario, it’s possible but unlikely to hand over the keys to Kene Nwangwu and Ty Chandler while the team eyes a playoff run. Would Chandler’s strong rookie preseason be proof enough to give him the job with a hopeful contender? He may have a better case than Nwangwu considering Chandler was a current regime draft pick and Nwangu’s role never took the leap that some expected, as he was only relegated to a returning role.
If the Vikings decide to step back now, it makes a lot more sense to lead with the cheap youngsters.
That leaves Mattison in limbo — a lot of that will depend on what other teams think of him. If his market isn’t as strong as he’d like, maybe there’s a scenario coming back to Minnesota.
Running back room staff notwithstanding, more tweaks likely need to be made for this team to improve their running game, but what could that be?
The Vikings’ offensive line probably won’t look drastically different. Cornerstone tackles Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill will be back. Ed Ingram is a second-round pick this regime picked just a year ago, and Ezra Cleveland was similarly a top pick recently. A new center might be possible, but is not a guarantee. So where is the broad improvement coming from? Internal development might be the simplest and most likely answer. Another year of NFL snaps for Ingram and Cleveland could help them settle in — something that often takes several years for an interior designer. Maybe it’s coming from O’Connell’s plan adjustments or a breakout year from Chandler.
Simple solutions to Minnesota’s run game problems aren’t cut and dry — and the unit enters the offseason as arguably the biggest question mark on offense.
See also: The Future of the Vikings Part 1: Quarterback
See Also: 7 Players The Vikings Must Mine To Escape The Salary Cap Hell