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Dalvin Cook holdout highlights ongoing paradox between being fair and being smart

LA Rams know a thing — or 22 million things — about holdouts

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams drafted Florida State running back Cam Akers in the second round and they’ll be elated if he turns out to be a healthy version of former Florida State running back Dalvin Cook.

Especially knowing what value Cook has so far given to the Minnesota Vikings on a contract that pays him $6.3 million over four years.

The list of players who are currently making more than $6.3 million per year is a long one and it ends at D.J. Hayden, the disappointing former first round pick who is now a corner with the Jacksonville Jaguars on a three-year, $19 million deal. There are only nine running backs among those making at least $6.3 million and it includes two players on their rookie deals (Saquon Barkley and Leonard Fournette) and two players currently on a tag (Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake).

Henry, a sleeper pick to win MVP next season after he rushed for 896 yards in the final six games alone, plus 446 yards in three playoff games, is 26 years old and he’s only guaranteed another $10.2 million in his NFL career until he signs his next contract. Fourteen teams used their franchise tag this offseason and the player who is being paid the least out of all of them is Derrick Henry.

Because he’s a running back.

The only other player who got tagged and could reasonably call himself an MVP candidate is Dak Prescott and his franchise tag pays him $31.4 million.

Because he’s a quarterback.

Nobody here is writing that quarterbacks are not more valuable than running backs or that running backs haven’t fallen victim to a devaluation that may or may not have considerable merit, but there is a significant disconnect between the way we talk about premier backs like Henry when they’re on fire and the way in which we talk about those players when we simply boil them down to the spot they stand in on a football field.

Think about how people skirt their low values of a “running back” when they talk about Christian McCaffrey or Barkley. “Well, you see, they aren’t really running backs. Not like those other guys.” Well, yes they are. That’s the position they play and if it had come down to a franchise tag for McCaffrey one day, he, too, would’ve been the lowest paid player on a franchise tag.

Instead, McCaffey signed an extension that pays him $16 million per season, paying him slightly less than teammate Kawann Short, who three years ago signed a deal for more years, more money, and more guaranteed money than McCaffrey, another potential 2020 MVP candidate.

Indications are everywhere that if you’re a running back in the NFL right now not only are you the least valued offensive or defensive position from a salary standpoint, but you are one of the most valued from a game day standpoint. It’s a dichotomy that has lead to holdout after holdout, missed game after missed game, and standoff after standoff between teams and the players who touch the ball play after play.

Dalvin Cook is the latest running back to holdout but he’s not going to be the last.

He probably won’t even be the only premier running back to holdout this year. What case does he have for more financial security and what reason do the Minnesota Vikings have to pay him? It’s an issue that the Rams are plenty familiar with and their regrets are probably going to bleed into the minds of teams with their own complicated situations at running back.

Dalvin Cook

Though Cook did miss 12 games as a rookie due to injury and five more in his second season, he was productive and heavily relied upon by the Vikings when he was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2019. Cook had 22 touches per game last season, produced 118 yards on average with 13 touchdowns, and 13 games into the season was still second in the league in yards from scrimmage behind only McCaffrey. He also scored twice in a playoff win over the New Orleans. He was paid $1,042,574 in base salary.

Consider that Minnesota is taking on a $9 million dead money cap hit for Stefon Diggs to play with the Buffalo Bills next season and former starting guard Josh Kline has a $2.6 million dead money hit.

If you ask people what they think of the Vikings next season, I imagine many would say, “Good defense. Must feature Dalvin Cook on offense as he’s their star, especially without Diggs.” Kirk Cousins is one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL, and good, but perhaps doesn’t carry near the same cache of Cook because of how differently the two are viewed relative to others at their position.

And yet Cook makes less than 41 other players. At his position.

He is also 18th-highest in 2020 salary on the team even though he’s one of their most recognizable and popular players and it is expected that Minnesota will not slow down how often they go to Cook. “He’s a great back and we need to keep using him,” said head coach Mike Zimmer after a win last season.

Zimmer also noted that Cook has been a great example to other players and that many look up to him.

Zimmer said he now considers Cook one of the team leaders. Apparently, so do many others.

“In fact,” said Zimmer, “I was told that if we had a vote, he’d probably get voted captain.”

Cook will make a $1,331,361 base salary. Any serious injury prior to the next period of free agency and Cook may not make any more money as a professional football player because his contract will be up. It seems pretty simple, right? The Vikings want Cook and Cook is making less than 18 punters next season.

Well, here’s Minnesota’s argument, assuming they are intending to rebuff his requests, as many franchises have over a long history of running back holdouts.

The Vikings paying him may also be a mistake

One is Cook’s injury history, which includes ongoing shoulder problems that date back to college, a torn ACL, and issues with his hamstring (which is common after ACL injuries). He has missed 19 of a possible 48 games in three years and he has had an injury of some sort in each of the last six years. Paying Cook now could easily invite criticisms not only from the “never a running back” crowd, but from those who have seen what’s happened following recent deals for Todd Gurley and David Johnson (the two highest-paid backs of 2019 and now both on other teams) as well as Jerick McKinnon. And those were just a few mostly tainted from injury.

There’s also those who mostly just disappoint after getting a new contract. Players like DeMarco Murray. Potentially Le’Veon Bell will be next as he was second-to-last in DYAR in 2019 even though he was third in salary among backs and he’ll be first in 2020. And should the Vikings let Cook leave if he wants to, they’ll have a long list of options to choose from in 2021 as it’s probable that most teams won’t be extending their starting backs.

Players set to be 2021 free agents include backs who ranked first, fifth, seventh, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 20th, and 23rd in rushing yards last season. That player who was 23rd as Alvin Kamara, who does other things besides run. The player who was 20th was Todd Gurley, who nearly won MVP in 2017 and 2018 and is on a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons now. There’s not been much in the way of extension talks that I’ve heard for any of them.

The Vikings could also note that while Cook started hot, he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry over the final seven games, that he didn’t catch a touchdown all year, and that he fumbled four times. In the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, he fumbled again and had nine carries for 18 yards.

Could Minnesota be fearful that Cook’s best days are the ones in which he’s 25 or younger and playing for $1 million per year?

Of course they could be and of course they should be. It would not be reasonable to argue that most modern running backs don’t peak in production while on their rookie contracts. In 2019, the top 10 players in rushing attempts and the top 12 players in rushing yards were all 25 or younger. Compare that to 2015, when the top eight in rushing attempts were aged: 30, 26, 25, 23, 32, 27, 28, and 28.

That season there was only one running back in the top 20 in attempts who was younger than 23 and that was 21-year-old Todd Gurley on the (then) St. Louis Rams.

The next year, 21-year-old Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL with 322 attempts and 1,631 rushing yards. Gurley was fifth in attempts. When Sean McVay, Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan arrived in 2017, Gurley was an All-Pro and starting to get MVP consideration. Bell led the NFL in attempts at age 25. Jordan Howard was 23, fifth in attempts. Melvin Gordon, picked five spots after Gurley, was third in attempts. Leonard Fournette was the fourth overall pick and the Jacksonville Jaguars put him seventh in attempts.

Teams were heavily featuring young backs but perhaps none was more important to the next phase of running back value than Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing yards as a third round rookie out of Toledo. He was a star and may have been a catalyst for many to object to first round backs, even though many of the best players at the position in recent years have been first or second round backs.

By 2018, only David Johnson and Adrian Peterson were over 25 and in the top-12 in rushing attempts. The Pro Bowl roster had three backs who were 25 or younger and not taken in the top two rounds: Phillip Lindsay, James Conner, and Alvin Kamara. Lindsay was undrafted. Chris Carson, a seventh round pick in 2017, had 1,151 rushing yards. The ages of the Pro Bowl backs in 2019 were 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, and 30.

There were eight receivers on the Pro Bowl rosters older than 25. Even though there are more receivers per team, it’s still a position (like most all of them) that gets more respect on second contracts and later in their careers than 25.

Many teams are drafting with the intention to never pay a back

The Vikings drafted Alexander Mattison in the third round in 2019 and he had 4.6 yards per carry on 100 attempts as a rookie. Given the declining draft value of running backs, this is typically a move made to find a future or immediate starter now and even fans of Cook would probably be open to seeing the team with Mattison instead because he could be the next back to give them four incredibly cheap seasons at the position before moving onto the one who eventually replaces Mattison in three years.

The LA Rams drafted Darrell Henderson in the third round even when they’d yet to start paying Gurley on his massive contract extension, but knee concerns had already been raised and now Gurley is gone. The Chicago Bears drafted David Montgomery in the third round also and knew all along he’d be a rookie starter. The Buffalo Bills used third rounder Devin Singletary considerably as well.

This year, the Rams use a second rounder on Cam Akers to insure the position alongside Henderson. Shortly after, the Ravens took J.K. Dobbins, prepping perhaps to not have Mark Ingram soon. The Green Bay Packers then took A.J. Dillon as a way to not rely on a second deal for Aaron Jones. The Tennessee Titans had one of the best running back seasons of the decade from Derrick Henry, but still took Darrynton Evans in the third round. Why? As a long term complement? Maybe. But Henry is already 26 and set to make $10 million on the franchise tag as the fourth-highest paid back in the league.

The highest paid back in the league last year was Johnson at $9.75 million.

If that’s not insane to you, it should be.

Running backs have gotten the worst deal in the NFL lists the highest paid running back of 2005 as Edgerrin James at $9 million. In 2005! And then in 2006, James made $9.5 million with the Cardinals. So Arizona had the highest paid back in the NFL 13 years apart and the guy from last season only made $250,000 over the guy who played for Jim Mora when he gave the “Playoffs?!” rant.

The poor pay relative to other positions, the highest rate of injury of any position in the league, the unlikely reward of a second contract, the perceived lack of great talent distance between a star player and his backup.

These all seem to fall under arguments for both sides and eventually creates this ongoing stream of holdouts by running backs because you have to ask yourself both:

Why the hell would Dalvin Cook ever play another down without getting paid more than $1 million per season?


Why the hell would the Vikings pay Dalvin Cook when doing so could be more likely to hurt them in two years than help them given recent trends?

The history of running back holdouts goes back decades but for the purposes of the devaluation of backs that had led to this paradox in which you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, Recent holdouts include Elliott, Bell, Melvin Gordon, and Marshawn Lynch. Clearly the player who was criticized the most during and after his holdout was Gordon, the one who got nothing out of his request for more money.

Players who may have been threats to holdout but then returned or got new deals include Gurley and Johnson and they too can at least say they got paid when so few of their peers do. What they did after they got new contracts is no different than teams squeezing incredible on-field value from rookie deals: it’s an imbalance and no, they don’t have to pay it back.

We’re witnessing this with rookie contract QBs as well, but teams like the Kansas City Chiefs are also planning to pay Patrick Mahomes when the time comes. In fact, they’ll make Mahomes the highest paid player in football history. Should Clyde Edwards-Helaire give them four consistent, quality seasons at back, will they have that same attitude?

It seems fair to say yes, but potentially also it’s just bad business.

The top five paid backs in 2019 were Johnson, Gurley, Bell, Fournette, and Lamar Miller and they were all disappointing or injured or both. The sixth-highest paid was Barkley, which happens because teams have mostly stuck to avoiding paying anyone other than high first round players on their rookie deals.

The Rams would surely feel better off if they didn’t have more than $11 million in dead money on their 2020 cap after cutting Gurley following the deal with $22 million guaranteed signed before 2018, and that just seems like an awful way to be treating or talking about one of the team’s most popular, respected, talented, and utilized players over his five years with the franchise.

Does it really have to come to the point where running backs are talked about like they’re worthless, and yet utilized and idolized like they’re priceless?

Is it really good enough to say “Well, that’s just the way it is” when addressing the unfairness that a second round tight end can surely above-average his way into a lucrative second contract but a second round running back knows he’s most likely only getting the money he was paid based only on his perceived draft value?

Something needs to change so that running backs don’t feel like they’re stuck between risking their careers if they report because they know that the team is going to ask them to touch the ball 200, 300, or even 400 times, and risking their reputations and ability to do the thing they’ve spent their lives training for if they call out teams for compensation equal to their workload.

It would be one thing if these rookie contract players knew that their day was coming, but Cook and many others assume that it isn’t. Because we’ve seen that it probably isn’t.

Even the elite ones who could win MVP know that they aren’t being valued like tackles, pass rushers, receivers, tight ends, guards, cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, defensive tackles, and centers. Yes, all of them. Eight centers make as much or more than what Derrick Henry will get paid in 2020. Henry has better 2020 MVP odds than teammate Ryan Tannehill, who after only 10 starts with the Titans was rewarded with $62 million in fully guaranteed money: more than six times than current guaranteed money for Henry.

Reports are that Cook “only” wants the pay of David Johnson, not necessarily the “elite” salaries like Elliott and McCaffrey. Are those really elite though?

To say that Elliott and McCaffrey are making considerably more than $13 million per year would be a stretch, and to say that they’re making the $16 and $15 million per year on their deals respectively would be misleading. In fact, the biggest full guarantee among any backs is the $31,194,750 going to Saquon Barkley based on his four-year rookie deal. McCaffrey just signed a $64 million contract over four years, but with $30,062,500 fully guaranteed.

Elliott signed a six-year, “$90 million” contract that paid him a $7.5 million signing bonus and had two fully guaranteed base salaries at $752,137 in 2019 and $6,800,000 in 2020. By being on the roster on the 5th day of the league year this year, Elliott also had his $9,600,000 base salary in 2021 guaranteed. Which is all well and fine but if something happens to Elliott this year, like an injury, the team can cut him before the fifth day of the league year in 2021 and willingly put themselves in the same position that the Rams were with Gurley because a team would rather take an ugly dead cap hit one year than risk guaranteeing future salary for a back with potentially un-resolvable injury issues.

Elliott would be getting cut one year into a six-year contract and if that sounds ludicrous to you, Todd Gurley is no longer on the Rams. He was nearly MVP in 2018 and he even played in most of 2019 and he’s 25 and he hadn’t started his contract extension yet. Gurley had a different injury history than what Elliott has, though Elliott has been suspended and not been without issues.

Teams practically seem to be searching for reasons with running backs as is, even the great ones. The Eagles didn’t hesitate with DeMarco Murray. There have been Bell trade rumors all year.

As many as five teams could have a rookie starting running back in Week 1, and that’s just looking at probable scenarios. The number could be higher and by 2021, the 32 starting running backs could look considerably different than the 32 starting backs we saw over 2019-2020. It’ll pretty much all be based in pay.

What to do?

Running backs are playing a game they can’t win, teams are playing by the advantageous rules they created, and fans are treating backs like imaginary chess pieces on their fantasy teams or armchair GM dreams rather than as human beings who are sacrificing their bodies for your pleasure.

It’s two contradictory messages: “Do a lot” and “Don’t ask for anything”

I’m certainly not an expert and I only started doing my 2019 taxes yesterday. Couldn’t explain to you a single digit on any of those forms. But I do know that ridiculing Cook for holding out, as I’ve seen many people do this week, is actually ridiculing an unfair system designed to work against him and his peers and seemingly only getting worse by the year.

The solution may not be to pay Cook $15 million per season, but what can be done to make sure that backs are paid for what they did rather than never paid for what they probably won’t do, which is having long and productive NFL careers.

If Akers starts for the LA Rams in Week 1 of his rookie season, as he’s likely to do, and then has four productive seasons, is it really fair to pay him $6.1 million for that — less than the 2020 salary of Jaguars right guard A.J. Cann — and then say, “Goodbye, we’ve got another guy who can do what you did, thanks for the 1,200 touches”?

Something should be done to say thanks with something more tangible, like financial security. And perhaps financial security that also doesn’t strap a team’s future when we know how much pressure and stress football puts on those players with the ball in their hands.