They absolutely have to be considering it. And even in an era in which running back value has been significantly depressed, one could make the case that their best shot to do anything of note during their Kirk Cousins era would be by making Dalvin Cook their primary fulcrum, extending his tenure and maximizing his impact. Because the reality is, if the Vikings are going to finally be a playoff factor, it will be as a result of their offense and not Mike Zimmer's defense.
Breaking news: That defense has been slipping for years and even after the draft there are serious questions to be asked about the secondary and defensive line. Minnesota just extended Cousins's already record-setting deal, locking in on a productive-but-by-no-means-transformational quarterback at over $30M a year. The days of this team being able to win consistently scoring in the teens are over; the offense has to be the star and if we know one thing about Zimmer it's that he's mandated no-frill, ball-control football (everything to protect that defense).
That's not going to change, yet the balance of power in his roster most definitely has … which brings us back to Cook, who is entering his fourth season in the league (when dudes start getting paid) having proven to be a significant difference-maker when he is in the lineup. He doesn't turn 25 until this summer and is coming off a 250-carry season in which he rolled up nearly 1700 total yards and amassed 13 rushing touchdowns and has averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry through his career.
Operating with a less-than-stellar offensive line and a quarterback who tends to be exceedingly streaky, Cook has emerged as one of the most dynamic every-down backs in the NFL. Is he any less important to the Vikings than the just-extended Christian McCaffrey is to the rebuilding Panthers? They had identical carries per game (17.9), while McCaffrey did average five more yards per game (Cook was seventh at 81.1 yards/game) and while the Panthers back was a 1000 receiver on nearly 150 targets, Cook had the fourth-highest receiving average among all running backs (9.8 per catch) but was under-utilized on just 63 targets.
We all know that's changing, right? The Vikings dealt Stefon Diggs and, yeah, they took a receiver in the first round but the learning curves might be more steep than every with a virtual offseason and very likely a truncated training camp. Yeah, Kyle Rudolph had a bounce-back year but there is a reason he was on the trading bock for so long, and Irv Smith's rookie season wasn't all that inspiring. This is becoming Cook's football team and that should generally be reflected in one's paycheck.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out the direction in which the Vikings are going, and having Cook making just $1.3M in the final year of his rookie deal isn't a good look. Give Vikings ownership credit – they have stepped up to pay and re-pay just about any core player necessary the last three or four years (and even some they should not have). They were giving out contracts like Oprah giving away cars. So best not stop now.
The Vikings were at a fork in the road after the 2019 season. Cousins was entering the final year of his fully guaranteed deal and key free agents abounded and the cap situation was tight. Had they gone ahead and dealt Cousins and Cook and started over in the draft I wouldn't have batted an eye. Instead, they doubled down on the quarterback, slapped the franchise tag on Anthony Harris and spent big money on defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
A rebuild this is not. And the Vikings winning games as presently constructed without Cook being an MVP contender looks like a longshot. He is as central to their fortunes as any player in the league. When he suits up the Vikings are 18-11 and he is now two years removed from the surgery that wiped out his rookie season after just four games. With Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman in lame-duck contract years and the strengths of this football team transitioning, it's clear who they need to deal with next.
Zimmer has churned through offensive coordinators for a reason and he is not going to relent and have his QB slinging the ball around 45 times a game no matter how much they are paying him. Even he has to know his defense is not nearly as fierce and imposing as it was, say, two years ago.
And the entire NFL knows that every running back in the NFL has been trying to get close to that mega-deal AP signed all the way back in 2011, when he inked a seven-year deal worth (a real, not inflated or fabricated) $100M with $40M guaranteed in the first three years alone. Nothing lasts forever, and even in an era in which running backs get discarded at an alarming rate – and even with several teams getting burned by paying big money for backs – eventually someone is going to push the standard back close to this.
The top of the running back market is set at $16M a season for now after McCaffrey's extension. And if I was Cook, doing a three-year deal (with as much as possible guaranteed) similar to the structure Cousins applied in his free agent deal with Minnesota would have a particular appeal. Minnesota might as well tie the two together when it comes to contract length (Cousins is signed through 2022).
That's the window to win something with this group, and opportunity abounds in the NFC North with the Bears and Lions floundering and the Packers front office seemingly hellbent on picking fights with a Hall of Fame quarterback and fooled that they have another 14-win season coming with that roster.
Cook is an integral part of the Vikings identity, and everyone gets paid in Minnesota. His time is now. Playing around with the franchise tag is less than ideal, and the Vikings aren't winning anything without him.