Before running back Dalvin Cook’s Vikings traveled to Dallas in November, he talked about approaching his contract status like Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott — “He’s been putting in the work and not looking for a payday, just looking to get wins and looking to do good things.”
The part not mentioned was Elliott’s 40-day summer holdout, which he parlayed into a six-year, $90 million contract on Sept. 4. Finally healthy, Cook went on a three-month tear through NFL defenses last season that might just be enough to cash in on a similar deal.
Cook’s breakout 2019 campaign confirmed what Vikings coaches already knew about their star runner’s potential after he missed 17 of his first 24 NFL starts due to injuries. Now how much is the front office willing to pay while up against the salary cap? Next season is the last of Cook’s rookie contract, and the Vikings’ M.O. is to extend core players before the start of their final season.
Below, we’ll assess the 2020 outlook and 2019 grades of the Vikings’ backfield, the wheels on the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing attack.
Pending free agents
FB C.J. Ham (restricted)
RB Ameer Abdullah
Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)
2020: RB Dalvin Cook ($2.02M), RB Mike Boone ($662K), RB Tony Brooks-James ($585K)
2022: RB Alexander Mattison ($830K)
Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with ‘5’ marking excellence, ‘4’ for above-average, ‘3’ for average, ‘2’ for below-average and ‘1’ for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for six backs who finished the season on the Vikings’ active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
RB Dalvin Cook (4.5) — The opening 10-game stretch defined Cook’s breakout season, during which he led the NFL in touches (243) and yards from scrimmage (1,415) before his injuries. Cook thrived in an offense funneling the ball through heavy personnel packages and perimeter runs that set up play-action passes. Premiere vision and acceleration make Cook a perfect fit for this Gary Kubiak system, which also deployed a creative screen game featuring Cook. Set a tone for the offense’s direction during an 111-yard, two-touchdown game in Week 1 against the Falcons, a win during which Kirk Cousins attempted 10 passes.
Nobody matched Cook’s 10-game pace to open the season, and only Seattle’s Chris Carson had more broken tackles than Cook (54) in that span. A right clavicle injury in Week 11 against the Broncos started to slow Cook, who left early in two of the next three games while suffering an additional left shoulder injury. Lost fumble on hit that forced him from Week 13 loss in Seattle, leading to a Seahawks field goal in the 37-30 loss. Durability remains the primary question. While he’s one of the NFL’s premiere dual threats in the backfield, Cook’s drop problem persisted with his increased workload. Led the Vikings with seven drops on 63 targets; caught 53 passes for 519 yards.
Coaches chose to rest Cook in the Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. He sat the meaningless season finale against the Bears, then turned 31 touches into 130 yards and two touchdowns during the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans. Ineffective when the Vikings’ offensive line faced superior fronts in the 49ers, Bears, Eagles and Broncos.
First-time Pro Bowler. Played a career-high 615 snaps [59.4%]. Incurred his first (and only) NFL penalty on a rare flag thrown for offensive pass interference after a scoring replay of Stefon Diggs’ touchdown catch during the Week 2 loss at Green Bay. His 1,135 rushing yards ranked 10th in the NFL; 13 rushing touchdowns tied for fourth. Scored game-winning touchdown on fourth down during Week 10 win in Dallas. The play, like many of Cook’s scores, was a pitch to the edge behind fullback C.J. Ham.
FB C.J. Ham (3.5) — The former Denfeld Duluth star texted family and friends last spring about the possibility of having a breakout season in a new system under Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski. Ham realized that vision this season, progressing from core special teams player to a pivotal role on offense where both the run and passing attacks thrived from the ’21 personnel’ — or two-back — formations featuring Ham. Only the 49ers deployed more two-back formations than the Vikings. First-time Pro Bowler as an alternate, replacing 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (Super Bowl).
Played a career-high 359 snaps [34.7%]. Not penalized. Two first downs on five short-yardage carries. Not an old-school thumping fullback, but grew steadily as a lead blocker. The former Augustana (S.D.) running back caught defenses by surprise as an outlet receiver, running for catches of 25, 32 and 36 yards. A reliable pass protector seldom used in the screen game. Caught 17 of 26 passes for 149 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown against the Lions in a Week 7 win. Dropped one. A restricted free agent who is likely to be tendered and re-signed.
RB Alexander Mattison (3.0) — The Vikings’ third-round rookie (102nd overall) was on a short list of the most effective closers in the fourth quarter. That’s when Mattison took 42 of 100 carries and averaged 5.2 yards, trailing only Phillip Lindsay, Kenyan Drake and Raheem Mostert. An aggressive, one-cut runner, Mattison proved to be a strong replacement for Latavius Murray. Wasted no time showing off the athleticism of a former track star, as one of Mattison’s few hurdles came on a 24-yard run during the season opener against the Falcons. Tough to bring down, breaking 19 tackles on 110 touches.
Played 200 snaps [19.3%]. Not penalized. Second on the team with 462 rushing yards. Season-high 16 touches came against the Lions during the Week 14 win, when he spelled an injured Cook before spraining his ankle with two minutes left. Missed the final three regular season games to recover, but played just 15 snaps in two playoff games. Showed, like at Boise State, he’s an all-around threat catching 10 of 12 targets for 82 yards.
RB Ameer Abdullah (2.0) — A reliable veteran who played a variety of roles, however limited. Third on the team with 254 special teams snaps [59.6%]. Second on the team with nine tackles on coverage groups, trailing only rookie corner Kris Boyd. The Vikings’ primary kick returner fielding only 13 attempts for a 25-yard average. Season long came during the Week 7 win in Detroit, when Abdullah’s 38-yard return began a touchdown drive. Lost one fumble in the Week 11 win vs. Denver.
Biggest play was a 16-yard catch and run for a touchdown during the Week 9 loss in Kansas City. A limited passing-down back who played a season-high 32 snaps during the Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. Caught 6 of 7 targets for 31 receiving yards against the Packers, but did not break a tackle. Finished with 137 offensive snaps [13.2%]. Penalized once for a false start. A pending free agent.
RB Mike Boone (2.0) — Once again a preseason star, Mike Boone turned another impressive camp and exhibition schedule into a roster spot in a deep backfield. A special teams mainstay who played 222 snaps [52.1%] on all four phases. An elusive runner when given opportunities, but his inexperienced was exposed over time. Forced nine missed tackles on 52 touches. Played just 15 snaps on offense before Mattison’s ankle injury. Scored two of his three touchdowns the following week against the Chargers, when Boone was elevated to the No. 1 role after Cook’s shoulder injury.
Played 82 offensive snaps [7.9%]. Not penalized. Third on the team with 273 rushing yards, including a career-high 148 yards during his second NFL start in the Week 17 loss to the Bears. Contributed to two turnovers at the start of that big day with a fumble and a tipped pass into an interception. Shut down the previous week in his first NFL start against the Packers.
RB Tony Brooks-James (N/A) — Signed to the practice squad on Dec. 11 after Mattison’s ankle injury. The undrafted rookie from Oregon had stops with the Falcons, Bucs and Steelers this season. Re-signed to a 2020 futures deal with the Vikings on Jan. 12.