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Dalvin Cook extension: His worth, the risk and what it would mean to Vikings

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Dalvin Cook takes home fantasy comeback player of the year (4:13)

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook wins comeback player of the year after returning from an injury and rushing for 1,135 yards. (4:13)

A breakout season has Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook in line to get paid. At this point, it's just a matter of when.

After all, Cook had 38.1% of his team's touches from scrimmage in 2019, which was the ninth most in the NFL.

But the risks associated with paying running backs top dollar are real, forcing teams to consider whether it's worth it to spend on a position with careers that generally don't last long and come with hasty declines.

At 24 years old, Cook is just now entering his early prime. There's a lot at stake for both parties when entering contract negotiations. Here's a look at some of the pertinent questions about a potential new deal.

How much could Cook earn?

Let's take a look at some of the most lucrative deals signed by the NFL's top backs in recent years.

The Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott reset the market ahead of the 2019 season when he signed a six-year, $90 million deal that included more than $50 million in guarantees and set his annual salary at $15 million. The Rams gave Todd Gurley a four-year extension in 2018 (coming off a career-best season) worth $57.5 million with $45 million in guarantees ($14.375 million annual salary), making him the league's second-richest running back. After sitting out the 2018 season, Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year contract last offseason with the New York Jets worth $52.5 million with $35 million in total guarantees.

Some will argue that the type of season Cook had (303 touches, 1,654 yards from scrimmage) should put him in line for a top running back deal. Cook finished eighth in rushing (1,135) despite missing two games, which is ahead of Bell, Gurley, the Cardinals' David Johnson, the Falcons' Devonta Freeman and the Giants' Saquon Barkley. Johnson, Freeman and Barkley make far more than Cook does on his rookie deal.

Does that make Cook a $13 million to $15 million a year player? Only four running backs in the NFL are paid in that range. The Vikings might argue that the sweet spot for Cook could be between $8 million and $10 million.

Is he worth it?

Minnesota's run-first approach is reliant upon having a workhorse back who can shoulder a heavy load on the ground and in the passing game. The Vikings had the second-highest designed run percentage (47) last season. They also generated the most yards off running back screens.

Most importantly, the Vikings designed their offense around Cook to take pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins while creating opportunities to set up play-action passes.

Is Cook worth the money? In many ways, he is. It was evident during a Week 16 loss to the Green Bay Packers when Cook sat out because of an injured shoulder and the Vikings struggled to generate a rushing attack (57 yards) without him. Or when Minnesota ran the ball 10 straight times, capped off by a Cook touchdown to wrestle back control in a pivotal Week 10 win at Dallas.

A lot is asked of Cook, and he's aware of his worth.

"Running backs are valuable," Cook said in November. "We take a lot of beating ... everybody wants us when we've got the ball. And it's like, that's almost every play. It's a physical position, and for guys to get rewarded for how physical, how much they get their body ready each and every week to go take that pounding -- guys getting rewarded for that -- the running back value kind of went down. So I think we're just as valuable as any position."

What's the risk?

Gurley and Bell haven't exactly met expectations. In 2019, neither Gurley nor Bell cracked 1,000 yards rushing, and the way their contracts are structured essentially cements them to their teams for the long haul.

These contracts were supposed to reinvigorate the running back market. Instead, they seem to support the notion that spending big money on the position isn't the smartest way for teams to allocate their salary cap given the wear and tear running backs endure.

The Cardinals are learning what that's all about after giving Johnson a three-year extension with $31.882 million guaranteed ahead of the 2018 season. After totaling 1,386 yards from scrimmage that year, Johnson had 345 yards rushing and 370 yards receiving in a 2019 season cut short because of injury.

An ACL tear and hamstring injury in his first two seasons limited Cook to 15 games in 2017-18. Coaches and front-office personnel have raved about the extensive care Cook put into his rehabilitation to keep his body fresh despite having dealt with injuries early.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer says he does not believe injuries are an issue with Cook.

"I wouldn't say he's injury prone," Zimmer said last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. "He had a knee that was early and had the shoulder last year, but with Dalvin, he's a physical runner. He's been working hard already. We've talked to him just recently. I'm excited to see where he can go, because he's such an outstanding player, great kid, great in the locker room as far as a leader on offense. He loves to work and compete."

When would a deal come together?

Running back deals are already getting done this offseason. On Friday, the Los Angeles Chargers gave Austin Ekeler a four-year, $24.5 million extension that includes $15 million guaranteed.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman made it clear that Cook is a priority for the Vikings but said the team usually doesn't look at extensions until after the draft in April.

"Right now, we have so much ahead of us and a lot of decisions to make before free agency begins and the new league year begins, and then we look at the draft once we settle down and everything," Spielman said. "But I consider Dalvin as one of those core group of players that we definitely want to try to keep."

Adrian Peterson had 1,317 touches before signing his seven-year, $96 million ($36 million guaranteed) extension in 2011 following his fourth season with the Vikings. Statistically speaking, compared to where Peterson was before he got his extension (1,639 yards, 13 touchdowns in 2010), Cook’s production is almost identical (1,654 yards, 13 touchdowns).

Compared to where Elliott (1,003) and Gurley (914) were before they got their new deals, Cook has 561 touches at the same point of his career. Cook, who has played 29 out of a possible 48 regular-season games in his career, doesn't have the same mileage.

What the Vikings could pay Cook matters in the context of what he can bring to them now and going forward. Paying him now, as he's becoming the face of the franchise and offensive centerpiece, makes sense. His best might be yet to come. Why not lock him up to an extension before he gets there?

How does it impact the rest of the roster?

None of Minnesota's top offensive weapons (receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph) account for more than 7.38% of the total cap. If the Vikings offer Cook an extension, it should fall below that number.

It's in the best interest for the health of Minnesota's salary cap to extend Cousins to lower his financial hit and create space in 2020. Given their chemistry and on-field success, syncing Cousins and Cook up on extensions this offseason could benefit the Vikings' cap and stability.

What if they don't sign him before this season?

Cook will need to decide whether he wants to hold out of training camp until he signs a new deal.

He is set to make $1.3 million on the final year of his rookie deal. The Vikings could opt to let him play out the 2020 season (for this case let's assume he doesn't hold out) and extend him going into the 2021 season or place the franchise tag on him, which should be more than $12.5 million.

If the two parties can't agree to an extension, Minnesota could choose to eventually move on. The Vikings spent a third-round pick in 2019 on Alexander Mattison knowing they wanted to build out a backfield around Cook and find a productive back should Cook miss time because of an injury.

Mattison filled in well with 462 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings have one of the most stable running back situations in the NFL given the way they've handled bringing in free agents and draft picks. If a deal can't be reached, the Vikings could opt to eventually draft his replacement.