Before the start of the second round of the 2020 NFL draft last Friday, the Minnesota Vikings were prepared to move forward with their plan to renovate the offensive line. And it didn't include a trade for seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams.
The Vikings were one of the teams in on Williams the longest, his agent, Vince Taylor, said on SiriusXM. But Minnesota was adamant about striking a deal before Round 2 of the draft, a source told ESPN. When their arbitrary deadline passed without landing Williams, the Vikings used the 58th pick on Boise State's Ezra Cleveland, whom they hope will become their franchise left tackle.
The Vikings struck out on Williams, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, but the silver lining is the money they saved by not picking up Williams' $12.5 million salary for 2020 and signing him to an extension. After the Houston Texans' Laremy Tunsil became the league's highest-paid left tackle on a deal that averages $22 million per year, it's possible Williams could aim for a price tag nearly as high.
So, what's next? An extension for running back Dalvin Cook, who attended this week's virtual OTAs, per a source. Cook, 24, is set to make $1.3 million on the final year of his rookie deal coming off a season in which he topped 1,654 yards from scrimmage with 250 carries and 13 rushing touchdowns. He has averaged 4.6 yards per rush over three seasons.
The Vikings have the financial resources to sign their top back to a lucrative extension. But more than anything, they need Cook locked up.
"We've always had history in the past of once we got through the draft, a lot of the extensions we've done, our philosophy has always been [that] hopefully we're drafting well enough that we reward our own players," general manager Rick Spielman said on ESPN's Spain and Company. "Dalvin Cook's a critical part of our offense and not only is he a great football player, but he's a great human being off the field on how he represents our organization out in the community. We'll see where that goes. I'm sure we'll be talking to his representatives here down the road as we get closer. A lot of our stuff has gotten done before we've headed into training camp. But we'll see how everything progresses."
Minnesota has $12.295 million in available cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management. During the offseason, only the top 51 players on a team's roster has their base salary count against the salary cap. According to Over The Cap's calculations, the Vikings would need only $4.164 million in cap room to sign all 15 of their draftees, based on the calculations that when each draft pick signs, he will replace someone currently on the roster and bump that player's base salary out of the equation. If the Vikings signed their entire rookie class, they'd have around $8.13 million in cap space to allocate for Cook and safety Anthony Harris.
The Vikings also have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with Harris. If not, the 28-year-old will play the 2020 season on an $11.41 million franchise tag, which already has been factored into the salary cap. An extension for Harris would lower his cap number for this season, freeing more space in the process.
Last month, the Carolina Panthers made Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in NFL history after he signed a four-year extension worth $64 million, an average of $16 million per year ($7.794 million cap hit for 2020). McCaffrey is the Panthers' offense. Cook took 38.1% of the Vikings' touches from scrimmage in 2019, the ninth-most in the NFL.
Debating how close Cook could get to McCaffrey's number is moot. Could the Vikings follow suit and try to make Cook the league's highest-paid running back? Maybe. But what's more important is a salary that reflects how much of the offense runs through Cook, who has quickly become the face of the franchise.
None of Minnesota's top offensive players (Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph) accounted for more than 7.38% of the total cap in 2019. When the Vikings offer Cook an extension, it should fall below that number.
If the Vikings chose to allocate more of the salary cap to the first year of Cook's extension, they'd be on the books for less in the later years should his production decline and they opt to move on from him.
Cook averaged 5.38 yards per touch over the first 29 games of his career. That puts him above the likes of some of the NFL's top backs in history, from Jim Brown (5.34) to Todd Gurley (4.39). Theoretically, the less wear and tear on Cook's body (he was limited to 15 games his first two seasons because of ACL and hamstring injuries), compared to those who endured more on their rookie deals, could mean that his best years are ahead of him. For an offense predicated on a heavy rushing attack, it's critical for the Vikings to not only have a healthy and available Cook, but to sync up his deal with quarterback Kirk Cousins, who signed a two-year extension that runs through the 2022 season.
And not one of the Vikings' 15 draft picks were spent on a running back. Bringing in Cleveland was a move made for better pass protection for Cousins and to boost the line's run-blocking efforts for its top back.
The Vikings have the financial resources to sign Cook long term after missing out on Williams and having an inexpensive crop of rookies. It's possible they could also move money around on a veteran contract (like Riley Reiff if he ends up moving from left tackle to guard and restructures his contract and lowers his $13.2 million cap hit) and free up more space.