In perhaps the most telegraphed move of the off-season, the Minnesota Vikings made it official – Dalvin Cook is no longer the team’s starting running back. After the two sides couldn’t meet on a restructured contract, the Vikings were left with no other option but to release Cook. No one was going to trade for his old contract.
Cook is now free to sign where he would like and the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos are already lined up as potential suitors:
The Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos are two of the teams that are expected to have an interest in signing running back Dalvin Cook once he officially is released, per sources. There likely will be others, but those two have been monitoring Cook for weeks.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 8, 2023
The Dolphins are the overwhelming favorite to sign Cook – they have the cap space and he makes a ton of sense in their zone-based scheme.
The Broncos are a little bit of a surprise since Cook will demand a decent-sized contract. Might they take it easy on Javonte Williams this year as he rehabs from a severe knee injury? Regardless, Denver has no RB depth behind Samaje Perine, so any of the available veteran RBs make sense.
Cook’s departure now opens up the Vikings to feature Alexander Mattison as their lead back while 2022 fifth-rounder from UNC Ty Chandler is penciled in as the new Mattison.
There are a lot of angles to dissect here.
The Vikings are extremely pass-heavy
In HC Kevin O’Connell’s first year, the Vikings were way more pass-heavy than any previous season of Kirk Cousins’ time in Minnesota.
The Vikings are now a pass-first team – a stark departure from the days of Mike Zimmer. Here is where they ranked in pass rate in all key game situations:
4th in pass rate when the game is within a score (65%)
2nd in pass rate when trailing (70%)
6th in pass rate when leading (64%)
6th in pass rate over expected (+5.5%)
This all resulted in Kirk Cousins attempting a career-high 643 passes (fourth-most in the NFL), fueling Justin Jefferson’s massive 128/1809/8 season. His 184 targets led the NFL.
After averaging 19.8 carries per game from 2019-21, Dalvin Cook’s rushing volume dropped off sharply as he averaged 15.5 carries/game – the second-lowest total of his career. Even with the increase in passing, Cook did not see a corresponding uptick in targets (56 was right in line with career averages).
This offense just isn’t built to throw to RBs. And why the hell would you when you have Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, and now another great receiver in the mix?
After selecting USC WR Jordan Addison in the first round, there is room for the Vikings to throw it even more in 2023. Addison is a massive upgrade over Adam Thielen (at this stage of his career), and Addison’s versatility is going to open things up even more for Jefferson.
We’re projecting Cousins for the third-most passing attempts with 610, right behind Justin Herbert (635) and Patrick Mahomes (620).
Alexander Mattison’s 2023 Projection
Even with the Vikings' dip in pass rate, Dalvin Cook was still a very valuable fantasy RB last season – finishing as the RB11 in fantasy points per game (13.3).
However, expecting Alexander Mattison to just step in and become what Cook once was is extremely foolish.
Mattison’s stats in his six career starts look incredible on the surface (117/477/3 rushing; 23/216/2 receiving), but there is some very important context to consider here.
Maybe most importantly, all of Mattison’s career starts were in 2020 and 2021 with their old HC and system. The high-volume rushing role that Mattison had then with Zimmer does not exist anymore with Kevin O’Connell.
Secondly, Mattison’s six career starts came against predominantly terrible run defenses.
2021 – two starts vs. Lions (bottom-5 run defense)
2021 – vs. Rams (top-8)
2021 – vs. Seahawks (bottom-5)
2020 – vs. Lions (bottom-5)
2020 – vs. Falcons (mid)
So, Mattison has really had one tough matchup in his career as a starter (2020 Week 16 vs. Rams), and he rushed for 13/41/1 (3.2 YPC) and added 3/29 receiving.
Last of all, Mattison has some extremely worrying metrics when looking under the hood…
According to our in-house Fantasy Points Data collection team, Mattison ranks 34th-of-46 RBs in yards after contact (2.59) over the last two years. Cook ranks 20th (2.79).
There are some scheme-related concerns as well. Mattison isn’t close to the runner that Cook was in his prime.
The Vikings run game is a zone-based blocking scheme, and Mattison has averaged just 3.97 YPC on zone runs over the last two years. 62% of Mattison’s runs last season were zone.
Meanwhile, Dalvin Cook is one of the best zone runners in recent history and cruised to 4.47 YPC on zone runs over the last two years.
The NFL average YPC on zone-blocking runs is 4.19, putting Mattison below replacement level (3.97).
Ultimately, the Vikings' confidence in Mattison is what matters most and that confidence is what will send him flying up draft boards this summer. I settled on him at RB21 in my best ball rankings, right behind Cam Akers.
The Vikings seem excited about 2022 fifth-rounder Ty Chandler and just added UAB RB DeWayne McBride in the sixth round, but a veteran free agent RB has to be in play for the Vikings. Mattison, Chandler, and McBride are not enough for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. A vet like Kareem Hunt makes a ton of sense.
With Dalvin Cook gone, Mattison is an upside RB2 – but there are a lot of upside RB2s to be excited about. I anticipate the markets will be more excited about Mattison than I am.