EAGAN, Minn. -- In truth, the post-Dalvin Cook era has been taking shape for months at Minnesota Vikings headquarters.
General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has been speaking in neutral terms about Cook's future since the combine in February. He has repeatedly declined to confirm that Cook will be on the Vikings' 2023 roster.
In March, Adofo-Mensah re-signed No. 2 running back Alexander Mattison to a contract that guarantees him $6.35 million over the next two seasons, a deal that would be awfully pricy for a backup. Mattison later said he returned in part because of an "understanding how it's all laid out and how it's all going to work out."
More recently, coach Kevin O'Connell lauded Mattison's demonstration of "that all-three-down kind of ownership that he's been capable of for a long time," while also noting a brewing competition for what presumably would be the No. 2 role.
All that remains is for the Vikings to formalize Cook's exit, a denouement that seems likely if not completely certain. (Adofo-Mensah said in April that Cook and Mattison could "in theory" play together in 2023.)
There has been some speculation that the leaguewide release of salary cap space on post-June 1 moves could spark a trade, with the Miami Dolphins perhaps a leading suitor, but Thursday came and went with no deal.
ESPN has traced this complicated process throughout the offseason, but it's worth downloading it all into one spot as the Vikings approach the final week of organized team activities.
Why have the Vikings wavered on one of the most productive running backs in franchise history?
Cook has rushed for more yards (5,993) than any Vikings runners except Adrian Peterson (11,747) and Robert Smith (6,818). He produced his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2022 and did not miss a game for the first time in his career.
But the contract extension he signed in 2020, under former general manager Rick Spielman, called for him to earn $11 million in 2023, with a $14.1 million salary cap number, the third- and fourth-highest figures in the league for running backs, respectively. He will turn 28 in August, an age when production for NFL running backs starts to falter. In 2022, only three running backs rushed for more than 500 yards after they turned 28: the Denver Broncos' Latavius Murray (33), the Dolphins' Raheem Mostert (30) and the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry (29).
But didn't 2022 show he's still really good?
There are some revealing statistics on both sides of that question.
On one hand, Cook ripped off two of the six longest runs of his career in 2022: a 53-yard score in Week 6 against the Dolphins and an 81-yard touchdown in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills. On the latter, he recorded a top speed of 21.68 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the seventh-fastest speed recorded for any ball carrier in 2022.
But his efficiency numbers, which measure the frequency of carries that produce a positive outcome, dipped noticeably. He led the NFL with 62 carries that either lost or did not gain a yard. And as ESPN's Bill Barnwell noted, only 34.5% of his carries gained a positive total of yards over expectation in Next Gen Stats' model, the second-lowest rate among running backs with at least 200 carries in 2022.
In other words, Cook was less consistent in 2022 than he has ever been.
Why not offer Cook a pay cut and pair him with Mattison?
That outcome, if Cook agreed to it, might be the best short-term answer for the team on the field. But it's highly unusual, and obviously awkward, to demote a star player and ask him to share a position he once owned.
Mattison has been better viewed as an injury replacement for Cook rather than a backup over the first four years of his career. All five of his 20-carry games have come in games Cook either missed or left early. Never have they shared carries in any traditional sense.
While the Vikings have discussed the possibility of keeping Cook under a reduced salary, following through would perpetuate a financial logjam that most concepts of smart team-building suggest should be avoided.
With Cook's numbers on their books, the Vikings rank No. 1 in the league in cash and No. 3 in cap commitment to the running back position. Even if they slashed both his salary and cap number by 50%, the Vikings would still rank in the NFL's top 10 for running backs in each category.
What do they see in Mattison?
In a relatively small sample size over the previous four seasons, Mattison has proved to be a younger, less expensive and less explosive version of Cook. That view remains the best way to think of him. He is a physical inside runner, having averaged 1.91 yards per rush after contact -- slightly higher than Cook's mark of 1.77 over that period -- but only one of his 404 career carries has gone beyond 24 yards.
His cap numbers over the next two seasons, however, are $2.4 million and $4.6 million, respectively. The question to ask is whether the drop-off in performance from Cook to Mattison, if any, would be worth the smaller financial footprint. The Vikings seem to have made their decision, and it makes sense from this vantage point.
Would Mattison take the bulk of carries?
All indications are that O'Connell would use Mattison as an every-down back, similar to last season when Cook received 74% of the carries. O'Connell, in fact, offered up his "three-down" assessment last week when asked a general question about the state of the running back position.
Who would be behind Mattison?
Early spring practices have suggested two candidates for the No. 2 job in a Mattison-led backfield: Ty Chandler, a 2022 draft pick who spent most of the season on injured reserve, and Pro Bowl kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu.
"Between Kene and Ty, there already seems to be a really nice competition brewing there," O'Connell said, "because both of those guys are having really solid springs and kind of showing their versatility. Can they impact us not only in the run game but the pass game? To me, [it's] is about their ability to win when they're running routes ... [and] you've got to be willing to step in there and block in pass pro."
DeWayne McBride, a seventh-round draft pick from UAB who led the nation in rushing during the 2022 college season, is an intriguing prospect but has been rehabilitating a minor injury during spring drills and has yet to participate.
What is the endgame here?
If the Vikings wanted simply to release Cook, even with a post-June 1 designation, they could have done it months ago. So at the very least, it appears Adofo-Mensah wants to get something in return for letting Cook leave -- even if it's modest. After all, he held on to linebacker Za'Darius Smith for more than two months before agreeing on a deal with the Cleveland Browns that upgraded two future draft picks.
Is that really worth the extended wait?
Adofo-Mensah believes it is. Many fans and media members (understandably) emphasize "home-run" roster moves such as drafting a quarterback in the first round or signing a free agent pass-rusher. But Adofo-Mensah has spoken often about the value of incremental achievements. In April he said: "Ultimately your job is to try and win on the margins and cobble together all those small wins [that] add up to something great."