What does workload for Vikings' Dalvin Cook mean for 2021 and beyond?

EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has never come across as concerned about his workload this season.

Through 12 games (he missed Week 6 with a groin injury), Cook ranks second in the NFL with 310 touches and is the league leader in touches per game at 25.8. He's on pace to finish the regular season with 388 touches three months removed from signing a five-year, $63 million extension.

Cook worked tirelessly to get to this point, fighting back from injuries early in his career to prove his worth as one of the best running backs in the league. So naturally, when his workload and its sustainability is brought into question, Cook bristles at the notion that he can't handle it.

"My thing is keep working, keep pounding away, always be ready, so when my team calls upon me to take 30 touches, 40 touches, whatever it is, be ready, and I don't have no limitations on my body," Cook said. "I'm willing to give it all each and every Sunday, each and every day for these guys, and that's just the type of person I am."

The effects of his workload is an important long-term question, however. That's part of what makes the Vikings' final three games of the season so intriguing. Cook’s usage, whether it helps the Vikings secure the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoffs or not, will impact the franchise beyond this season.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there are 48 instances of a player having at least 310 offensive touches in his first 12 games of a season from 1970-2019 with a handful of instances where a player was able to do that multiple times, like Lydell Mitchell, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and, most recently, Le'Veon Bell.

A theory called the "Curse of 370" was developed by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders in 2004. It suggests that a running back who carries the ball 370 times or more in a season is destined for a dropoff the following year. As a back takes on more wear and tear, that figure in question (370) is considered a tipping point for bad things in the future, such as a major injury or a loss of effectiveness. Schatz proved his theory on several backs from Terrell Davis to Eddie George to Jamal Lewis -- basically anyone not named Dickerson, according to the ESPN NFL analyst.

Will that theory and its negative implications apply to Cook in 2021? Potentially. But to project what Cook's mega workload means for next season, it's reasonable to look at how other backs have panned out with the same usage.

The most obvious and recent example is the Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey, who led the NFL with 403 touches and played 93.3% of snaps in 2019. In April, McCaffrey signed a four-year extension that averaged $16 million per year. This season, McCaffrey has been limited to just three games after sustaining separate ankle and shoulder injuries.

In 2012, months after signing a five-year extension with the Houston Texans, Arian Foster topped 313 touches in his first 12 games. The following season, he was limited to 143 touches in eight games after suffering a lumbar injury.

One season after reaching 314 touches in his first 12 games, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor suffered a groin injury in 2000 and was limited two games. It was a similar dropoff for Davis (four games in 1999 after tearing two ligaments in his right knee) and Jamal Anderson (two games in 1999 with a torn ACL).

The argument is not cut and dry. According to Elias, several running backs who crossed the 310-touch mark in their first 12 games went on to do big things the following year. The San Diego Chargers' LaDanian Tomlinson led the NFL in scrimmage yards in 2003 after topping 345 touches in his first 12 games of 2002. The Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James in 1999 reached 330 touches in his first 12 games and then led the NFL in rushing and scrimmage yards in 2000. He then tore his ACL in 2001.

Bell had 336 touches through his first 12 games in 2016 and 2017, but a contract dispute in 2018 kept him sidelined the whole season so the effect of that workload was not seen.

Even someone like Todd Gurley, who got paid by the Los Angeles Rams in 2018, is applicable to this argument in spite of only having 279 touches in his first 12 games that season. When it counted most, in Super Bowl LIII, Gurley could only muster 35 yards on 10 carries and one reception that yielded negative yardage in large part due to a knee injury many suspected was an arthritic condition.

But every player's situation is different, and Cook could shatter the mold in 2021. He said Wednesday that he's still eyeing a rushing title and has incentives built into his contract over time that he's likely to push to achieve.

That's why he says he doesn't even look at others who have been in his position -- guys like McCaffrey, Gurley, even David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott -- the ones who, like him, got paid and then experienced a dropoff.

For Cook, it's a matter of fighting the notion that he's going to have his best season and then decline.

"No, I think those guys have a little something different going on," Cook said. "With me, I really don't care about the workload. Whatever it is, I really don't compare as far as what other people got going on. I feel like my situation is so unique because I'm so different from those guys.

"I feel like my game is so different. I'm not the biggest. I'm not the strongest. I put myself in position to be the biggest and the strongest in a lot of scenarios, so I think those guys have a different idea of what they wanted."