What to Expect from Alexander Mattison If He Starts in Week 1

What should we expect from Alexander Mattison if Dalvin Cook's holdout extends into the regular season?

After a long lull in the post-draft NFL news cycle, June 8 brought the most important piece of news in over a month: a representative of Dalvin Cook said the running back will hold out through “camp and beyond” if he doesn’t get a “reasonable” contract extension. The name Alexander Mattison should have popped into your head immediately (and maybe Mike Boone if that name doesn’t cause you to get nauseous). After so many fantasy teams profited greatly from drafting Austin Ekeler as a bet on the Melvin Gordon III holdout extending into the regular season, expect Mattison’s ADP to rise, even if it is not in the same proportion that Cook’s falls.

Why Cook's situation is different than Melvin Gordon III's

Before we take a closer look at Mattison, it is important to make three important distinctions between the Melvin Gordon III and Dalvin Cook holdout situations:

  1. The Chargers rarely budge in negotiations. Most prominently, Vincent Jackson sat out 10 games in 2010 due to a contract dispute. The Vikings have given Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, and Linval Joseph to new deals on the eve of camp.
  2. The new CBA deems that any player who doesn’t report for training camp does not receive an accrued season. That means Cook would become a restricted free agent next year if he misses camp and sits out the season, obviously cutting deeply into his 2021 earnings after forfeiting his 2020 earnings. Under the old CBA there wasn’t such a strong disincentive to show up for camp. Cook also probably sees the loss in career earnings that Gordon and Le'Veon Bell both suffered by playing hardball with their teams.
  3. The Vikings reportedly started out at an offer under 10 million per year, not reasonable by Cook's camp per ESPN's Courtney Cronin. Cook's request is currently at around 15 million per season, but Cronin reports that sources say Cook would "gladly" take something around the 13 million per year deal David Johnson got in 2018. So it sounds like Cook is willing to budge.

The Vikings could also hold tight on their offer because they like Mattison and don't think Cook has earned the money he is asking for due to a long injury history. General manager Rick Spielman traded down three times in the third round of the 2019 draft before taking Mattison, a sign that he had clarity that the league wasn’t as high on the running back as the Vikings were.

The shark move is probably to bet on an extension at a number closer to the Vikings ask than Cook's over a costly holdout. Anyone looking at Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon (or their backups) in drafts this year will have to watch this situation closely as they are also entering contract years.

What if Cook's holdout extends into the regular season?

Mattison got 100 carries last year, occasionally spelling Cook, but mostly getting on the field when the team was salting away games with big leads. He had 53 carries for 258 yards and one of his two scores with the Vikings up by more than a score, which inflated the picture of his effectiveness last year. Mattison also proved to be a solid receiver in an NFL context, catching 10 of his 12 targets for 82 yards after catching at least 27 balls in each of his last two seasons at Boise State.

Mattison got more work in comfortable Vikings wins, but in losses, he only got nine carries in three games before Cook’s injury. Even when a close win over Dallas yielded eight carries for Mattison, Cook got 26. Would the Vikings favor Mattison over Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah to the same extent if Cook holds out? When Cook was battling a recurring shoulder/collarbone injury last year, the door opened for Mattison to get a start, but he was sidelined with an ankle injury of his own. We can’t be sure that the Vikings would follow the same split with Mattison/Boone/Abdullah as they did with Boone/Abdullah, but it still gives us a picture of the team’s possible intentions. Abdullah actually outsnapped Boone 51 to 46 in Weeks 16 and 17, although Boone got 31 touches to Abdullah’s 19. Boone had 28 carries to Abdullah’s 10, while Abdullah had nine receptions to Boone’s three. Boone scored the only rushing touchdown in the two games, but he had two scores late in a decisive 39-10 win over the Chargers the second time that Cook got banged up in Week 15. Do the Vikings coaches trust Mattison more than Boone in passing situations? Did they see enough from Boone to play all three backs if Cook is out?

These questions don’t have certain answers, but the usage late last year suggests that Mattison won’t have the rushing or receiving upside of Cook in terms of value. If Cook holds out into the regular season, we will probably project Mattison as a strong RB2 in Week 1 against the suspect Packers run defense. Better run defenses in Indianapolis and Tennessee are up in Weeks 2-3, with softer run defenses in Weeks 4-5 (Houston and Seattle). Mattison would be a value pick if he can start for those weeks alone if his ADP doesn’t get past the seventh round, but he doesn’t offer the elite RB1 upside that Ekeler provided when Gordon was out for the first four weeks, or low RB1 PPR upside that Ekeler provided after Gordon returned.

Bottom line: Don't reach for Mattison earlier than the 8th or 9th round in drafts that take place before camp

In part, it’s because Mattison isn’t a talent on Cook’s level, although like Cook, he is a good fit for the Kubiak/Dennison wide zone running game.

About that fit… we should always take notice when our resident scout Matt Waldman loves a player. Waldman has been a Mattison fan since the back was playing at Boise State:

“Mattison has often displayed a strong link between the visual, conceptual, technical, mental, and physical aspects of football.”

This becomes more important in the Vikings running game where a back has to be patient, process visual information, make a decision, and execute the decision with the physical ability to maximize the outcome of the play.

Mattison was Waldman's #5 running back in his annual Rookie Scouting Portfolio last year. Some excerpts:

He’s an underrated runner with an all-around game. The biggest thing he lacks is long speed.

He’s a smooth mover who adjusts his stride and pace to set up creases as a zone runner. However, he’s versatile enough to run gap or zone. Like most top backs, he understands when to be decisive and hit a crease and when to be patient and set up a block.

Mattison has excellent footwork. He executes timely jump cuts away from penetration and has quick enough stopstart footwork to freeze defenders while in the crease. Mattison dips away from penetration, executes effective spins, and knows how to reduce his shoulder from reaches as he does so. When transitioning from EastWest to North-South, Mattison only needs a step or two to make the move.

He has the hip mobility to point the toe, open the hips, and make a sharp turn at a good rate of speed. He often runs with a slashing style. However, Mattison doesn’t rely solely on hard cuts and stop-start movement. He can use curvilinear movement to bend away from oncoming defenders.

His functional strength during collisions is even more striking against defensive backs. Here’s a highlight of Mattison playing the boat and a defensive back playing the part of the flailing water skier dragged across the green and blue waters of Air Force’s turf.

For more on Mattison from Waldman, check out this Boiler Room video:

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