In the latest in our series highlighting potential values in the rushing yards prop bet market, we turn the spotlight on Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. After two years of flashing his potential, Cook finally put together a full season in 2020, with 250 carries for 1135 rushing yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns in 2019. That success has led to an offseason of discussion around Cook’s contract, which has spilled into training camp. Let’s break down how the numbers might look for Cook in 2020 and what that could mean when looking for value.
Can we accurately project a player’s rushing output?
While observing the last ten years of rushing data from the NFL for Pro Football Network’s Expected Fantasy Points (xFP) metric, it became clear that the trend between carries and rushing yards could have further utility than just for fantasy. In a similar vein to xFP, we can use the historical data to project a players rushing yards and, therefore, utilize it to examine season-long prop bets.
Now while it will be no shock that there is a correlation between carries and yards, what is important is the significance of the trend, and this one has some impressive numbers. A correlation over 0.95 is considered to be one that is exceptionally significant, and both the correlation (0.986) and line of best fit on the graph (0.965) are above that magic number.
This correlation allows us to somewhat cut through the noise and move away from discussing the strength of schedule and offensive line rankings. Those elements can be useful when the numbers are close to a particular threshold for determining whether a wager is worth placing or not.
How can we utilize this knowledge to our advantage?
Using a plot of carries against rushing yards, we can project the rushing yards that an average running back would have on a given number of carries utilizing the line of best fit. Let’s say, for example, that a running back is projected for 200 carries in a given season; we can calculate that on average, he would finish the season with 856.5 rushing yards. If you would like to hear about this in more detail, then check out the recent episode of the Against the Spread podcast where we discussed it in more detail.
If we then combine that with a view of the player’s history in the NFL, we can cut through the noise of strength of schedules and offensive line rankings in order to determine the likelihood that a given player will go over or under their projected rushing yards for any given season.
Is there value in Dalvin Cook’s rushing yards prop in 2020?
Despite showing that his 2017 and 2018 performances were not just a flash in the pan last year, expectations are still tempered for Cook this season. While Cook managed a career-high in games played with 14, he still missed time with injury. Those concerns, combined with the level of play seen from backup running back Alexander Mattison, have meant that Cook’s season-long rushing prop is placed in the 1000-1075 yard region.
What does the chart tell us?
Our rushing yard model tells us that for Cook to meet the middle of that range of outcomes (1050.5), he would need to log at least 245 carries while performing like an average running back. It is worth noting that last season, Cook’s 1135 rushing yards outperformed his expected rushing yards (1074) by 61. Throughout his career, Cook averages 4.6 yards per carry, with that sitting closer to 4.5 over the past two seasons.
Can Dalvin Cook go over 250 carries in 2020?
Cook is undoubtedly an extremely talented running back, being able to contribute effectively in both the rushing and passing games for the Vikings. However, at around 4.5 yards per carry, it is not as though he is enough of a difference-maker that Minnesota will be desperate to avoid bringing him off the field. 2020 saw Cook average 17.9 carries per game, which demonstrates the Vikings are willing to utilize him heavily. However, entering 2019, Cook was the only known quantity in Minnesota.
2019 saw two backs emerge as potentially useful options for the Vikings. In 13 games as a rookie, Mattison carried the ball 100 times, logging 462 rushing yards. While those numbers are not spectacular, Mattison’s metrics suggest he can provide heavily for the Vikings if given the chance. Last season, Mattison was the sixth-highest rated running backs according to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric. With questions surrounding Cook’s future in Minnesota, we may see the Vikings look to get Mattison more involved this season.
When Mattison and Cook were both out with injury, Mike Boone also stepped up for the Vikings. Boone carried the ball 41 times in the final three weeks of the season, clocking up 232 rushing yards and three touchdowns. While his 5.66 yards per carry is fueled by small sample size, with an impact like that to end the season, it is possible we also see Boone on the field more in 2020, even when Cook and Mattison are healthy.
All of these permutations are further complicated by the ups and downs of Cook’s contract dispute. Cook is in camp with the team, but the Vikings had been keeping him off the field while negotiating on a new deal. However, last week those negotiations broke down, and now the onus is on Cook to decide his path. With Cook having been out of practice, Mattison and Boone have had plenty of opportunities to stake a claim for more carries.
What is a realistic expectation for Cook in 2020?
Realistically, matching those 250 carries from last season seems like the ceiling for Cook’s expectations in 2020. All of the uncertainty of his contract and his issues with injuries make it hard to imagine Cook being let loose for 275 or more carries this year. While a running back on the final year of his deal is often utilized heavily, the Vikings will be conscious of how vital Cook is in the receiving game (53 receptions for 519 yards in 2019) and how important his presence on the field could be in the playoffs.
Current projection systems have Cook at over that 250 carry mark. However, I am less bullish, projecting Cook for around 225 carries. Last season, the Vikings logged the fourth-most carries in the NFL at 476. If we assume Cousins once again accounts for somewhere in the region of 30-35, Mattison sees an uptick in carries to the 125 mark, and Boone sees the field a similar amount (50 carries), that leaves around 245 carries. In 2019, the wide receivers and fullback accounted for another 17 carries, which seems a reasonable number again, that leaves us in that 225 region for Cook.
Now, if we go back to our projection numbers at Cook’s career average of 4.6 yards per carry, 225 carries would equal 1035 yards. If we then use our expected rushing yards, that number drops to 965, which is below almost all of Cook’s current rushing yard prop bet numbers.
What does history tell us?
If we look back over the past decade at backs who had between 216 and 264 carries (10% either side of a projected 240 carries in order to split the difference in projection systems), then we get an interesting range of results.
In total, 86 running backs have registered a season total of carries in that range. 38 of those (45%) have gone over 1050 rushing yards, with 25 over 1100. Of those 38 to go over 1050, 13 were backs who registered more than 250 carries. Therefore, even with less than 250 carries, it is possible for Cook to break through that 1050 yardage marker, which is the most common prop bet available for his rushing yards.
However, only ten of those 38 backs managed to go over that 1050 mark while averaging less than 4.6 yards per carry, which is where Cook has sat the past two seasons. Therefore, unless we suddenly see Cook jump back up to the 4.8 yards per carry he averaged as a rookie, it is tough to see how Cook can be a sure bet to break through that 1050 range.
The final verdict
We can all see that Cook is a talented running back, but he is in a situation where the Vikings have options. Additionally, with Cook’s injury history, we may see the Vikings opting to protect their top back in order to have him available come playoff time. All of that factors in when considering Cook’s rushing yards and looking for value in the prop bet market.
Another element to consider is the uncertainty of the 2020 season. With players potentially having to miss significant time at the facility, including the potential of multiple games, any questionable player props should always see the under considered as a play. Of course, this can work both ways, in terms of the absence of potential competition for touches, but just missing a game or two could be devastating to any back’s chances of going over on their rushing yards.
This recommendation comes in two tiers. If your sportsbook has Cook projected at 1100 yards rushing yards, then this is a two-unit play. However, if the line they are offering is set in the 1050-1100 region, then I will look to play safer with a one-unit play. I am placing the wager at DraftKings, where the line is 1050.5, and therefore, I will be taking the under at -110 for one unit. Below 1050, this is still likely a one-unit play, but as we near the 1000-yard mark, it becomes a play I feel much less confident about.
1u – Dalvin Cook under 1050.5 rushing yards | -110