The Minnesota Vikings were looking for a running back in the 2017 draft. After releasing Adrian Peterson earlier in the offseason, they brought in Latavius Murray but still wanted a younger bell-cow back.
Having dealt their first-round pick in the Sam Bradford trade, Minnesota had its eyes on several players but ultimately traded up for the 41st-overall pick to select Dalvin Cook. While the former Florida State back has become a staple in the Vikings’ offense, he wasn’t the only player they were connected to.
On Sunday, Cook will go head-to-head with Joe Mixon, who the Cincinnati Bengals selected seven picks after him. Since coming into the league, both players’ careers have been intertwined and could have been much different if Minnesota had selected Mixon instead.
Mixon’s story involved plenty of baggage heading into the draft. During his redshirt sophomore season at Oklahoma, Mixon punched a woman in the face, and the tape was released late in the season. The NFL was still reeling from the Ray Rice scandal, and Mixon entered the draft with a giant red flag.
Mixon visited 15 teams in the leadup to the draft, but Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller connected him with the Vikings. A playmaker who put up 1,812 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in his final season with the Sooners, the Vikings needed to do their homework given their commitment to bringing in high-character players.
We’ll never know if the Vikings were planning on selecting Mixon had he fallen to their original pick in the second round. But when Cook, a projected first-round pick, fell due to his own character concerns, Minnesota traded up and passed on Mixon.
Both players had similar attributes coming into the NFL, but Cook succeeded right away. After Latavius Murray was slow to recover from offseason ankle surgery, Cook took the starting job and ran for 354 yards and two touchdowns in his first four games.
However, Cook tore his ACL while Mixon continued to play for Cincinnati. Cook’s injury became one of the biggest what-ifs of the 2017 season, but Mixon wouldn’t have helped the cause. His rookie season playing behind Giovani Bernard was a challenge, and he wound up with 626 yards and four touchdowns on 3.5 yards per carry.
Mixon seized the starting job the following season while Cook struggled to return from a hamstring injury. With 1,168 yards and eight touchdowns, Mixon could have jump-started the 2018 offense that struggled to get the running game going and eventually cost John DeFilippo his job.
While it didn’t appear the Vikings made the right pick after two seasons, Cook has turned the narrative around the last two years. His explosiveness returned, and he became one of the best backs in the NFL, running for 2,692 yards and 29 touchdowns over that time frame.
The Vikings built their offense around Cook and leaned on him for a playoff appearance in 2019 and a midseason resurgence after a 1-5 start in 2020.
It’s not clear if Mixon would have had the same effect. Playing behind a bad offensive line in Cincinnati, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry but still had 1,137 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. Things got worse last year when Mixon suffered an undisclosed foot injury and missed the final 10 games.
If Mixon were on the roster last season, the Vikings would have had to lean on Alexander Mattison, who was essentially mothballed down the stretch. Without the presence of an elite running game, more would be put on Kirk Cousins’ plate, and their 7-9 season may have been even worse.
Mixon and Cook’s contracts have also been connected. The Bengals gave Mixon a four-year, $48 million contract weeks before Cook received his five-year, $63 million deal. While Mixon is cheaper, he might not have been the best option for the Vikings, given how much they rely on the run game.
This makes the decision to draft Cook one of the best in recent team history. With Cook, the Vikings are a legitimate playoff contender. They may have had a similar fate with Mixon, but it definitely changed the course of their history.