While the Vikings are fresh off of a season in which they were 3rd in the league in average yards per attempt by opposing quarterback, it seems important to discuss what can be done to change that. We have had a bevy of problems in our secondary, including injury, incompetency, and indiscretions.
One of the biggest issues, therefore, is knowing exactly where we are with our secondary. While we know for a fact that we have depth problems at LB and DT or that we had a huge problem at left tackle, we don't really know the extent of our problem with our cornerbacks - our top two didn't play for most of the year, our third is a walking knee surgery, and our fourth was Asher Allen. Well now, our top two are returning. And perhaps our secondary really is not who we thought they were.
But honestly, one of those - our CBOTF - only played in 6 games. Did he really flash enough potential for us to remain confident about his return? I'm going to take a look at Chris Cook's best and worst games, in order to find out.
What's great about Cook is that his best game came against the best receiver in the league. I'm not giving him points for having to cover Calvin Johnson, either - this would be a legitimately good performance against any top-flight receiver.
While he did allow one touchdown, it was on one of only 3 passes completed in his direction (of 6). He had 2 pass deflections, and only allowed 52 yards. Given that Calvin Johnson comprised 5 of those targets (with only 2 catches), that's extremely impressive.
Here are a compilation of his pass defending plays:
Not necessarily a blanket, but WOW. WOW. His performance in that game would, if consistent, make him a top 10 cornerback. He did make one mistake, and that was his adjustment during the Calvin Johnson touchdown. Other than that, his understanding of the routes, ability to read receivers, footwork, and ability to box out receivers was pretty great. He can play press and disrupt timing (without losing coverage) or play off coverage and limit big plays. I doubt that this is the type of performance that comes as a fluke - he performed well in every phase of coverage.
What about his run defense?
Well... I... don't really have any highlights to show you. Almost all of his tackles have been while he was in coverage, and against teams with good receivers, he plays very little zone - he singled up on Johnson without even safety help on most of his plays. This tends to take him away, and they take him off the field in obvious running situations (prefering Griffin and Winfield). That said, I've seen no problems with his tackling - I believe he's only missed one tackle all year. From what I've seen, he sets the edge alright. It's usually not been an issue, because he's not near the play by the time it ends - he's only been in 80 run snaps, and he just happens to be away from the play (runs to the other side, or timely tackles by our line) on those runs. Related to his ability to tackle (or at least make catches obscenely difficult), he has allowed 2.4 yards after the catch on average, good for 4th best in the league, besides standouts like Ike Taylor, William Middleton, and Antonio Cromartie. It is quite a bit better than other big names like Chris Gamble (2.92), Patrick Peterson (2.95), and Brent Grimes (3.08).
Still, we value corners for their ability to turn negative plays into positive plays. While he has a nose for the ball - and can locate it in the air with the best of them - he hasn't shown the ability to make the interception. This doesn't mean he can't do it, or that it should be his primary focus, but the average cornerback pulls in about 3% of the passes thrown in his direction. That doesn't mean the best ones do it the most - Antwaun Molden and Josh Gordy are near the top of this list - but you will find all of the good cornerbacks north of 2.5%. Cook has about zero, and this should change soon (he has only had 54 passes thrown in his direction so far, so I expect to see an improvement).
If he only made plays like the last one in the video, however, I don't think I would care if he had no interceptions.
He is not without missteps, remember. His worst game was against San Diego. While only 3 of 6 passes did get completed his way, two others were completed in effect by the penalties he committed. He had a pretty bad game, but not so terrible that we didn't see some top-notch cornerbacking skills in effect. While it is tempting to excuse this as the first game of the year, and new ticky-tack NFL rules, I don't think that's being fair. First, because dozens of players played their first game of the season, too, and many of them managed to stay foul free. Second, both of his penalties were obvious penalties, even under the old rules.
Still, given that functionally his first two plays of the season were penalties, it gives us a bit of pause. Not a huge problem, though - he had no more penalties for the rest of his shortened year. Even in his worst game, he showed an ability to box out receivers, control passing lanes, and an instinct for the ball. He seems to have learned from those mistakes, and was given enough confidence to go one on one with Calvin Johnson. He plays much better in press coverage than off coverage, and I like him to play man rather than zone (although he excels at both - rotating in and out of his assignments in zone well enough). I haven't seen enough plays of him against bunched receiver sets, so I don't know how he handles these or WR rubs from crossing. He doesn't get beat on WR moves a lot, staying with even seasoned veterans.
He displays good agility, straight line speed, and jumping ability - which works well with his tall frame. He looks to have some problem tackling, and can't seem to direct his momentum well, but again, I haven't seen a ton of examples of this (good or bad). His skill in press coverage tells me he has upper body strength, so it seems like it is a problem of technique rather than potential here. Hopefully, he'll progress to become more than a cover corner, and will excel at all facets of the game. I'm generally seeing good things for his development as a football player.