In the second in an occasional series on Vikings key veterans, I take a look at running back Dalvin Cook.
It’s been two seasons now since Dalvin Cook was drafted to be the Vikings new feature back. So far, he’s done pretty well with the carries he’s had, but the problem has been that he’s not had enough of them to really make much of a difference.
Dynamic, Deadly... But Can He Be Durable?
Dalvin Cook has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons, which is right there with top running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. His ability to force missed tackles has been second to none, and he continues to do well in yards after contact, while also threatening break-away potential.
In fact, in his limited use last season, Cook improved both his elusiveness rating and breakaway % metrics over his rookie season- and remains one of the most elusive running backs in the NFL. Just as he was in college. Last season he was the 4th most elusive back in the NFL with at least 100 attempts, and had the 10th highest breakaway percentage (38.1%) according to PFF.
Elusive rating is a metric based on a combination of forced missed tackles per attempt and yards after contact per attempt. Breakaway % is the percentage of designed rushing attempts that go for over 15 yards.
PFF did a nice profile on him recently, suggesting him as a dark horse candidate to be the best RB in the league this season - if he can stay healthy.
But Cook’s durability is now an on-going concern, as he’s missed more games than he’s played. And half of those he was limited to about 10 carries.
Cook played only 4 games his rookie season before tearing his ACL, and missed another handful of games last season with a hamstring issue. Beyond that, his carries were limited - in part at least due to the hamstring issue.
At Florida State, Cook had some injury issues, but didn’t miss much time. He had some shoulder surgeries in the off-season to repair a torn labrum, and he had an ankle and hamstring issue too, but he only missed one game because of it.
And so going forward, the question isn’t Cook’s running ability, but rather his ability to stay on the field. Can he stay healthy for an entire season ?
Key Player In Kubiak’s Offense
A healthy Dalvin Cook is a key ingredient in Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme, as the principal threat in the running game - which is a primary focus. Kubiak has taken many previously unheralded running backs and turned them into Pro Bowlers - Arian Foster, Justin Forsett, and Terrell Davis among them.
But of all the running backs that have thrived in Kubiak’s offense, Dalvin Cook may be the best overall talent. His vision, elusiveness, yards-after-contact and break-away ability, combined with his zone running experience, make him a perfect fit for Kubiak’s offense.
But Cook’s running ability is only part of it.
As a legitimate threat to break-away anytime he has the ball, he makes a very effective decoy in play-action - compelling defenses to honor the fake.
Cook is also a versatile chess piece in Kubiak’s offense, which likes to move skill position players around to create different matchup issues. Cook can line-up at tailback, but also wingback, slot, or even outside as a receiver. He’s improved as a pass blocker as well- going from a 64.7 to a 84.4 PFF grade last season- filling out his three-down resume.
Working On Staying Healthy
After last season, Dalvin Cook talked about the need to keep healthy, not to let down his teammates, and dog some things in his off-season training program to help him stay healthier during the season.
We’ll have to wait and see how that impacts his health this season, but another question is how limited he will be during the season.
Last year Cook was limited to around 10 carries or so for most of the games he played. That was in part due to his hamstring issue. But will he be limited this year too? Can he handle 18-20 carries a game and remain healthy? That is key for Cook to reach his potential.
It’s All For You, Dalvin
Pretty much every significant change the Vikings have made offensively has, either directly or indirectly, been made to help Dalvin Cook and the Vikings running game.
From bringing in Gary Kubiak and his staff, to signing free agent Josh Kline and taking center Garrett Bradbury with their first round pick, the Vikings are gearing up to run the ball more, and hopefully more effectively.
It’s clear also that by picking Alexander Mattison at the end of the third round - to replace Latavius Murray - the Vikings will continue to use a committee approach at running back.
But I suspect that the Vikings would like to have Cook on the field most of the time - perhaps 75% or so - because of his big play threat. Not just carrying the ball, but also as a compelling decoy in play-action, and as a big play threat as a receiver too. Having him out there - and productive - is going to help every aspect of the Vikings’ Kubiak offense - even in the plays he doesn’t touch the ball.
But the reverse is also true. Not having him out there as a big play threat opposing defenses have to honor or pay the price could make the Vikings offense less dynamic and easier for opponents to defend.
The Vikings have yet to realize much of Dalvin Cook’s potential since they drafted ‘the best offensive player in the draft’ according to PFF two years ago. Injuries, poor blocking, and scheme have all played a part in minimizing Cook’s impact to date.
But the prospect for an improved offensive line, with the additions of Bradbury, Kline and Dru Samia, combined with Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme and commitment to the run, lay all the groundwork for Dalvin Cook to have a major break-out year, and quick ascension to the top of the RB pack in the NFL.
Staying healthy may be the biggest obstacle to realizing that scenario, so hopefully Cook’s injury issues remain in the past.
What Sort of Year Will Dalvin Cook This Season?
This poll is closed
Disappointing as injuries curtail his production
Average - no significant injuries but not a big factor either
Above Average- no significant injuries and decent production
All-Pro Caliber season as one of the most productive backs in the NFL
MVP - Cook wins offensive or overall MVP award