Dalvin Cook Could Be the Breakout Rookie Nobody Is Talking About

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 10, 2017

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) makes a catch during NFL football training camp Thursday, July 27, 2017, in Mankato, Minn. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)
ANDY KING/Associated Press

Dalvin Cook is different. 

The Minnesota Vikings rookie running back is different because he can shimmy into and out of creases others wouldn't even dare look at, let alone accelerate through. He's different because of his nimble feet and short-area quickness, which makes defenders come up with only handfuls of air. And he's different because of his ability to blast off into the open field while piling up chunk yardage.

He's different in the best way possible, which is why the 22-year-old has already passed the toughest eye test of all: the one from his teammates.

"They see him out there on the field with the other guys, and it's like, 'There's something different about this guy, the way he runs, accelerates, the creases he can get to'," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer recently told The MMQB's Albert Breer. "He's got a tough mentality. Players can see exceptional athletes. When they go out there and they're going against guys, they can see: This guy is pretty good."

The Vikings are in a situation where "pretty good" from Cook might not be enough. But at a high level of college football, the former Florida State standout showed he can rise to another tier.

He can do the same in the NFL, too. In the process, he'll restore the Vikings' offense to its natural state—a rushing juggernaut that dominates opponents physically.

That's how Minnesota's offense functions when at its best. And it's what the Vikings did when Adrian Peterson, the legend Cook is replacing, was named to seven Pro Bowl teams during his 10 years in Minnesota. Although Peterson is aging at 32 years old, we don't have to look back far to see both his impact and how much the Vikings spiraled without a physically imposing running back.

The void Cook needs to fill is deep, dark and swirling.

The Vikings' recent rushing decline
YearTotal rushing yardsYards/gameYards/carry
20152,211 (4th)138.2 (4th)4.7 (T-3rd)
20161,205 (32nd)75.3 (32nd)3.2 (32nd)

But there's a reason why the Vikings traded up in the 2017 draft to select Cook at 41st overall. It's why the 5'10", 210-pound runner is sitting atop the team's first unofficial depth chart of training camp.

The reason? He's a multidimensional weapon with the tools to make the league fear the Vikings' backfield again.

What stands out most about Cook—and what fueled two straight college seasons with 1,600-plus rushing yards—is his smooth, fluid movement in small spaces, which causes would-be tacklers to eat a mouthful of grass.

The best running backsthe ones who can become the engine driving an offenseare able to get far more than just what's blocked in front of them. They have the vision to follow those blocks and execute what was drawn up. But they can also make a defender miss in the open field to tack on precious extra yardage.

Cook established himself as that sort of running back at Florida State, where he averaged 6.5 yards per carry during his three-year career. His best collegiate season came in 2016, when he finished with 1,765 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. Cook basically lapped with field with his missed tackles created that year, according to Pro Football Focus.

Pro Football Focus @PFF

New Vikings RB Dalvin Cook was in a league of his own as a tackle-breaker in college football. Will that carry over to the NFL? https://t.co/RVOs9KQlfg

No other draft-eligible running back in 2017 was within even 15 forced missed tackles. Cook reached that level through both finesse and power.

The latter came when Cook bullied his way through defenses, constantly clawing forward for extra yards. That's a defining characteristic of an offense-altering three-down back, and Cook can be a punishing downhill runner. He averaged 4.2 yards after contact in 2016, per PFF, which led the nation.

Cook fell to the second round primarily due to off-field issues and injury concerns. He's had three legal run-ins dating back to 2009, along with three shoulder surgeries. But if Cook stays out of trouble off the field, he has shown his body can withstand a hefty workload. He had 321 touches in 2016, which was the NCAA's seventh-highest total.

The Miami native didn't crumble under that heavy use. Instead, he thrived while also evolving his already loaded skill set. Prior to the 2016 season, Cook accrued a modest 447 receiving yards over the previous two years combined. In 2016, he showcased what he can do as a pass-catcher, finishing with 488 receiving yards at an average of 14.8 per catch.

That was one way Cook produced yards in chunks. The other was by reaching another gear with his 4.49-second speed in the 40-yard dash.

Creating space and opportunities for yourself is only half the battle as a running back. The best runners also need to capitalize on the defenders they've left sprawled by reaching top speed out of their cuts quickly. Cook can do that with ease, and showed it when 45.1 percent of his yards in 2016 came on 15-plus-yard runs, per PFF.

Pro Football Focus @PFF

Will Dalvin Cook's big play ability give him the edge to start for the Vikings? https://t.co/Nljhk9kF29

That towered over the breakaway production of Latavius Murray, who plodded away for the Oakland Raiders in 2016, averaging just four yards per carry.

The Vikings recently activated Murray from the physically unable to perform list after he missed the start of training camp due to an ankle injury. He'll still have a place in the Vikings' backfield, and he could vulture some goal-line work after being effective in that role for the Raiders. Murray scored 20 touchdowns over three seasons in Oakland, including 12 in 2016.

But the starting job was always Cook's to lose, and not just because of his draft status or the physical attributes and skill that produced 4,464 rushing yards at FSU, making him the school's all-time leading rusher.

There's also an intangible quality to Cook, one which Zimmer's comments shed a light on. When Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur chimes in with how quickly Cook is advancing in his run-blocking—typically the tallest barrier separating rookie running backs from three-down work—it's clear Minnesota has added a special talent.

"He has a really great foundation coming from Florida State, so he understands the big picture, and he understands our terminology as to who we're blocking, and he really has a good feel for the game," Shurmur said, via Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune. "I don't see any elements of running back play that he can't be very good at, and pass protection is one of them."

While the Vikings have set the bar high for Cook, he has the natural ability to sail above it while being one of the leading contenders for Offensive Rookie of the Year.


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