EAGAN. — The talk of the offseason surrounding the Minnesota Vikings’ new offense has largely been about how quarterback Kirk Cousins will be put in a better situation to succeed in 2019 than he was in Year 1 of his tenure in the Upper Midwest.
But running back Dalvin Cook is also being set up with the system that suited him in college and in 2017. And now after two years of injury troubles, it appears he’s fully healthy and ready to reach his ceiling.
“I think [Dalvin] Cook has had a really, really good spring,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Gary [Kubiak] and I were talking about him this morning. He looks really, really good, especially the things we’re trying to do in the running game.”
Cook’s first two seasons have essentially equated to one full NFL year, which gives us somewhat of a snapshot of what he could be in a healthy season. In 15 games he carried the ball 207 times for 969 yards and caught 51 passes.
But along the way he was held back by an offseason ACL tear recovery process and nagging hamstring injury during the season.
“I’m healthy,” Cook said. “I was able to be me, fly around and be Dalvin. That’s why it went smooth. Now I’m back having fun.”
Not to mention the combination of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo focusing on the passing game and the team being forced to come from behind late in a number of games. In total, Cook carried the ball 10 times or fewer in six of his 11 games.
“The system is set up for us to be great, and we’ve got to go be great,” Cook said. “The system is set up for us. We’ve got to go take care of business. We’re going to see in a couple of months.”
The Vikings are likely to rely heavily on Cook to carry the load in 2018. Veteran backup Latavius Murray left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints and the only acquisitions in the backfield were the re-signing of veteran Ameer Abdullah and selection of Boise State’s Alexander Mattison. Neither would be expected to take playing time away from Cook.
Based on his production — albeit in a limited sample size — over the first two seasons of Cook’s career, there will be an opportunity for him to emerge as one of the elite running backs in the NFL, especially if the Stafanski/Kubiak offense uses him as much as Pat Shurmur did in 2017 and as Kubiak did in the past with running backs like Arian Foster in Houston.
If you take Cook’s final three weeks with Stefanski at the helm as interim OC in 2018, it projects to 245 carries, 1,323 yards, 43 receptions over 16 games. He had a similar 16-game pace over the first four weeks with Shurmur of 296 carries, 1,416 yards, 44 receptions.
His per-carry numbers over 15 career games give us a snapshot of Cook’s potential, especially considering the offensive line issues the Vikings dealt with last year. He ranks seventh in yards per attempt since the start of 2017 (min. 200 carries), ranked fourth in PFF’s Elusive Rating (min. 150 touches) statistic, which combines yards after contact and missed tackles, and he was even the second highest graded pass blocker in the NFL.
Here’s the most comparable bell-cow running backs in the NFL in the 2018 rate statistics yards per carry, yards after contact and yards per touch.
If the Vikings’ offensive line improves there’s both potential for Cook to average more yards per carry and to see more passes out of the backfield. A Mile High Report study on Kubiak’s offense found 23 percent of targets went to either running backs or fullbacks. If he isn’t required to stay in and block or chip block as often as 2018, Cook could become a more used checkdown option. That goes along with a highly higher usage in screen/swing passes. He even has the potential to line up as an outside or slot receiver.
Cook might not reach the level of a player like Saquon Barkley or Todd Gurley, who each averaged 5.8 yards per touch last season and were given the ball in the range of 400 times but his ceiling based on two limited seasons can be that of an offensive centerpiece that would be very hard to replace.