EAGAN — When Dalvin Cook first arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings intentionally put his locker right next to cornerback Terence Newman with hopes that the veteran’s work habits and love for the nuances of the game would rub off on the second-round pick. It turned out they were kindred spirits in that way.
“You don’t see a lot of guys having that commitment, [studying] their playbooks and doing all that stuff,” Newman told SKOR North in 2017. “You can just tell he’s a hungry kid.”
Now three years later, Cook isn’t just hungry, he’s eating everything in sight. He leads the NFL in total rushing with 375 yards and average per carry with 6.6 per attempt through three weeks.
It has often been said about Cook that his health was the key to maximizing the talents that drove him to be the all-time leading rusher at Florida State. The statement is certainly true. Over his first two seasons, he played 15 games, averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry and caught 51 passes. But there’s more to the story in his growth than a rebuilt ACL and healthy hamstring. Cook’s appreciation for X’s and O’s — his desire to understand how the pieces fit — has allowed him to fulfill his potential.
“I’ve always been a student of the game,” Cook said Wednesday. “I just love every aspect of it. Studying, the hard work, the meetings, just every part of it. I’ve always been a nerd to the game.”
The Vikings have made no bones about the fact that they have built around Cook and the zone running game. Hiring Gary Kubiak — whose offense has long been known for turning running backs into superstars — and his long-time cohort Rick Dennison as the run game coordinator sent the message as clear as day. And then on draft day it was confirmed again when the Vikings picked a zone scheme savant in Garrett Bradbury of NC State.
But offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said during training camp that Cook’s skill set was not just a fit for outside zone runs, which give running backs the option of whether to reach the edge, cut up field or cut back. Cook fits any scheme. In order to do so, of course, he was asked to master the objectives of each concept.
Turns out the star running back gets a kick out of understanding such things.
“Knowing defenses…understanding what we’re trying to do going into a gameplan, kust understanding that better,” Cook said. “It has grown over the years. That’s grown with time and experience.”
Stefanski points out that we often separate smarts and physical gifts but they play off each other but in this case, Cook’s eyes, explosiveness and studiousness work in unison.
“I think with some of the great runners you talk about their vision and what that really means is a feel and the ability to slow down your processing in an instance that things are happening really, really fast,” the Vikings’ play caller said. “Bodies are flying all over the place but you get the sense that his vision, everything is slowed down and he’s able to see things at the second level as they develop.”
He spots the gaps before the show themselves. He identifies the defense despite attempts at disguise. And then he blows through the opposition with a speed and force only matched by runners like Tony Dorsett or Terrell Davis or Shaun Alexander or Ezekiel Elliott — depending on which era you prefer.
“There’s some god given ability there but the more film study you do, especially as a young player, about defenses and run fits I think that just serves to accentuate his already special vision,” Stefanski said.
Turn on @dalvincook's Week 3 tape and what do you see?
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2019
Cook’s success on the ground and in the passing game has indeed boosted him into the conversation for the NFL’s best running back but one area that greatly impresses his offensive coordinator is his pass protection. Last season only Jordan Howard graded higher as a pass blocker than Cook by PFF’s rating system. The Vikings OC explained the complexity of blocking assignments.
“There’s multiple protections so it depends on which protection you are in, that allows you to start in one area,” Stefanski said. “If you understand the protection, you understand which way the line is working, now you train your eyes after that. And it can be multiple. Sometimes is a six-man protection, sometimes seven. There’s certainly something about the O-line and running back communicating and being in unison because there’s so many different fronts that you face nowadays.”
Without a strong comprehension of offensive linemen’s jobs, defensive fronts and blitz packages, it would be nearly impossible to be successful in pass pro.
“The physical aspect you can really drill out here on the practice field, the mental aspect is a sheer number of hours that is spent on the white board and watching the tape,” Stefanski said.
Flying under the radar with all of Cook’s success has been his partner in the ground game Alexander Mattison, who has added 132 yards at 5.3 yards per attempt in the first three games of his career. The Vikings drafted Mattison out of Boise State in the third round with hopes that he could fill a similar role to Latavius Murray in 2017 and 2018.
Mattison credits Cook with helping him adapt to the NFL game quickly.
“He is a student of the game and you can see that in the way that he prepares and the way he gets after certain things like knowing where certain stuff is going to be, knowing where defenses are going to be, Mattison said. “I just try to pick his brain on that because it doesn’t happen overnight…He told me ‘make that transition how you want…but if you want to be great you have to do the things to get there, it will take time but you will get there.'”
“Learning from him how defenses play… he just kind of told me ‘when this happens, you can expect this, or when you see this, expect this,’ giving me cheat codes,” Mattison added.
So basically Cook is a cheat code who has the cheat codes. It’s becoming clearer why the Vikings wanted to build around him.