EAGAN — Dalvin Cook got his first applause from Vikings fans on a muggy night in Mankato. He slammed into the end zone on a goal line drill and collided with veteran cornerback Terence Newman, bringing everyone in the packed stands to their feet. On the field, Newman made sure to let Cook know that he was impressed.
“Damn, you run behind your pads,” Newman said to the rookie running back.
Cook was confused.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what you mean but hey that sounds like a compliment,'” he said on Friday.
At that point, Newman already had a feeling Cook was going to be special. He said as much in an interview a week later on the sidelines of the practice field at Winter Park.
Newman was right, of course. While his route to the top of the NFL took longer than expected because of ACL and hamstring-related detours, the Vikings’ 24-year-old running back enters Sunday’s matchup against the Denver Broncos as the league leader in yards from scrimmage with 1,415 on 243 touches.
He’s become the centerpiece of Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski’s offense, creating a rushing attack that has rarely been stopped, a screen game that has driven the team’s passing success over the last two weeks and causing havoc for opposing defenses even when the Vikings are pretending to hand him the ball on play-actions.
Turns out Newman wasn’t the only one who saw greatness in Cook upon his arrival in Minnesota. The Vikings have been waiting for his deferred dream to finally become a reality. Inside TCO Performance Center, there isn’t much surprise at Cook’s MVP-caliber season but there is a lot of appreciation for the journey he took from the first awe-inducing training camp in Mankato to the center of the NFL world.
Weeks before the Vikings selected Cook in the second round of the 2017 draft, general manager Rick Spielman told the Twin Cities media that the running back draft class was the deepest with talent that he had ever seen. The group included four potential first-round picks: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon and Cook.
Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, who coached Reggie Bush at USC and Fred Taylor with the Jacksonville Jaguars, interviewed and evaluated Cook in the lead-up to the draft. When he submitted his reports, he never dreamed the Vikings would get their hands on him.
“I had him in the top five overall picks,” Polamau said on Friday. “Great interview, called his high school coach, called everybody who’s been around him, called coaches that coached against him, players who played against him and got all the information but I had no idea we’d be lucky enough to draft him.”
He dropped into the second round because of off-field issues, giving the Vikings an opportunity to fill the spot in the backfield left by Adrian Peterson.
But running backs are fickle. Some superstar standouts in college reach the NFL and struggle to stand out. Sometimes their circumstances allowed them to become NCAA stars and the NFL’s speed and complexity are ultimately too much for them.
Vikings players quickly surmised that Cook would be much closer to the next AP than he would the next Trent Richardson. Before he even put on pads, the established players were taking notice.
“As a running back when you stick out in shorts and T-shirts in OTAs, you’re going to be special,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Usually the run game doesn’t look too good in shorts and T-shirts, it’s kind of just a big mess. The holes aren’t very big, you’re not getting much push from the offensive line and tight ends and I remember Dalvin coming here that first offseason at Winter Park and making runs where you think he’s stretched out to the sideline and then he puts his foot in the ground and he’s 12 yards down the field before anyone gets a hand on him.”
“First day, first day of training camp,” receiver Stefon Diggs said when asked how long it took him to realize the Vikings had another star on the team. “As far as being at practice with him. I watched him throughout that whole week. I like Dalvin. You all know I’ve been a fan of Dalvin for awhile. I knew he was special. I know how to pick ’em.”
Adam Thielen said: “Usually when someone is that talented or is going to be that explosive you can see it right away, first practice you can see if a guy is explosive.”
As the 2017 offseason went along it became apparent to Polamalu that his rookie was ahead of the two other established backs on the team, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
“Facing our defense in training camp, I knew what type of defense that I was getting myself into, like we have the best defense and I was making plays and knowing what I was doing. I was going back to the room like ‘it isn’t as hard as I thought it [would be]’ and that’s when I really knew,” Cook said.
As you might expect, camp against the Vikings defense, which finished No. 1 in points and yards that year, wasn’t a cake walk.
“My Welcome to the NFL Moment was when I first ran into Linval [Joseph],” Cook said laughing. “Other than that, I was straight. I was flying around, making plays, picking up protections. That was my biggest thing: If I learned protections I could stay on the field.”
Ironically the player whose character was brought into question also impressed his coaches and teammates with his character. It’s one thing to be explosive and stand out in camp and it’s another to earn your way into being a three-down back.
“His football knowledge is off the charts,” Polamalu said. “He can diagnose, he sees it, and then when you help him with something he won’t forget it…he’s the type of young man who put his head down and listened. He wanted to be the hardest working person out there. He finished his runs, finished his drills, all those things.”
“When you get to know him as well, you see his mindset, the type of person he is, the type of teammate he is, it just reassures you that he’s going to be a special player,” Thielen said. “First impression was that he checks all the boxes and then as you see him practice and see the way he takes care of his body, the way he goes about his business on a weekly basis, you understand why he’s so good.”
If there were any doubters within the coaching staff, front office or locker room during that ’17 camp, they were silenced in Week 1, when Cook shredded the Saints for 127 yards rushing and took 78% of the snaps.
“That was fun for us as an offensive staff, we were talking, ‘is he ready?’ And I said, ‘heck yeah,'” Polamalu said. “At the time Pat [Shurmur] would say, ‘hey maybe we take him out,’ and I said, ‘coach I don’t even want to take this kid off the field if we don’t have to.’ That first New Orleans game he was in every situation, third downs and everything.”
“We anticipated it”
When Cook went down with a torn ACL in Week 4 of the ’17 season against the Detroit Lions, the Vikings were crushed. Through four games, he averaged 88.5 yards per game at 4.8 yards per carry and caught 11 passes for 90 yards. Translated to 16 games, that’s a 1,400-yard rushing and pushing 2,000 all-purpose yards season.
Cook spent his offseason rehabbing alongside Rudolph, who played through a severe ankle injury at the end of the ’17 season.
“We were here together all winter and for me to see him reap the benefits of the hard work he’s put in over the last couple of years, I know as well as anyone how hard it is when you come into this league and you battle the injury bug,” Rudolph said. “It’s nothing he could have prevented, nothing he could have done differently. He continued to work hard and stayed true to himself.
The timing of his ACL injury gave Cook a chance to fulfill his potential in 2018 but the combination of a nagging hamstring injury and an offensive philosophy that leaned heavily toward the passing game limited his opportunities to put up big numbers. He still finished his abbreviated second season with 4.6 yards per carry.
Coming into 2019 it was clear that head coach Mike Zimmer wanted the offense to change to feature his star back. He openly criticized the lack of running in ’18 and brought in a legendary run-first coach in Gary Kubiak to assist new OC Kevin Stefanski.
“I feel like we anticipated it,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We work with him, we practice against him and know what kind of player he is.”
“We all knew that he was special and everybody gets to kind of see it now,” Diggs said. “He got I think three awards for this last game and that wasn’t even his best game. I’m happy to see him get the respect he deserves and to keep it going.”
It would have been reasonable for Cook to wonder if he would ever find that ’17 place again. Running backs’ time in the sun is often short and the ’17 season was something special for the Vikings. Shurmur was run-focused and the O-line was the best it’s been under Zimmer. They still finished seventh in rushing with Murray and McKinnon — imagine what they would have done with Cook as the three-down back.
But those early days of smoking the Vikings defense in camp gave him something to focus on through his recovery and hamstring tribulations last year.
“I was saying, I can pick up where I left off from, I left off on a good note,” Cook said. “When I tore my ACL, I left off on a great note. I was like, I can get even better because I was just playing my rookie year, I wasn’t really understanding what was going on, I was just playing. I knew it could get better and it’s just been falling in place for me.”
Things indeed have fallen into place but Diggs noted that there’s still a long way to go. Now comes the hard part: Handling the spotlight, playoffs, pressure.
“He’s been in the spotlight his whole life,” Polamalu said. “I tell him that all the time. The kid has won a state title…national title in college, it’s not like he hasn’t been on that type of stage. He’s had guys from Florida State go on and do things and even from his high school in [Devonta] Freeman go on and do things. He knows what Frank Gore, another person from the area, [has done].”
Polamalu helps with all the noise. He and Cook have grown close over these three rocky years. The RBs coach says at this point they can read each other like a book.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s been a gift,” Polamalu said.