Dalvin Cook: Diving head first into the belly of the beast

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Dalvin Cook
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Dalvin Cook /

The Minnesota Vikings running back has returned from his knee injury and is ready to take back his job as the team’s top rusher in 2018.

Minnesota Vikings fans are all aware that football is a complicated game. It is the reason why, to the layman, it is difficult to describe as well as appreciate.

It is comprised of numerous rules and goals, exact positions and crucial responsibilities, all of which are vital. One mistake could mean the contest.

But just as important as the rules and responsibilities are, talent is a tremendous factor as well.

Talent is both precious and elusive for professional football teams especially, where franchise fortunes are parlayed in choosing the right players. One mistake does not make a failure, but it could lead to one. While one success certainly improves a reputation and a future.

So, for choosing Dalvin Cook in the 2017 NFL draft, let’s add a feather to the formidably-plumed cap of Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.

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We won’t return to the numbers of Cook’s college career nor the data of his short NFL debut season. They are superlative tallies on paper, but they are in the past.

Instead, the insight will be drawn from watching Cook on film, how the team worked around him, and his potential for the future.

To begin, his ACL tear is behind him for several reasons. First is the burst and balance he displayed in OTAs last spring, second is the word of his surgeon and doctors, and third is the testimony of Cook’s delighted coaches.

It’s not in the interest of these men to hide the truth. The Vikings’ young running back is ready to roll. And he will make Minnesota’s offense very, very difficult to contain.

The question is, can he be the guy who enables (not inspires!) this emotionally beleaguered team to bring home the Iron?

I say yes.

I’ve been watching Vikings’ running backs for a long time now.  Putting aside the legendary physical talent that was Adrian Peterson (in his prime), Cook is the most gifted between-the-tackles runner in a Minnesota uniform I’ve ever laid eyes on.

He’s not as open-field fast as Peterson or Robert Smith, not as smooth plucking up a short pass as Chuck Foreman or Chester Taylor, and not even as turbo-quick as a Jerrick McKinnon.

But through the stalwart A and B gaps, where NFL running backs have to make their living, Cook shows his true, dynamic colors.

(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images) Dalvin Cook
(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images) Dalvin Cook /

When attacking the scrum, a superior running back has to be both a tactician and a fierce athlete. Cook checks both boxes.

He has the ability to ‘get skinny’ in a crease, displays a one-cut and North step with Hall-of-Fame aptitude, and almost always comes out balanced and footloose on the other side of the line.

There is a term for such skill and it is called spatial intelligence. Defined as a mind’s eye perception of objects at different angles, a judgement in recognition and navigation.

Many great players have amazed with such skill in the past including Devin Hester, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, O.J. Simpson, and Gale Sayers. Even guys like Von Miller and Troy Polamalu have displayed this certain skill.

Like “ball hawks”, some runners are like “field hawks’”  Some of this can be attributed to study, but moreover to pure talent and experience. They see it just as it flashes, then they have the wherewithal to get to it.

Cook has good power and great slip at the point of impact and the humility to find good ground when wrapped up. Meaning, he does not always fight for home runs and jeopardize ball security.

He lives to break the game on the next play. That’s important considering Vikings fans all know a future Hall of Fame running back that never learned the value of that lesson.

Now as the Vikings begin their 2018 training camp this week, and Cook replaces Latavius Murray as the team’s primary back once again, we can review some numbers that are most vital in truly legitimizing the optimism surrounding Minnesota’s young rusher.

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In 2017, by virtue of both Cook’s remarkable start and Murray’s and McKinnon’s journeyman numbers, the Vikings ranked seventh in the NFL in total rushing. Not bad for a team with a completely rebuilt offensive line who faced the challenge of new starters at both running back and quarterback.

Unfortunately, despite the success of a 13-3 season, the Cinderella story of Minnesota “coming home” for the Super Bowl in 2017 got sidetracked in the postseason, as the Vikings’ running game clearly disappointed.

This was set-up by the fact that Minnesota’s team last season was simply a run-oriented offensive outfit. The Vikings averaged the second-most rushing attempts in the league, had the highest number of first-down run plays, and were fifth in the NFL in run-play percentage.

Minnesota first played a home playoff game against the 16th-ranked New Orleans Saints run defense, compiling only 84 yards on 27 carries with their running back tandem of Murray and McKinnon. During the matchup, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum struggled to put together drives in the second half and ended the game completing just 25 of 40 passes with a QB rating of just 64.6.

Facing what would have been another infamous loss, the “Minneapolis Miracle” definitely saved the Vikings in their game against the Saints.

In Philadelphia against the Eagles last season’s NFC Championship, facing the league’s best run defense, Murray and McKinnon totaled just 58 yards on 16 carries, while Keenum played his worst game (perhaps as a pro) with an ending QB rating of 28.6.

The Eagles’ defense stayed fresh and creative and nobody on Minnesota’s offense could make a play, either into the teeth or outside of the bite, against the aggressive Philadelphia defensive line in the second half.

Vikings fans may forget (watch the game again) that the NFC Championshp wasn’t a blowout until the fourth quarter. It was then that the Eagles offense made big plays in the run and pass game, and Minnesota did not.

Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings /

Minnesota Vikings

I can vividly recall thinking if the Vikings had Cook on the field, it would have been a different game. I still think the same thing.

With McKinnon now in San Francisco, Cook will be expected to improve his receiving and blocking skills in 2018. No doubt Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer has had the young running back watching film and improving his technique for months now.

And if Cook has proven anything during his short time in the NFL, it is the fact that he works well and improves his play with coaching.

But it’s the one thing that Zimmer cannot coach that is most valuable to the 2018 Vikings. Something that even Minnesota’s coach understands may very well supersede positions and responsibilities, game plans, and matchups among other things.

Football is a complicated game, but Zimmer isn’t a complicated person. This head coach wants a guy running the ball with the talent to make plays right up the gut of a defense.

Next. Projecting the Vikings' final 2018 roster, training camp edition. dark

With Cook recovered from his 2017 knee injury, Zimmer’s got his guy back on the training camp field this year.