Midway through his fourth NFL game, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook appeared to be on the brink of stardom. He already had two games of over 100 total yards, and he was slicing the Detroit Lions defense up, having scored the Vikings lone touchdown of the week four match-up. Up 7-6, Cook burst through the middle of the defense. When he attempted to make a cut, though, he tore his ACL in his left knee, fumbling the football in the process, and ending what was a promising start to his career.
Eight months later, things have changed for Cook and the Vikings. Gone is former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. In comes former Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. The two quarterbacks that Cook lined up behind in the first four games of the 2017 season? They are also gone, with Case Keenum heading to Denver and Sam Bradford off to Arizona, while former Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins hopes to bring stability to the Vikings quarterback spot.
With all of the changes and the challenge of overcoming a torn ACL, some may think that Cook’s future is uncertain. But with players coming back better than ever from ACL injuries and a coaching staff that looks to get the most out of its talented roster, Cook could be on track to become one of the league’s next great running backs.
Dalvin Cook’s Role Will Expand in 2018
The New NFL Running Back
In the old days of the NFL, star running backs would carry the ball 25-30 times a game, rarely sharing carries and not being asked to do a whole lot in the passing game. As the game has evolved, however, backs are able to stay fresher with fewer carries, sometimes seeing another runner take their carries and at other times replacing carries with receptions. The ability to catch out of the backfield reduces the wear-and-tear a back would normally endure running into a wall of 300-pound linemen. In space, there are fewer bodies around, lowering the number of hits a back will take. This also allows the back to showcase his talent against fewer defenders, producing more explosive plays.
This is what made fans’ ears perk up when hearing that Cook was taking reps with the receivers last week during Organized Team Activities (OTAs). With DeFilippo bringing many of the Eagles’ tricks to Minnesota, Cook shouldn’t be sweating the ball coming his way in 2018. Eagles running backs caught 53 passes in 2017, which is probably around what the Vikings would expect from Cook this season. In Washington, Cousins found running backs 82 times last season. With defenses doing all that they can to take away Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on the outside, Cook should have many opportunities to burn teams in the middle of the field.
Fewer Bodies in the Backfield
With former running back Jerick McKinnon heading to the San Fransisco 49ers this off-season, only Latavius Murray looks to take significant snaps away from Cook this season. The solid yet unspectacular back was hobbled by an ankle injury to begin last year but finished the second half of the season strong, racking up 842 yards on 216 carries for eight touchdowns. Regarded as a good receiver, Murray only caught 15 passes as McKinnon was used more as a receiver out of the backfield. Cook should be able to see McKinnon’s production as a receiver (McKinnon had 51 catches for 421 yards and two scores in 2017).
On the ground, Cook will likely get a majority of the carries like he did to begin 2017. The only situations that Murray could see significant snaps would be short-yardage situations, where he used his 6’3″, 230-pound body to pick up seven first downs on 10 third-down carries last year. Murray will also likely be the team’s closer, finishing games that are well in hand. Less competition in the backfield overall will just give Cook more opportunities to carve defenses up and help take pressure off of Cousins and the passing game.
Recent ACL Victims Have Bounced Back
Despite all of the schemes and players around Cook in 2018, none of this will matter if he isn’t healthy. While the team hoped he would be back in time for training camp, he showed he was ahead of schedule by participating in OTAs. ACL injuries used to spell the end of a running back’s career. Now, players come back as strong as ever and play several more seasons.
Vikings fans need to look no further than Adrian Peterson‘s 2012 campaign. Nine months after tearing his ACL on Christmas Eve in 2011, Peterson was on the field and had the second-most productive season ever for a running back. He rushed for 2,097 yards (eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson‘s record) en route to winning league MVP.
Los Angeles Rams tailback Todd Gurley might be an even better comparison, though. After tearing his ACL during his 2014 college campaign, Gurley was still drafted 10th overall in the 2015 draft. He has racked up 3,296 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns, becoming a cornerstone in head coach Sean McVay‘s high-powered offensive attack. Gurley, like Cook, is an all-around back who suffered his injury before having an established pro career. With three seasons under his belt, though, Gurley has shown that young runners can come back strong not just for the short-term, but the long-term as well.
The Last Word on Dalvin Cook
Cook still has a lot to show coaches before getting a full workload thrown at him, but his participation in OTAs is a good sign that he will be back and fully healthy when the season kicks off. With a creative mind calling plays and a plethora of weapons around him, Cook will be the beneficiary of a high-powered offense. And as new quarterback Kirk Cousins tries to become more and more familiar with his receivers, Cook can be a valuable safety net out of the background on passing downs. It is still early, but Cook can be the latest young skill player to break out in Minnesota.