Dalvin Cook Flashed Elite Upside as a Rookie

While he only appeared in four games, Dalvin Cook showed what made him a dynamic player in college. More of the same is likely in order in the very near future.

There was a time when Dalvin Cook looked like a surefire 2017 first-round draft pick. The versatile runner was fresh off setting a Florida State record with 4,464 career rushing yards and was named a Doak Walker award finalist in 2016, his final collegiate season. With a career yards per carry average of 6.8 and 48 total touchdowns to his credit, Cook was seen as a legitimate competitor to Leonard Fournette for the distinction of being the first runner selected on draft day.

Then, the NFL scouting combine happened. It has long been understood that scouts and executives often place too much emphasis on measurables at the expense of game tape, and as such, a poor combine performance can severely affect a prospect's draft stock. As a result of somewhat underwhelming performances in the 20-yard shuttle run and cone drills, Cook's burst athleticism were called into question.

With a SPARQ score of 107.1 (34th percentile according to Player Profiler), people started to question whether his abilities would translate to the next level. Add in some widely discussed potential character issues, and you have the recipe for a draft day free fall.

Which is exactly what occurred. Cook, once viewed as a potential top-10 pick, slid all the way to the second round before the Minnesota Vikings scooped him up with the 41st overall selection. It may not have been the outcome he had been expecting, but in the end, it may have been the most favorable result.

The Vikings had recently signed Latavius Murray to a three-year deal in free agency and Jerick McKinnon was in the mix for carries as well, but the starting running back job was very much up for grabs as spring moved along.

That competition didn't last long, as Cook immediately opened eyes in camp and received rave reviews for his work. During the preseason, he took 17 totes for 70 yards and snared 6 receptions for 35 yards in limited action. Meanwhile, Murray was working his way back from ankle surgery, missing most of the offseason program and the first two preseason games. In that time, Cook locked the starting job down, and appeared ready to roll.

And roll he did. Right out of the gate, Cook started his career with a bang, rushing for 127 yards on 22 carries while snaring 3 catches for an additional 10 yards in his professional debut. All of the qualities that had made him a special player at Florida State were on full display, and a potential Rookie of the Year campaign was underway.

Or so it appeared.

What Might Have Been

By now, you likely know that Cook's rookie season was derailed by a Week 4 ACL tear, but what he accomplished during his short stint as a featured runner was nothing short of scintillating. Cook only suited up four times in 2017, but in that short span, he racked up a number of accomplishments.

The rookie rushed for 354 yards and 2 touchdowns, while hauling in 11 receptions for an additional 90 yards, but let's look beyond these surface numbers for a moment. During his abbreviated season, Cook finished with a final yards per carry of 4.8, and actually surpassed 5.0 in three of his four starts.

In the only contest he was held beneath 4.0 yards per tote, a Week 3 showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was an absolute beast after contact, repeatedly pushing the pile and breaking tackles. Take a look at these numbers.

Furthermore, Cook averaged 88.5 rushing yards per contest, even though he missed the entire second half in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions. Prior to his injury, he had rushed 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, and had he finished that game, his average would be considerably higher. Even so, he still produced the second-best figure in the league last year, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott's average of 98.3 yards per game.

Need more proof? Cook was also incredibly efficient in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is our in-house metric that employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player performs above expectation, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance.

The league average Rushing NEP per play in 2017 was -0.05, so any positive integer represents a very strong performance. For the purposes of comparison, we're confining our search to runners who received 65 or more carries last season. Among this group, Cook's Rushing NEP per play of 0.04 tied for eighth-best in the NFL. These are elite numbers by virtually any measure.

A Featured Back

Recent reports indicate he is making excellent progress in his recovery. Cook himself says he's resumed jogging, while Vikings' brass is encouraged by his improvement.

While his teammates, the aforementioned Murray and McKinnon, handled the rushing load admirably in his absence, there is no reason to assume Cook won't return to his regular role. Put simply, he is far and away the most talented and efficient runner on the Vikings' roster and the numbers illustrate this clearly.

Player Rushing Yards Per Contest Yards Per Carry Rushing NEP per Play Rushing Success Rate Receptions Per Contest Yards Per Reception Reception NEP per Target
Dalvin Cook 88.5 4.8 0.04 43.24% 2.75 8.2 0.27
Latavius Murray 52.6 3.9 -0.03 33.80% 0.94 6.9 0.20
Jerick McKinnon 35.6 3.8 -0.16 39.07% 3.19 8.3 0.33

It's no surprise that Cook dominated his peers as a runner, but it's particularly notable that he was almost as productive a pass-catcher on a per-play basis as highly-touted third-down back McKinnon. It highlights the do-it-all skill set that made him a can't-miss prospect in college, and bodes well for his future.

McKinnon is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and has stated he wants an opportunity to be a featured back. That won't happen in Minnesota, so it's likely he moves on in March, leaving Cook an opportunity to absorb more passing-game volume.

Murray, on the other hand, never surpassed three carries in a game until Cook went down, and only recorded 15 receptions on the season. The veteran played well enough to earn a larger role going forward, but there's little doubt that Cook will be the team's leading man.

Supporting Cast

The Vikings feature one of the game's best wide receiver duos in Adam Thielen and divisional round hero Stefon Diggs, a solid tight end in Kyle Rudolph, and a continually improving offensive line. All of this will keep defenses honest and help Cook avoid an abundance of stacked boxes.

In fact, during his shortened 2017, Cook only faced stacked fronts on 4.1% of his carries. The Vikings will continue to rely heavily on the run, because they have a premium defense keeping most games close, meaning game flow will usually work in Cook's favor.

However, there are some question marks about the future of this team. For starters, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is now the head coach of the New York Giants. Shurmur was highly respected by his players and seen as a primary catalyst for the team's recent success.

Fortunately, the Vikings tabbed a quality replacement, as former Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach John DiFilippo is set to fill Shurmur's role. DiFilippo was a potential head coaching candidate this offseason, so his hiring is being met with excitement and optimism.

Of course, there's the small matter of the team's quarterback situation. Incumbent Vikings Case Keenum and Sam Bradford are set to hit the open market, and Teddy Bridgewater could join them if his contract isn't tolled into 2018 because of the time he spent on the PUP list last season. Such an event would leave the Vikes with zero quarterbacks under contract.

As of now, the team has given little indication as to who they expect to have under center next season. Will they try to re-sign one of their own players? Pursue Kirk Cousins, who is rumored to be very interested in this franchise? Try to swing an improbable trade reuniting DeFilippo with Nick Foles, the man who dominated the Vikings in the NFC Championship game?

Okay, so that scenario is a bit far-fetched, but clearly, there are a lot of moving parts in play.

2018 Outlook

When Week 1 of the 2018 season rolls around, Dalvin Cook will have had approximately 11 months to recover from his ACL surgery, so he will likely be back at his physical best. The Vikings will remain a contender in the NFC, built on strong defense and a talented group of offensive contributors. The quarterback situation will be addressed in due time, and with a surprisingly large number of available passers, will likely produce a satisfying result. All of this bodes well for Cook's outlook.

Put simply, he looked like a legitimate foundation back and a Rookie of the Year contender prior to his unfortunate injury. With an exceptional blend of talent, situation, and youth (he doesn't turn 23 until August), Cook is poised to cement himself as one of the top runners in the NFL in the very near future. If he remains healthy, that time will likely come in 2018.