Fantasy Football: Is Dalvin Cook Worthy of an Early Pick?
After slipping to the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Dalvin Cook quickly won the Minnesota Vikings' starting running back role last summer. He appeared to be on his way to a monster rookie year before tearing his ACL in Week 4, racking up 354 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and 2 scores in three-plus games.
Despite the mid-season ACL tear, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer expects Cook to be ready for training camp. However, coming off such a severe injury and with such a small sample size in the pros, is Cook worthy of his lofty average draft position (ADP), which sits at 13th overall, per Fantasy Football Calculator's standard-league ADP?
Vikings Depth Chart
With Jerick McKinnon leaving in free agency, the Vikings will have to replace his 68 targets, 51 receptions, and 151 rush attempts. By not signing an additional running back, Minnesota showed confidence in both Cook's ability to handle a big-time workload as well as be 100% healthy by Week 1. Behind Cook, the depth chart currently consists of Latavius Murray, Mack Brown, and undrafted free agent Roc Thomas.
Of that group, only Murray poses any sort of real threat. We can compare Cook and Murray side by side by using our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP uses historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. We'll also peep Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of runs which resulted in positive NEP. (You can read more about NEP in our glossary.)
|Running Back||Carries||Rushing NEP Per Carry||Rushing Success Rate|
There's a few things to note here. For one, Murray saw a lot more work due to Cook's early-season injury, and it's obviously harder to maintain per-carry efficiency over a larger sample. Secondly, while Cook was excellent in his limited time, Murray's numbers aren't as bad as you might think. The league average Rushing NEP per Carry a year ago was -0.05, so Murray was pretty good.
With that said, the league average Rushing Success Rate was 38.08%, a mark Murray falls well short of, meaning a lot of his efficiency stems from big plays rather than consistently successful runs.
All in all, while it's hard to know how much stock to put into 74 carries, Cook performed like a top-level running back in his small sample. Among backs with at least 70 carries in 2017, Cook checked in 13th in Rushing NEP per Attempt.
Can Cook's Role Grow in Year 2?
In three full games before his ACL tear, Cook averaged 73.7% of Minnesota's offensive snaps. Cook's largest snap shares came when Minnesota won as he benefited from positive game script (81% and 77% in two victories).
In the Vikings' only loss prior to Cook's injury, he played only 60% of snaps while McKinnon handled 39%. While the sample size is small, it looked like McKinnon was going to see a lot of action in passing situations even with Cook healthy. But with McKinnon out of the picture, a door into more passing-game volume has opened for Cook and Murray.
In limited work last year, Cook reeled in 11 of 16 targets, averaging 4.0 looks and 2.9 catches per game. Murray, on the other hand, received a mere 17 targets and recorded 15 catches in all of 2017, posting a meager 0.9 receptions per game.
Based off of 2017, it sure seems like Minnesota doesn't view Murray as a pass-game weapon, and as we touched on earlier, the depth chart currently consists of Murray, Cook, Mack Brown and rookie Roc Thomas. So if Murray isn't going to play a big role in the aerial attack, Cook looks like the best bet to do so.
If Cook can seize a majority of the passing-game volume leftover from McKinnon while maintaining his heavy workload on the ground, it would give a boost to both his floor and ceiling and help ensure his status as one of the better backs in fantasy football.
Something to watch out for is Murray getting work near the goal-line. After Cook's injury last season, Murray was the preferred goal-line option over McKinnon, scoring eight rushing touchdowns over the final 10 weeks. But Murray amassed a mere seven total attempts in Cook's three full healthy games, and he didn't have any touchdowns or receptions in that span.
While it's a little scary to invest a high-end pick in a player who has a small NFL sample and is coming off a serious injury, Cook looks like a superb option early in the second round.
Even if Cook doesn't get a huge boost in pass-game volume, he showed enough as a runner that we should be awfully excited about what he could do in what should be a high-scoring offense, and it's not like the other backs in his ADP range -- namely Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette -- are shoo-ins for big receiving numbers.
Due to a shallow depth chart and a possible uptick in receiving numbers, Cook has an appealing floor and ceiling. With improved quarterback play from Kirk Cousins, the whole offense gets a boost, and Cook could be a fantasy star in 2018.