Dalvin Cook's Potential as a Receiver Gives Him Big Fantasy Football Upside
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook started only four regular season games as a rookie last season before tearing his ACL. In that span, he had 354 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 13.6 standard-league fantasy points per game.
This season, Cook appears to be healthy and could be ready for a breakout year, but he is also surrounded by new faces in the Vikings' offense. How will having a new quarterback in Kirk Cousins and a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo impact Cook's role in the offense, and what kind of fantasy potential does he offer in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues with these changes?
Kirk Cousins and John DeFilippo
Minnesota's offense could look drastically different from what we saw last season.
DeFilippo, the former quarterback coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, has expressed a desire to cater his offensive strategy towards his quarterback’s strengths, as indicated by his approach when Nick Foles stepped into the starting lineup after Carson Wentz went down last year.
“I sat [Foles] down and made him list me, with our coaching staff, what are your best concepts, what do you see yourself do well?” DeFilippo said to ESPN 1500. “Because I’m not, myself, (Eagles offensive coordinator) Frank Reich, (head coach) Doug Pederson are not throwing the ball. He is. And so, we really sat down and spent some time with Nick and formulated game plans based on what he felt comfortable doing. And to me that’s coaching.”
Setting up a new offense, we can count on DeFilippo having a similar conversation and approach with Cousins, trying to build around his new quarterback's strengths. So where does Cousins excel?
Last season in Washington, Cousins leaned heavily on the short passing game. He attempted 81 throws behind the line of scrimmage, which accounted for 16% of his passes -- sitting ahead of the 14% league-average for quarterbacks. His passer rating on those looks sat at 109.5, versus the 97.6 league-wide quarterback average.
According to Football Outsiders' ALEX rankings, which measures a quarterback's depth of target compared to where the first-down markers are, 23 of the 38 signal callers with at least 50 third-down pass attempts had a higher depth of target relative to the sticks than Cousins did.
He also had the league's highest passer rating on screen passes last year.
The last time DeFilippo was an offensive coordinator (2015 with the Cleveland Browns), 108 (18%) of the team's targets went to running backs. This was slightly below the league-average of 113 targets, but with Cousins' success on short passes, we could see DeFilippo adapt his offense to include more looks for his backs.
Chris Thompson With Cousins in 2017
Chris Thompson was one of Cousins' most effective weapons last season. The average Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) for running backs with at least 15 receptions was 9.58 last season, and Thompson ranked fourth in this category with a Reception NEP of 49.25. This trailed only Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. On a per-target basis, he fared even better, ranking first in Reception NEP per Target among all backs that saw at least 10 looks.
The Washington offense also produced some starkly different numbers in games with Thompson (Week 1 to Week 11) compared to games after Thompson broke his leg (Weeks 12 to Week 17). Below is a chart showcasing that difference, courtesy of Hogs Haven.
|Category||Weeks 1-11||Weeks 12-17||Difference|
|Passing Yards per Game||256.8 (8th)||197.2 (25th)||59.6|
|Yards/Attempt||8.10 (1st)||6.65 (21st)||1.37|
|Completion Percentage||66.7% (4th)||60.0% (23rd)||6.70%|
|TD/INT Ratio||3.40 (4th)||1.25 (25th)||2.15|
|First Down Percentage||39.1% (3rd)||28.7% (31st)||10.40%|
|Passer Rating||101.8 (3rd)||79.8 (17th)||22|
|Average Raw QBR||62||33.3||28.7|
These are some big-time differences, and they suggest that having an effective receiving back can have a big impact on Cousins' production.
Targeting Thompson on third downs proved especially productive last year as 13 of his 39 receptions came on third down, and he converted 10 of those into first downs.
He also saw 32 targets in situations with 10-plus yards to go for a first down, and while we already established Cousins' tendency to throw short in these situations, Thompson's 483 yards after the catch (on pace to have finished second in the league, when extrapolated to 16 games) helped him keep up that high first-down rate.
The difference in Cousins' production with and without Thompson, as well as his willingness to feed a running back in long-yardage situations, are things that we could see DeFilippo take into account as he formulates the Vikings' offensive gameplan.
How All This Impacts Cook
What does all this mean for Cook?
Jerick McKinnon is gone, and Latavius Murray is not much of a receiving threat (surpassing 250 receiving yards only once in his career). This means that Cook stands to benefit as the team's primary pass-catching back. If DeFilippo adapts to Cousins' strengths and we continue to see plenty of short passing, Cook gets a big boost to his ceiling in PPR leagues.
One possible problem is that Cook had some struggles as a receiver in his small sample of NFL work as a rookie, especially when compared to McKinnon, who turned 68 targets into 51 receptions and 421 yards in the same offense.
Cook's ProFootballFocus grade as a receiver is poor (37.2), which may have been impacted by his three drops in four games, as well as some struggles after the catch.
That's not to say that Cook is without potential as a receiver, though. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3, he caught all 5 of his targets for 72 yards. He also showed some receiving chops in his last season at Florida State in 2016, ranking eighth among college running backs with 488 receiving yards on 33 receptions.
DeFilippo also seems to believe in Cook's potential as a receiver, as the Vikings have reportedly been lining up Cook out wide and having him catch passes out of the backfield in training camp. This is a strong indicator that it will be Cook, not Murray, who gets featured in the passing game if DeFilippo wants to rely on a running back.
Cook's 2018 Fantasy Outlook
We have seen Kirk Cousins lean on running backs and short passes in the past, and with those reports coming out of training camp, it looks like John DeFilippo is ready to incorporate that into the Vikings' offense.
Neither of the team's top backs have proven to be efficient receivers in the NFL, but we have only a four-game sample for Dalvin Cook, and he has shown plenty of potential to turn things around and become a true three-down feature back.
Our projections have Cook racking up only 41.95 receptions and 309.62 receiving yards, neither of which rank in the top 20 among running backs. Despite that, he still sits as our 12th-ranked running back. If his role in the passing game grows and he tops those passing-game numbers, he has the upside to be a truly elite fantasy back.