If this is it for Dalvin Cook...
All signs are pointing to an exit for the Pro Bowl running back; what should we think of his time in Minnesota
By Matthew Coller
When Dalvin Cook joined the Minnesota Vikings as the successor to all-time great Adrian Peterson, the bar was set pretty darn high.
He was a second-round pick with first-round expectations considering his stock took a hit due to character concerns in the leadup to the 2017 draft. On the Friday night when the Vikings made pick, GM Rick Spielman said that Cook had convinced him that there wouldn’t be any issues and the Vikings believed they pulled off one of the heists of the draft.
By the first week of training camp in 2017 it was clear that Cook was special. His explosiveness and running power wowed teammates. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon were on the roster but they were soon to become mere onlookers behind the next great Viking running back. In Week 1, Cook overpowered the New Orleans Saints to the tune of 127 yards at nearly six yards per carry.
Three weeks later Cook suffered an ACL tear that kept him out the remainder of 2017 and likely played a role in his slow start in 2018.
Those are the types of stops and starts that have defined Cook’s time in Minnesota. There were long stretches of sheer excellence and injuries that slowed his production. There were times he was talked about as an MVP and others in which an overcommitment to leaning on him ended up hurting the offense’s overall efficiency. There were plenty of endearing moments with fans and community efforts and accusations involving a former girlfriend that hovered over his last two seasons.
While no decision has yet been made and reports are murky about his future, chances appear high that 2022 will have been Cook’s last year in purple. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported the team has been looking at trade options and wants to “do right by Cook” in finding him a new home. The Vikings’ moves point toward a move. Not only did they re-sign Alex Mattison early in the free agency process but also drafted running back DeWayne McBride, stuffing their RB room with young talent after the Ty Chandler pick in last year’s draft. The team could have restructured his deal to create more cap flexibility, yet they have not done so. After June 1, cutting Cook would create $9 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.com.
So if the Vikings make that move, how will we look at the Viking career of their third all-time leading rusher behind only Peterson and Robert Smith? Does he belong in the same category as Vikings legends? Or will his time in Minnesota fade more quickly than the Pages, Mosses or Petersons?
In a franchise defined by what-could-have-been, Cook doesn’t rank all that high. In comparison to field goals gone bad or quarterback knee injuries, his ACL tear and numerous times battling through X, Y or Z doesn’t leave a blip on the radar. But it is worth talking about because when he was at his best, Cook was unstoppable. When he was fighting something, the Vikings often continued to lean on him to their detriment.
Since we have always seen Cook’s talent, it was easy to forget how long it took him to take off. After his explosion on the scene in 2017, he didn’t produce another 100-yard game until December 16, 2018, when the Vikings bludgeoned the Dolphins. At that point, it was worth questioning whether spending a second-round pick on a running back had been the right move.
It wasn’t until his third season that Cook blew up and became a superstar. The first 10 weeks of 2019 were Peterson-esque. He averaged 99.1 yards per game at nearly five yards per carry and had over 400 yards receiving through the first 10 games and the Vikings were riding his success to the tune of a 7-3 start to the season. Rockiness between Mike Zimmer and Stefon Diggs was smoothed over to some extent because the offense was rolling as defenses trembled with terror that Cook would break free, leaving any and all play-actions and screens wide open.
In Week 11, Denver defensive linemen Derek Wolfe landed hard on Cook and changed the course of that season. Battling a shoulder injury, he picked up just 144 yards over the rest of the year. In the playoffs he managed 3.0 yards per rush and picked up only 112 total yards.
After the season, Diggs was traded. He later implied that the team’s run-first strategy built around its star running back was at the center of his frustration. That isn’t Cook’s fault but the commitment to him as the offenses’s centerpiece is part of how his time will be remembered.
Before the 2020 season, Cook signed a five-year, $63 million contract. It was a deal that he certainly earned with his 2019 production but it also came at a time when the Vikings were struggling with the salary cap and taking a huge risk signing a running back to a massive deal. Rarely have similar contracts ended up being worth the dollars spent.
Things played out similarly in 2020. As Zimmer put a heavy workload on Cook’s back, he played some of the best football we have seen in franchise history at the running back position through the first half of the year. He brilliantly fit behind Gary Kubiak’s zone scheme, resulting in nearly 900 yards in the first eight games at 6.0 yards per carry. In the final seven games, his workload did not slow down (24 carries per game on average) but his production dipped to 4.1 yards per carry and the Vikings missed the playoffs, making a memorable season for Cook less celebrated.
In 2021, he missed time early in the year after getting hurt against Arizona and later played with a shoulder sling. He had some breathtaking moments, like going for over 200 yards in a win over Pittsburgh. He also had seven games averaging under 4.0 yards per carry.
Midway through 2021, allegations emerged that he assaulted a former girlfriend amidst an altercation at his home. Cook denied wrongdoing and countersued his accuser. He has not been suspended and his day in court still has not come as the litigation is still ongoing but the promise that he made to Spielman on draft night felt much shakier after that. While he had been active in community efforts, the goodwill he built through years of dispelling the “character concerns” narrative was undone, particularly since one of his legal issues in college also pertained to striking a woman — though he was found not guilty by a jury. These matters are complicated and unfinished at the moment but can’t be ignored as part of his time with the Vikings.
When the Vikings moved to a pass-first offense and new running scheme, there was some idea that they would move him into more of a receiving role but that never came to pass. He was still dealing with the shoulder issue and didn’t plow through defenders in the same way as early 2019 or 2020. His yards per touch sunk from elite to average and he led the league in rushes of either zero or negative yards, which had an impact on the ability to dial up play-actions from favorable down-and-distance.
Flashes of greatness persisted from time to time though. In Buffalo, an 81-yard touchdown sparked a comeback win in the game of the year. Against the Colts, his 64-yard screen pass touchdown tied the game at 36 in the NFL’s largest comeback ever.
Maybe there’s a comparison to Percy Harvin when it comes to Cook’s time in Minnesota. At their best, few players were ever more exciting. They were capable of sheer greatness and became uber popular because of their peak moments but there were asterisks on the success.
If Cook goes, there will be a list of what-could-have-beens surrounding his time here. Maybe if he hadn’t suffered the ACL injury, things would have played out differently in 2018. If he hadn’t dealt with the shoulder problem or if he hadn’t been ridden into the ground with 25-carries per game or if he had been healthy in some of those close games in 2021 or how good the offense would have been if he had been the 2020 version in 2022 under O’Connell.
If Cook stays, he will have one more chance to change that narrative. Though it would be a confusing turn for the analytically-inclined Vikings to keep an expensive running back coming off his lowest yards-per-touch season.
There’s also something exciting about what’s next. Poor Alex Mattison spent four years of his life waiting to play bell cow. Ty Chandler exploded onto the scene in training camp. Have you seen the DeWayne McBride highlight reel? Maybe Kene Nwangwu will get to use his 4.3 speed this year. For a team that has moved on from veteran talent in favor of the next wave, it would be thematic to let Cook go elsewhere and find out about the others. And as so often happens in the running back world, it would be onto the next man up, as it once was when Peterson left.
Love your comparison to Percy Harvin. I hadn't ever thought of it that way, but I think it's spot on. What could have been, indeed.
Really good analysis. And yeah, we probably relied too much on him and that helped wear him down. Using the threat of Dalvin to help set up the pass was probably a better idea than actually just grinding away with Dalvin.
Last year, while he a few awesome plays it just seemed as he was not as elusive as before...
But better to be a year early than a year late especially with a $10mm rb. In any case, he deserves to be in the ring of honor.