How a (finally) healthy Dalvin Cook has ‘juiced’ the Vikings

Updated: December 2, 2019

8:02 AM ET

EAGAN, Minn. — Don’t put Xavier Rhodes on the spot about the NFL’s MVP race — not when it comes to choosing between two of his South Florida brethren.

“C’mon man, next question,” the Minnesota Vikings cornerback said with a smile.

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  • The Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm as the most dynamic quarterback in years and has emerged as the front-runner for the award, but Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook is stating a strong case of his own.

    Cook is putting into existence the things he once imagined. He has gone back and forth all season with Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (and more recently Cleveland’s Nick Chubb) for positioning as the rushing and scrimmage yards leader. In his first 11 games, Cook ranks second in yards from scrimmage (1,472) and third in rushing yards (1,017). But the basis of his MVP candidacy is how he makes his entire team better.

    “He envisioned himself being this way, living this way,” Rhodes said. “He always spoke on ‘I’m going to be one of the best.’ He always said, ‘I’m going to be the rushing leader. I’m going to run hard.’ He has great confidence. Believe me, if you’re around him, you’ll see his confidence.

    “It’s a guy you want on your team. It’s a guy that you can depend on. Dalvin says, ‘Just give me the ball. I can make something happen.'”

    Cook’s explosive playmaking abilities are the cornerstone of the Vikings’ system and have boosted quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ play. What Cook has accomplished in 2019 — his first healthy season in three — is what the Vikings envisioned when they traded up to draft him 41st overall in 2017.

    As the Vikings travel to perhaps their biggest game of the season on Monday against the Seattle Seahawks (8:20 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Cook effect can be felt across positional lines. He has influenced every aspect of his team’s identity while restoring the Vikings to relevance in the NFC.

    Before the season, Minnesota recommitted to a running game that struggled in 2018. The Vikings ranked 30th in yards (1,493), 27th in carries (357) and 25th in yards per carry (4.18). This season, a revitalized zone-blocking scheme has produced the fifth-highest output in running back yards (4.80) and open-field yards, defined as when a team’s running back earns more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Football Outsiders.

    Cook is quick to credit his blockers for his success. But it’s his patience to see the play develop in front of him that makes his offensive line’s job easier.

    “It puts a lot of confidence in us, just knowing that our block doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect,” Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill said. “A lot of times if you’re just in the way, he’ll be able to break one, and not a lot of people can do that. He’s probably the best at that — taking a lot more than he’s necessarily given. He can make it into something a lot more so than I’ve ever seen anybody do or block for. All we need is one or two inches, and he can do it.”

    Going into Week 13, Cook leads the NFL with 63 rushes this season on which he hit a maximum speed of 15-plus mph, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He also has the fastest average speed at the line of scrimmage among running backs on rushes (10.9 mph).

    The zone scheme allows Cook to “literally go anywhere,” according to left guard Pat Elflein, forcing defenses to chase him to the perimeter on outside runs or whiff on tackles as he cuts up the middle of the field. Cook leads the league in scrimmage yards after contact (533) and receiving yards after contact (161), according to ESPN Stats Information.

    “Now that he’s healthy, he’s just such an explosive player,” Elflein said. “Every time he touches the ball, he can break two, three, four tackles, and he does it consistently.”

    Cousins has benefited largely from Cook’s shouldering a heavy load.

    The Vikings quarterback leads the NFL with 11 play-action touchdown passes, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt on such throws when Cook is on the field and 7.7 when he isn’t.

    “The more I watch these defenses, the more I see defenses that want to prevent big plays,” Cousins said. “So what ends up happening is your running back becomes a primary target in the pass game because defenses are going to take away a lot of deep shots and make you have to earn it.

    “How effective he’s been not only running the football but helping us in the pass game with screens and checkdowns and different things, it’s been a huge benefit as a quarterback. Great running backs tend to make the first guy miss. You can’t block them all, and the ones who are really good make the unblocked guy have to miss, and he’s done that time and time again.”

    Much of the success in the passing game is a result of how effectively the Vikings run the ball. This season, Cousins is averaging an NFL-high 9.3 yards per pass attempt when the previous play was a run (minimum 50 attempts).

    When Cook is on the field, the success rate for receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is greater.