Of the 43 yards Dalvin Cook gained in the Vikings’ first preseason game against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, 30 of them came on receptions.
Of the five times Cook carried the ball, four of them were out of the shotgun or pistol formation.
It’s a new era for Vikings running backs, indeed.
The team’s plan for Cook is not fully formed yet, certainly not after one preseason game that saw the rookie celebrate his 22nd birthday with a modest 18 snaps — which included nine touches, and yes, a gaffe in pass protection. But with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon both sidelined with injuries for the Vikings’ first preseason game, the team made it clear once again that it will not be shy with a rookie running back.
The days of Adrian Peterson are over, and the Vikings have spent little time lamenting the future Hall of Famer’s departure, at least not in their offensive game-planning sessions. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is in full control of the Vikings offense now, and the team’s first preseason game saw Shurmur calling for zone runs, a hearty dose of screen passes and even a snap with Cook lined up as a wide receiver.
All of it is right in the Florida State product’s wheelhouse. And while the Vikings certainly didn’t revise their scheme specifically for Cook, they traded up to take him in the second round because of how smart a match he was for what they wanted to do. Call Thursday night, then, a rough draft of how the Vikings want to feature their backs in the post-Peterson era.
“I think he’s going to be a valuable asset,” quarterback Sam Bradford said following Thursday’s 17-10 Vikings victory. “Not only in the run game, but I think we’re going to be able to use him in the pass game. You saw one time tonight where we moved him out wide in an empty set, just trying to get him the ball from the backfield in some five-man protection stuff.
“Given that he has the ability to be such a great runner but can also do things for us in the pass game, it just makes it where we can use him in a lot of different ways.”
That’s not to say Cook’s debut was perfect; he missed an opportunity to chip Jerry Hughes after the Bills flooded the left side of the Vikings’ line in the first quarter, leading to their second sack of Bradford and putting the Vikings in a second-and-17. Playing behind an offensive line that’s still trying to find its ideal configuration, Cook gained only 13 yards on his five carries. And while Cook’s third catch went for 9 yards on second-and-10, an Alex Boone holding penalty wiped out the gain and again put the Vikings in adverse field position.
“I thought it was good,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He did some good things. I thought he ran behind his pads well, for the first time out. He did a nice job when he caught the ball on the screen; unfortunately we had the penalty on the one. I’m sure he feels like he could have done more, and he will in the future.”
Murray, who was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list last Monday, has only taken part in individual drills so far, and said last week it didn’t make sense for him to rush back into game action after taking the better part of five months to rehabilitate from offseason ankle surgery. But the Vikings will likely want to see the former Raiders running back in game action sometime soon, so they can determine where he fits in their reworked backfield with Cook and McKinnon.
Still, the Vikings had big plans for Cook when they drafted him, and the attributes he showed in training camp — his vision on zone runs, his smooth cuts out of the backfield and his ability to accelerate — only advanced the idea he was ready to play a big role as a rookie.
His debut performance, however incomplete it might have been, showed two things: that the days of line-up-8-yards-deep, take-the-ball-and-go are probably over for the Vikings’ backs, and that Cook will be integrated into the Vikings offense in myriad ways.
“It was a good first start to the preseason,” he said. “I feel like, you know, it was a good start and everything was smooth. We’ve still got some stuff to work on, but that’s just part of the process.”