– As Dalvin Cook continues to make progress on his way back from a torn ACL, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sounded optimistic Thursday that the second-year running back could be in action as soon as this spring’s organized team activities.

“I think he’s going to be pretty close,” Zimmer said at the NFL scouting combine. “[Head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] tells me he’s doing great and he should be as good as new — better.”

If Cook remains on track to return for much of the Vikings’ offseason program and his health continues to improve through training camp and the preseason, there’s little doubt he’ll return to his role as the team’s featured back this fall. But the Vikings still have to be sensible with how they use him, Zimmer said.

“I think he’s going to get a lot of plays,” Zimmer said. “The one thing we have to be careful about with Dalvin is, you know, we don’t wear him out. It’s a long season; we’ve got to be smart about it, so we’ll have to have a — not necessarily a pitch count, but be mindful that it’s a 16-game, maybe 20-game season and we’re going to have to be smart about how we use him. Because he is a three-down back.”

Both Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman spoke highly of Latavius Murray as a change-of-pace back at the combine this week. Murray, Spielman said, led the team in explosive runs, which the Vikings define as carries gaining 12 yards or more.

The Vikings will face a decision about Murray’s contract, which would pay him $5.15 million in 2018. The team can cut Murray until the third day of the new league year before his base salary becomes fully guaranteed, and it’s possible the Vikings could pursue a restructured deal with the 28-year-old if they’re confident enough in Cook’s recovery to believe he’ll be able to handle a sizable workload.

‘Loyalty is a big thing’

After the Vikings picked former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo as their new offensive coordinator, the team blocked the Giants’ request to let QB coach Kevin Stefanski join Pat Shurmur’s staff as his new offensive coordinator.

The decision triggered some criticism of the Vikings for not letting Stefanski advance. When asked about the move on Thursday, Zimmer had plenty to say.

“Should I start on my pet peeve stuff now?” he said. “I get criticized for blocking guys and stuff like that, but loyalty, to me, is a big thing, right? So I come in here four years ago and the offense is 29, 27th, 26th. But I keep them. So the first time our offense is pretty good, then I’m supposed to let all my coaches leave? I don’t think that’s right. If I’m going to be loyal to them and not fire them after they don’t have good years, then I don’t think they should not be loyal to me.”

Perfect storm

Zimmer said he has watched the tape of the Vikings’ NFC Championship Game loss to the Eagles “a couple times,” and added he plans to sit down with DeFilippo “and go through the tape and explain everything they were trying to do.”

The reasons for the 38-7 loss, though, might not be completely tangible.

“I probably misinterpreted the win [the week before] against the Saints,” Zimmer said. “They told me after the fact that the six teams that won in the playoffs [in walkoff fashion] lost by an average of 24 points the next week. I didn’t think it’d be … I just thought it was kind of business as usual. The Wednesday practice was not very good, Thursday was a lot better and Friday was OK. But I didn’t think — we’ve had bad practices before — so I didn’t think that was a big deal. Just kind of turned into a perfect storm.”