During the pre-draft circuit of all-star games, combine drills and prospect interviews in 2017, Dalvin Cook built a connection with a cohort of running backs who have come to command the position in the NFL.
He was the third back drafted in the class, going to the Vikings 41st overall after the Jaguars took LSU's Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick and the Panthers selected Stanford's Christian McCaffrey eighth overall. Oklahoma's Joe Mixon went to the Bengals seven picks after Cook, Tennessee's Alvin Kamara went to the Saints at No. 67, the Chiefs took Toledo's Kareem Hunt 86th overall. Three more players — Pittsburgh's James Connor, North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen and UTEP's Aaron Jones — made it to Pro Bowls after being selected outside the top 100 picks.
"I think we were one of the best to come through," Cook said. "It was a deep class. It was guys that you didn't think were going to be good that are still producing. Some late picks. Just happy to be a part with those guys, that little fraternity right there. I talk with those guys. Just was a good group coming out."
Four years later, the Class of 2017 has set the standard at the position. Cook and McCaffrey — both fighting to return from injuries in time for Sunday's Vikings-Panthers matchup in Charlotte — are among its leaders in terms of both statistics and salary.
McCaffrey is the league's highest-paid back, playing on a four-year, $64 million contract that Cook and others from the class tried to match in negotiations with their own teams. Cook, who has more rushing yards than anyone in the class of 2017, is the NFL's fourth-highest-paid running back after signing a five-year, $63 million deal before the start of last season.
Alvin Kamara — who has a big lead on the rest of the group in total yards from scrimmage, with 6,645 since the Saints picked him in the third round — is the NFL's second-highest-paid running back. Five other members of the 2017 class are playing on deals worth at least $5 million per season; Jones and Mixon are tied for the seventh-highest average salary in the league, while Hunt is 13th, Cohen is 14th and Chris Carson is 16th.
"Definitely pride being a part of that group," Cook said. "I think we were one of the best to come out, that class. You can go back and check the track record. There are guys around the league still starting, still producing."
Though the Vikings and Panthers will meet for the third time in Cook's and McCaffrey's respective careers on Sunday, the two backs have never shared the field. Both have missed the game once, as part of the most injury-plagued seasons of each player's career. In 2017, Cook was on injured reserve with a torn ACL when the Vikings lost to the Panthers in a December matchup between two playoff teams. Last year, it was McCaffrey who sat out the late November game at U.S. Bank Stadium with a shoulder injury, during a year in which he missed 13 games.
This year, McCaffrey has missed two games with a hamstring injury and Cook has sat out twice with a sprained right ankle. Both were limited in practice on Wednesday. Panthers coach Matt Rhule said McCaffrey was "50-50" to make his return on Sunday, and while Cook said he's feeling better, the decision about his status for the Panthers game will be an ongoing conversation.
"We've got a great group in the training room," he said. "My coaches always take good care of me. Coach Zim, Coach 'KP' [running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu] always have my best interest for what I've got going on. They're not going to put me out there if I'm a liability of getting hurt. If it's sturdy enough, if I'm able to tolerate what I've got going on, I'll be honest with them and let them know. If not, I'll just tell them that it doesn't feel good."
Both backs have dealt with injuries while playing integral roles for their teams; McCaffrey touched the ball 403 times in 2019, his last full season, while Cook logged 356 touches in just 14 games last year. If their current injuries reflect the fraught nature of the position they play, their workloads reflect their importance to their respective teams.
This weekend, if McCaffrey is on the field, the Vikings will see him line up in the slot and in the backfield, as the kind of player who'll command much of their focus.
"He's so good coming out of the backfield," coach Mike Zimmer said. "The running game is the running game, really. But the passing game, trying to get him covered with one linebacker when you're cheating coverages one way or the other and he's on the back side of the coverage, that could be an issue. ... You have to pay special attention to him and you have to have some game plans for him."
Said Cook: "He does it all. He's a smaller back, but he's sturdy. He catches the football, runs between the tackles, he's tough. He's the whole package. He's today's running back. Nothing not to like about his game."
Should McCaffrey and Cook finally get on the field together on Sunday, Cook will get his chance to show how he measures up.