Welcome to Minnesota, Dalvin Cook. Do you think you’ll start this year?
Actually, we Minnesotans aren’t quite that aggressive. We actually waited until the second question of Cook’s first rookie minicamp news conference to ask the heralded running back if he thinks he’ll be starting ahead of veteran Latavius Murray when the Vikings play the New Orleans Saints in the Sept. 11 season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“That’s not my ultimate goal,” the rookie second-round draft pick said.
Lest anyone question his desire, Cook continued, showing the verbal agility to tip-toe through the question while showing deference to his NFL elders and confidence in his own ability.
“The ultimate goal,” he continued, “is to come in and find my role and just contribute to the team in any way possible and help the team win.”
But will he start? Desperate for a running game, the Vikings invested their top draft pick on Cook, giving up a fourth-rounder to move up seven spots in the second round. Yes, they also signed Murray to a three-year, $15 million deal, but only $3.4 million of that is guaranteed.
Murray is 27 with low mileage — 543 carries in four seasons with Oakland — and 20 touchdowns in 45 games played. But he’s also coming off ankle surgery, is missing the team’s offseason program and isn’t expected back until the start of training camp.
So, coach Mike Zimmer, will there be an open competition for the starting tailback position? (And, yes, Zimmer was asked this after Cook’s first NFL rookie minicamp walkthrough.)
“Well, yeah,” Zimmer said. “It’ll always be an open competition. With the veteran guys, we’ve been doing Phase 2 [of the offseason program], and [Murray] hasn’t been working yet. But we got a long way to go before we make any determinations on that.”
Cook joins the NFL with a reputation for being explosive in the open field and stout between the tackles. He’s a 5-foot-11, 213-pound playmaker who averaged 7.0 yards with 48 touchdowns on 766 touches from scrimmage at Florida State.
His ability to nudge Murray aside as the starter could hinge on whether Cook improves his ball security. He fumbled 13 times in three years at Florida State. A defensive-minded, old-school coach such as Zimmer won’t allow that trend to continue.
Asked where eliminating fumbles ranks on his NFL list of things to do, Cook said, “It’s at the top of the list. With that and pass protection.”
Vikings first-year running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said he never imagined a player as talented as Cook dropping into the second round. But as far as predicting whether the 21-year-old phenom can start from Day 1, well …
“That’s hard to say,” Polamalu said. “This week, we’re looking at him with other rookies. When I see him with the vets, I’ll have a better feel for whether he can start. Everything happens so much faster at this level.”
Of course, even if Cook doesn’t start, he’ll still get opportunities in Pat Shurmur’s offense. And so will third-down back Jerick McKinnon, who led all Vikings running backs with 202 touches last season.
Shurmur’s last full season as an NFL offensive coordinator was 2015 in Philadelphia. With workhorse back LeSean McCoy moving on to Buffalo before that season, the Eagles had three backs get 126 or more touches from scrimmage: starter DeMarco Murray (237), third-down back Darren Sproles (138) and backup Ryan Mathews (126).
“I’m just trying to find out my role,” Cook said. “Just come in here and work as hard as I can and prove I can be the best teammate … the best practice player … to be the player they drafted.”
Friday’s practice was open to the media. For what it’s worth — which probably isn’t much at a rookie minicamp — Cook had the quickest feet on the field by far.
“He showed acceleration, good feet, good vision,” Zimmer said. “We saw a lot of the same things we saw on tape.”