Dalvin Cook is entering his third NFL season. He still has not played the equivalent of one NFL season, his career ledger at 15 games.
As the Vikings initiate an offensive makeover in scheme and coaching staff, quarterback Kirk Cousins, by nature of his position, remains the most important player to the success of the operation.
Cook is No. 2 on that list.
The running back is a difference-maker with special skills — speed, instincts, vision — that make the offense significantly more difficult to defend when he’s on the field and the ball is in his hands.
And “on the field” should be in bold capital letters.
The Vikings desperately need Cook to stay healthy. He’s been unlucky in that regard. His position can be unforgiving on the body. But the Vikings have a mandate to run the ball better this season. Their entire scheme — and coach Mike Zimmer’s mood — revolves around that.
“Leaders on the team come and talk to me,” Cook said Monday. “It’s now or never. That’s how you look at it every year — now or never. I set myself up in the offseason and summer to get myself in position to do some big things this year. I know these guys are leaning on me. I worked extremely hard to get here.”
The vibe around the team is one of optimism as it relates to Cook, now that he’s healthy after separate injuries ruined his rookie year (torn ACL in Week 4) and severely affected his 2018 season (missed five games because of a hamstring injury).
Cook has shown flashes of his dynamic talent and the way he impacts a game as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. The Vikings believe he’s primed for a breakout, or breakthrough.
The running back position has been de-emphasized in this pass-happy era. Not here. The old-school Zimmer loves a running game like children love Christmas morning. Zimmer found a lump of coal under his tree last season, which didn’t go over so well.
Zimmer demanded a philosophical reboot after the Vikings finished 30th in rushing. The arrival of veteran coach Gary Kubiak to assist coordinator Kevin Stefanski resulted in a scheme that will rely heavily on zone running.
The prevailing thought is that a zone scheme accentuates Cook’s skill set. Stefanski believes that theory is too narrowly focused.
“I think anything fits Dalvin’s skill set, to be quite honest,” Stefanski said. “I really do believe there is no schematic limitations to Dalvin Cook.”
Zone running places a premium on patience, and allowing Cook to use his instincts and vision to find creases. Cook feels comfortable in that scheme because he starred in it at Florida State.
“That’s my background,” he said. “It’s giving me options to pick. Coaches know once I get options, my eyes will never steer me wrong. Put my foot in the ground and make a play. I was fortunate to be blessed with God-given speed. So whenever I see a hole, I just turn the burners on.”
An effective running game will take pressure off Cousins and set up play-action passes, which plays to Cousins’ strength. Beyond that, Cook is the kind of talent that demands extra attention when he’s in a groove. He becomes a focal point. Injuries are the only thing that have held him back.
Cook failed to reach 20 carries in any of his 11 games last season. His workload will expand now that he no longer shares the backfield with Latavius Murray, who signed with the Saints in free agency.
Stefanski lauded Cook on Monday by noting his leadership and work ethic. In talking to people around the team, there is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation — and hope — about Cook.
“That’s what they brought me into this team to do — come run the football and be me,” he said. “I’m not a real rah-rah vocal guy. Just do things by example. I’ve got a bunch of guys that are relying on me to make plays. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep my body right.”
If that happens, the offense will look strikingly different.