MINNEAPOLIS — Dalvin Cook was craving a sense of normalcy for so long. Rehabbing from constant injuries became his routine over the past two years, not football.
But going into his third NFL season, the burden was lifted. The running back entered Minnesota Vikings training camp the healthiest he’d been since his rookie season in 2017, coming off one of his most fulfilling offseasons.
The ACL he tore four games into his rookie year in 2017 followed by the hamstring injury last season in that same left leg were distant but important reminders of how far he had come after being limited to 15 games in his first two seasons.
How he felt at the end of July reminded Cook of his junior season at Florida State. He never had durability issues during his record-setting three years with the Seminoles despite two offseason surgeries on his right labrum in 2014 and again in 2016.
Cook recalls that third season at Florida State felt like “a clean slate.” He could participate in every workout, practice and game without restriction.
“This is what it actually feels like,” Cook said about the 2019 season.
Cook sees no limitations on what he can do going into his third season with the Vikings. No rehabilitation. No workload restraints. The freedom to be himself on the field and live up to the Vikings’ expectations is his only concern. And that’s a welcomed change of pace.
“It’s the year that I get to be me again,” Cook said. “I get to be Dalvin and go have fun and play football. That’s the key. Once I get back to being me and having fun out there on the field, everything’s going to fall in place.”
He looked like his old self in the Vikings’ third preseason game last Saturday. On his fifth and final snap, Cook broke free on an 85-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals.
“You would never know he had a knee injury or hamstring injury,” Minnesota running back Mike Boone said. “When he runs, he runs to score.”
Big-play moments like that are what feel normal for Cook. They feel routine because throughout much of his career, they were. And they will continue to be if he stays healthy.
Minnesota shuffled its offensive staff this offseason to create a scheme centered on achieving balance. They didn’t want to just bring out the best in quarterback Kirk Cousins, but also build an offense around Cook.
Gary Kubiak’s zone scheme, which offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will run in Minnesota, aligns with Cook’s strengths: unique vision, patience and acceleration into the second level to generate explosive plays.
His preseason TD run was a prime example. With the entire offensive line blocking in one direction, Cook used his vision to strike at the right moment, hitting a cutback lane to split his defenders and break free into the open field.
“It’s like riding a wave,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “It’s just his patience and vision. The biggest thing is his unique burst — once he sees it then he hits that crease, it’s gone.”
His coaches have called that element of his game a “God-given talent,” but Cook’s injuries forced him to work on that ability this offseason.
“Being away from the game for almost a year, it kind of sets you back on your timing, how you hit holes, how you see things,” Cook said. “My vision is never going to fall off, but the timing of everything is the key to playing running back and I felt like that was missing last year.”
The Vikings selected Cook in the second round of the 2017 draft as the heir apparent to Adrian Peterson because they knew he could be a three-down back. They want him to be the focal point of the offense, but finding ways to preserve him is critical.
Minnesota invested a third-round pick in rookie Alexander Mattison, a big-bodied bruiser to replace Latavius Murray, who left in free agency. The skillset of Mattison, who can bulldoze through contact, hold his own in pass protection and catch the ball, complements Cook’s game.
The Vikings also have Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah along with fullbacks CJ Ham and Khari Blasingame. The challenge will be trying to remain explosive in the run without having to rely on Cook all the time.
“When Dalvin steps out of the game or takes his break, we have to continue to go,” said Kubiak, who joined the staff this offseason as an assistant head coach and offensive adviser. “We can’t be, ‘OK, let’s survive until Dalvin gets back.’ We keep going forward.”
The NFL has seen a shift toward becoming a two-back league, and Minnesota is at the forefront of that trend.
The Vikings have run 40% of their plays this preseason (76 of 189 offensive plays) with at least two running backs on the field, the highest rate in the NFL. That has also yielded the highest output in yards per play (6.3).
The Vikings are not only finding ways to keep Cook fresh, they’re also developing an offensive identity they believe will keep them ahead of the rest of the league.
“Not very many people do it anymore,” coach Mike Zimmer said of utilizing formations with two running backs. “So you get an extra lead blocker to the point of attack a lot of times, but you can also spread it out if you’ve got athletes. … Typically you’re going to get their base defense out there a lot of times. It probably limits a little bit of the exotic pressures and different things like that.”
A prove-it year stands between Cook and a lucrative second contract. His future in Minnesota is at stake in 2019.
If it goes bad for Cook this season, the Vikings could opt to move on after the final year of his rookie contract in 2020 and look to Mattison or the draft for his replacement.
But Cook’s approach to Year 3 is about more than just setting himself up for a breakout campaign. His mindset is different. So is his focus.
The mental hurdles he overcame in feeling as if his body failed him at critical moments provide important hindsight. The painstaking process of getting back on the field, particularly with the nagging hamstring injury in 2018, taught him lessons about patience, trusting his own process and the maturity it takes to battle adversity.
“I wanted to rush things,” Cook said. “I wanted to be on the field, I wanted to be there every week, so I tried to go out there every week and it set me back. In the NFL it’s all about being available. If it’s one week, you’re sitting the whole week out and just not doing nothing. [And then] you come back the next week and give it a go, then that’s what you should do and don’t rush your body back.
“I feel like I was kind of trying to get out there too fast with my hamstring and it set me back a few weeks. Knowing what I know now, I probably would’ve approached it a differently.”
Playing all 16 games for the first time in his career is a goal for Cook this season. And many have taken notice of how Cook has prepared himself.
“Nobody works harder than him,” Stefanski said. “I think for our offense, Dalvin Cook is a leader. He’s out here working his tail off. In the meeting rooms he is outstanding, so certainly Dalvin’s definitely a leader and somebody that we are lucky we have and excited what he’s about to do.”
Cook, who just turned 24 on Aug. 10, is no longer the prized rookie. He’s now the seasoned veteran of his running back room. He has learned through his injuries how to handle the parts of the game that have brought him to a full stop. The keys to the offense are his. Now it’s time to go prove the Vikings right.
“My No. 1 goal is to get back to being me,” Cook said. “It’s in my locker — just get back to being Dalvin, get back to what you used to do, being the player that you were when you walked through the door. That’s just me. The confidence was always there. It’s just getting my body physically ready for a full season. I got it now. I’m just ready to play football.”