It was a typical divisional matchup in Minnesota as the Vikings took on the Detroit Lions in an early October game. Then, on a run to the left side, the Vikings offensive line had open a hole for their rookie running back, Dalvin Cook, who had been phenomenal up to that point. As he tried to cut, his knee gave out on him. It was the dreaded non-contact knee injury that had occurred to Cook.
He had torn his ACL, and just like that, a bright, promising rookie season was ended early due to the injury bug. Cook would miss the rest of the season and return at the beginning of the 2018 season, but it was clear that Cook was not fully back to what he was before. Besides, missing five games with a strained hamstring never did help matters.
However, it seems that second year back from ACL surgery was always the big year for running backs to return to form. Now, it was Cook’s chance to prove he was one of the top backs in the NFL, just like he had looked to be in his rookie season.
And thus far on the season, Cook has looked like a top ten running back in the NFL. To see why, join me in the PFN Film Room as I detail the emergence of Cook as one of the top running backs in the NFL today.
One of the biggest concerns when returning from an ACL tear is that a running back’s athleticism may have been permanently sapped from him. Any significant injuries to the knee for a running back can cause some of their previous speed and burst to disappear. However, the good news for Cook is that he has not lost a beat based on what he has shown off thus far.
If you want to run a sweep for your running back, you better make sure he has the speed, and short-area burst to turn the corner and turn solid blocking into a substantial gain, and Cook shows that off in spades. The offensive line at least gets in front of this Raiders front enough to allow Cook to hit the throttle and fly around the corner. This is not a great example of vision or anything of the like, but one of the pivotal traits an NFL running back can have in short area burst. Cook’s ability to beat all the pursuit to the perimeter shows he has a ton of that.
Dynamic Ability in the Open Field
Dalvin Cook has a new offensive line that was completely revamped this offseason, and that move is working out in spades for Minnesota as they look like a new team up front this year. However, even with the open lanes that Cook is presented with on many occasions, his effectiveness stems from improvising in the open field. By doing so, he creates a ton of yards himself.
This entire play is read through the linebackers, specifically, number 55 and 59, as they dictate the potential lanes, Cook can have, either to the play side or simply cutting this back. Cook reads the linebacker coming down and filling in the play side A gap and then cuts it back with an open lane as long as he can bait the backside linebacker into the blockers.
His quick jump cut not only showcases excellent lateral agility, but he takes just enough steps to get the linebacker to over-commit, and that allows him to accelerate into a wide-open hole at that point. That is not even getting into how his burst and acceleration completely mess up Erik Harris’s pursuit angle and gets him eight more yards. This is a run top-flight running backs make.
This is all footwork and lateral agility. You cannot make sharp, fluid cuts like this without having elite lateral quickness and Cook has that in spades. These are not bad angles taken by the defense – it is merely Cook’s ability to cut on a dime and affect angles even if they are solid angles that make him so tough to stop.
The Receiving Game
One part that every elite running back must excel in is the receiving game. Being an elite pure runner is a great thing to have, but in the modern NFL, running backs are more and more involved in the passing attack. Cook has the traits to be a very good receiving back.
It’s a pure screen play, but running backs have to not only sell the screen as well as they can but make this a seamless transition and work into the open field quickly with their blockers. Cook does a great job of stepping up to sell this as a typical pass protection scheme. He catches it seamlessly away from his body, turns upfield, and accelerates right into the open field. It is making the routine look easy, and that is precisely what Cook does.
This one is not an easy catch given the throw, but Cook does an excellent job of high pointing this ball and extending away from his frame to haul this in. It shows soft hands and the ability to do more than just routine catches in the passing game. The elusiveness and slipperiness of Cook is fantastic. Not many guys can effortlessly break a tackle and still have the body control to tiptoe down the sideline and get another ten yards. Again, it is the little things with Cook that makes him one of the best running backs in the NFL through three weeks.
It’s been a tumultuous and up and down journey for Cook. However, he is looking more and more like a top-flight running back, and he is diversifying this Vikings offense that is already star-studded at other skill positions. Cook is simply emerging into a full-blown star.
Nick Farabaugh is a writer for Pro Football Network’s Film Room. Follow him on Twitter @FarabaughFB.