MANKATO, Minn. — You don’t need to be Ron Wolf to see what’s happening. On one play, Dalvin Cook gets skinny inside the hole and makes three defenders miss without covering more than five yards. On another, he’s split left, and his speed commands enough respect from the defense to clear out space underneath for everyone else.
And so you have color to what you’ll hear plenty around here: That job Latavius Murray signed up for in March? It’s already gone.
It’s early, but the Vikings aren’t being bashful. Cook is for real.
“The first thing the veteran players I’ve talked to about him say is, ‘This guy gets it.’” coach Mike Zimmer explained during a quiet moment after Sunday’s practice. “He understands protections, he works hard, they see how he interacts in the locker room, and that’s part of it. And then, when you have a special player—like when we got [linebacker Anthony] Barr—they say, ‘Hey, man, this guy is different than other guys.’
“That’s kinda how he is. They see him out there on the field with the other guys, and it’s like, ‘There’s something different about this guy, the way he runs, accelerates, the creases he can get to.’ He’s got a tough mentality. Players can see exceptional athletes. When they go out there and they’re going against guys, they can see: This guy is pretty good.”
So was the guy he’s replacing. The Vikings’ final of 52 training camps in Mankato isn’t lacking for storylines. The unusual quarterback situation—Sam Bradford is starting, former first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater is rehabbing, and both are in contract years—is a sexy one. The fate of the overhauled offensive line is, in reality, the important one.
But the most historically significant storyline has to be how the team will replace franchise icon Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 11,747 yards, made seven All-Pro teams and won a league MVP over his decade as a Viking. Cook, on the roster for just three months, now looks poised to step into that massive void.
Is he ready for it? It’s an open question, and one plenty of NFL people would waver on given the reasons he was available on the second day of April’s draft.
When Vikings GM Rick Spielman woke up the morning of the draft’s second day, he wasn’t totally sure about Cook, either. The team had dealt its first-round pick to Philly in the Bradford trade, meaning its initial selection was 48th overall. For his part, Spielman was sufficiently stunned by Cook’s availability, knowing that, as a player, he’d fit as Peterson’s heir.
But he also knew why Cook was still available. Concerns were widespread over a string of incidents early in Cook’s time at Florida State, as well as the crowd from his native Miami that he ran with. So Spielman called the 21-year-old, who was at the mall with his family when an unidentified Minnesota number popped up on his cell. It was almost an hour before the two were done.
“To be honest, I didn’t know that was even going to be an option,” Spielman said. “I spoke to him and two other guys I didn’t know would fall out of the first round. And talking to him for that 45 minutes or hour, I felt very confident that he was the right kid, the one we wanted. … And we were going to be very aggressive. To get that type of talent on Friday, we were going to do everything we possibly could.”
So what convinced Spielman? The first thing was that everything Cook told the Vikings, in particular running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, in February matched up with what he was telling the GM that morning from the mall. That’s why Speilman, as he puts it, “felt very strongly we weren’t getting BS’d.”
The second thing was a simple promise: Cook would come to Minnesota alone.
“Baggage can be a distraction,” said Cook, in explaining his plan. “Coming to the next level, you’re getting paid top dollar. And they want you to be focused coming in, they want you zeroed in on the playbook. Football’s what you’re coming in for. That was very important to him.”
Spielman and Zimmer also knew that the structure Cook would have around him was rock solid. The Vikings’ cyclone of a 2016 season—from Bridgewater’s freak injury to the offensive coordinator change to the offensive line’s rash of injuries—gave them proof of the team’s makeup. Also helpful: the distance. Minneapolis is 1,800 miles from Miami.
“A lot of the people we talked to felt like, maybe, if he stayed in Miami, that might be a problem,” Zimmer said. “But coming up here, and we talked about who’s coming with him, what his plan for the season was, we were comfortable.”
It cost the Vikings a fourth-round pick to move up seven spots, from 48 to 41, to get Cook. If what the staff has seen early on sticks, that price will be more than reasonable.
It’s early, of course, and not that difficult to be on your best behavior for a few months while you’re fighting for a job. Being the guy would change circumstances around him, and there’s a long history of stars having old issues resurface.
But the Vikings point to the unassuming way Cook is handling the prospect of filling those outsized shoes. Then, they’ll tell you that easiness about replacing Peterson reflects the overall way he’s carried himself since draft day.
“I told myself, If I win the job, fans are going to be chanting my name,” Cook said. “So I’m just gonna come in and I’m gonna do my part. I can’t have that in my head. I have to put that to the side and just go out and play football, win my teammates over and go out there and have fun. If you’re trying to live up to that, that’s hard to do right away. So you just have to come in and have fun, and let that play itself out.”
And eventually? “Eventually,” he smiles, “yeah, that’s a long-term goal.”
That’s a high bar, and there’s a long way to go. But everyone here agrees, what they’re watching is undeniable.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career,” Spielman says. “From Detroit, when I was starting out, watching Barry Sanders; to Miami, when we traded for Ricky Williams and he was rolling for 1,700, 1,800 yards a year; to Adrian, when we drafted him here. Dalvin Cook, I don’t know where he’s gonna be, if he’ll get to that level, but he has shown traits, a unique skill set, from what we’ve seen so far.”
That’s heady company, and a lot to put on a rookie. But that might be the best sign of all: It’s clear the Vikings think he can handle it.
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