Chad Graff buried an interesting Dalvin Cook observation in his notes from organized team activities (OTA) on May 17. He tucked his snippet heard ’round the purple world behind:
- The Vikings have massive TVs for replays at practice.
- There are only three starting jobs up for grabs: right guard, cornerback, and safety.
- And the Vikings have new linebackers.
There, at No. 4, he offered a window into how Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell view Cook. “Another potential wrinkle for the Vikings offense could mean Dalvin Cook gets more involved in the passing game,” he wrote. “In multiple formations, Cook lined up in bunch wide receiver sets.”
KOC and KAM could have considered the sixth-year back out of Florida State superfluous. He’s entering the third year of the five-year, $63 million extension he signed before the 2020 season. Most modern front offices and coaching staffs eschew extending their star running backs. It’s a fungible position filled with players who often get injured and can be replaced by twentysomethings from the draft or off the street.
Furthermore, the NFL’s rules favor passing. Why extend the running back when you can pay for an elite receiver and a solid offensive line to protect your expensive quarterback?
Nobody would have been shocked if Adofo-Mensah had shopped Cook in the offseason. But we hardly heard a peep about a potential Cook trade. He’s as much part of Kirk Cousins‘ arsenal as Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Why? Because the Vikings are lining him up in bunch receiver sets. “That could be something the new staff is tinkering with in May,” wrote Graff, “or it could be something they plan on unveiling in a bigger fashion come Week 1.”
Cook demurred when the media asked him about it.
“I don’t want to just sit up here and tell y’all everything,” Cook said. “We’ve got Green Bay Week 1, so we’re gonna wait and see.”
Perhaps Cook’s alignment in OTA’s isn’t news. That doesn’t really matter. The bigger-picture takeaway is that Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell view the roster they inherited from a new perspective. They took over the Vikings knowing it was the best job available and doubled-down on most of the roster. Anthony Barr hasn’t re-signed, but they extended Cousins, Thielen, and Danielle Hunter.
Cook is a dynamic player, but he was used as a ground-and-pound traditional running back in Mike Zimmer’s scheme. Zimmer unapologetically fed him the ball, despite Cook’s injury history. The Vikings ran screens, and Cousins wasn’t afraid to check down to Cook, but they didn’t spread him out wide. Unlike Adrian Peterson, Cook can catch the ball and make a play, but Minnesota functionally used him as Peterson’s heir apparent.
The Vikings had little cap room when Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell inherited them, and their commitment to the current roster further tightens the squeeze. Moving Cook would have been an obvious way to create some breathing room. Allowing Cook to take up that much cap space made little sense if they were going to use him as a traditional back. But if he’s a “weapon” in the offense, he may be worth the hit.
Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell could have alleviated some scrutiny by overhauling the roster. There is something cathartic for fans about dismantling an underperforming team, especially after an 8-9 season like last year. KAM and KOC could have pushed the merits of a three-year rebuild to buy themselves a little time. Instead, they bet on themselves. They could get more out of the Vikings’ roster. They could supplement it without having to tank for better draft picks.
Naturally, we have focused on how O’Connell will maximize Cousins. Although Cousins is an enigma, O’Connell coached him briefly in Washington before taking the Los Angeles Rams job. He knows Cousins is accurate and progresses methodically through his reads. He’s also probably aware of Cousins’ hesitancy to throw deep or into traffic.
There’s nothing wrong with fixating on the quarterback. It’s the most important position on the field. Jefferson and Thielen will benefit from playing in a more modern, pass-centric offense. The defense will probably get more rest if Cousins isn’t checking down and going three-and-out. But we can’t forget about Cook. He’s an expensive, explosive athlete who Zimmer probably underutilized.
While Zimmer favored the run game because he believed it controlled the clock and kept his defense off the field, his coaching staff probably didn’t maximize Cook. Using Cook purely as a blunt weapon to pulverize a defense isn’t going to get the most out of him. It’s like trying to run a modern computer program on Windows 95. You’ll probably see something on your screen and get some functionality out of it. But, man, try running that software on a computer built in this century.
Cook wouldn’t still be in Minnesota if O’Connell was going to use him the same way the old regime did. The new Vikings offense should push the ball downfield more and try to maximize Jefferson in his prime. Cook isn’t the only player the new regime will ask to fit into a new mold. Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Hunter will have to get used to Ed Donatell’s defense. Jefferson and Thielen will have to carry more of the burden offensively, and Cousins will have to throw the ball down the field. But Cook could be a major beneficiary. He’d probably rather be seen as an offensive weapon than a traditional running back. Now he can be.