The big question with Dalvin Cook isn’t if he’ll be an impact player for the Minnesota Vikings this year, it’s if he can finish the season without landing on the injured list.
No matter how many times you tell yourself that the Vikings just need to taper his carries or speculate what Alexander Mattison could do if he were the primary back, we all know that Cook wants the ball, and he’s going to get it. Kene Nwangwu may be so fast that Cook won’t challenge him to a race, but there’s no world in which he’s splitting carries with the fleet-footed rookie.
“I’m going to be ready to play whenever he calls my number,” Cook said, referring to Mike Zimmer. “I’m in shape to carry the football, so whenever he calls my number, we’re going to be ready.”
Cook is energized by activity. He’s not one to sit around and wait for something to happen; he embraces the game’s physicality and chases the rush of breaking through the line and into the secondary. There’s no low gear for him, no desire for load management.
But maybe there should be. Cook has appeared in 4, 11, 14, and 14 games, respectively, in his career, and the NFL added an extra game this season. In a year with a lot at stake and little margin for error, the Vikings cannot afford to run him into the ground. So what’s the solution here? How do they keep Cook healthy for all 17 weeks?
Throw the damn ball!
Gone is Gary Kubiak, a disciple of a scheme that cleverly disguises whether a play is a run or a pass. Every formation looks the same. The quarterback takes virtually the same route from the center into the backfield. There’s a lot of play-action. It’s genius.
The problem? It’s not exactly a modern offense.
The Vikings ran the most two-receiver sets of any team in football last year. Yes, they had tight end/wide receiver hybrid Irv Smith Jr. on the roster last year, and no, there wasn’t really a viable third receiver who suited up on Sundays. But now they have options.
They grabbed Dede Westbrook late in free agency. K.J. Osborn has shown out in training camp. Coaches ranging from Zimmer to new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak have praised Ihmir Smith-Marsette as more than a speedy returner. Someone has to emerge as a bona fide WR3. And this should probably go without saying, but the Vikings should probably use him.
The hope here is that Klint Kubiak, 34, uses a modified version of his father’s offense that, you know, implements the forward pass every once in a while. Odds are that he will, given that the Vikings brought in Westbrook, kept Osborn around after a tough year on special teams, and used a fifth-rounder on Smith-Marsette.
This shouldn’t be crushing news if you’ve got Cook on your fantasy team. Unlike Adrian Peterson, who regularly barrelled through defensive lines but couldn’t catch a screen pass, Cook is an effective player in the passing game. Is he a first option? No, so long as Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are on the team. But the Vikings aren’t excluding him if they pass more this year.
And, man, if I’m Cook, I’m begging the team to throw more. Get him the ball in the open field. Don’t keep running him into 300 lb men built to drive him into the turf. Give the guy an opportunity to stay on the field for an entire season.
By no means are the Vikings treating Cook poorly by handing him the ball repeatedly every week. They’ve signed him to an extension and praise him at every turn. “He’s our leader,” Kubiak said recently, “I can’t say enough good things about him.” Hell, he wants the ball in his hands as often as possible.
But I gotta imagine he wants to be healthy throughout the year, too. And for that to happen, the Vikings have to limit his carries. They’re not going to start using Mattison or Nwangwu more. They’re not running Kirk Cousins on a quarterback draw. They’ve got to pass the ball to reduce the wear and tear on their franchise running back. It’s what’s best for Cook and what’s best for their offense in the modern NFL.