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Dalvin Cook is the First Round's Missing Man - Footballguys

A tour through the 2018 fantasy outlook for Vikings running back Dalvin Cook

An Elite No. 1 Falling Out of the First Round

In 2018 fantasy drafts, a clear second tier of running backs has emerged. Over the back halves of virtually every first round, the same names will come off the board in any typical draft, in some order: Saquon Barkley, Melvin Gordon III, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette. And to that end, it looks odd to see Dalvin Cook consistently falling behind the pack. He rarely finds his way into first rounds, but projects to the same ball-dominant, workhorse role as the names above. He's clearly been given the keys to the Minnesota backfield – a team Vegas currently projects to 10 wins – and if his shortened rookie season was any indication, he's up to the challenge. Boasting a blend of sharp eyes, quick feet, and soft hands out of the backfield, Cook was among the NFL's more efficient producers before falling to an ACL tear in Week 4. He dominated the Minnesota backfield from the opening gun, and he produced diverse numbers in a variety of circumstances.

Early drafters seem concerned about the injury's long-term ramifications, and knee surgeries are always cause for alarm. But with his recovery looking on-track, there's not enough worry in the world to distract from his outlook as an upper-tier RB1 selection. Cook offers enough of a resume to expect efficiency – and he plays in an offense that gives drafters reason to expect success.


A Bell Cow Kind of Mentality

Prior to his injury, Cook was given the opportunity (carry or target) on a stout 53% of his snaps – in fact, on 35% of Vikings snaps altogether. Here's a rundown of Cook's rookie workload, stacked against those of 2017's busiest full-season backs, in terms of opportunities per snap:

Player
Games
Snaps
TmSnaps
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
RecYards
RecTDs
Opp/Snaps
Opp/TmSn
13
564
913
268
1040
9
48
36
302
1
56.0%
34.6%
16
555
1030
261
961
3
38
29
245
1
53.9%
29.0%
16
578
990
276
1122
9
32
23
125
0
53.3%
31.1%
4
169
260
74
354
2
16
11
90
0
53.3%
34.6%
16
722
1067
287
1138
6
77
59
448
2
50.4%
34.1%
16
665
966
272
1327
8
63
53
455
3
50.4%
34.7%
16
750
1067
284
1105
8
83
58
476
4
48.9%
34.4%
10
591
694
242
983
7
38
26
269
2
47.4%
40.3%
15
796
976
279
1305
13
87
64
788
6
46.0%
37.5%
15
945
1049
321
1291
9
106
85
655
2
45.2%
40.7%
16
786
1104
240
938
8
88
59
350
0
41.7%
29.7%

That's awfully impressive company to be in – and strong placements for Cook in those workhorse categories. Only Bell, Elliott, Gurley, and Hunt took the ball on a higher rate of team snaps – and when actually on the field, Cook saw more opportunity share than any of them.

And it's hard to imagine that changing much this year. Jerick McKinnon has left town, streamlining the Vikings' backfield bench but leaving few reinforcements in place. Behind him are likely to be Latavius Murray, practice-squad body Mack Brown, and undrafted rookie Roc Thomas, and this is not an offense that looks to mix and match its backs. Last season, the team's weekly No. 3 running back (Murray early on, then Brown after Cook went down) played just 17 snaps over 16 games, taking on all of 7 rushes and no targets.

So, then, the primary task in sorting out Cook's 2018 load is determining just how much work will be siphoned off for Murray. Considering the duties heaped upon Cook early on, it won't be much. For what it's worth, Minnesota backups as a whole were given just 27 opportunities over Cook's 3.5 games in the lead role. And Murray doesn't look poised to expand much upon that. He was effective in spurts after Cook's injury, but has averaged just 3.98 yards per rush over his last 3 seasons, and is entering his age-28 campaign. Murray is the clear-cut change-of-pace guy here; it would be an upset to see Cook given less than 63-65% of backfield touches altogether.

what to expect when you're projecting

Cook didn't need quite that enormous workload to be a startable fantasy running back week after week. But he took it and ran with it, posting top-level production (101.1 ground yards and 3.1 receptions a game) right out of the gate. He topped 14 fantasy points in point-per-reception formats in 3 of his 4 appearances, thanks to efficient running and taking on hefty red zone work – 15.3% of his touches came from inside the 20. All told, Cook produced 0.40 PPR points per snap over his shortened debut. And like his workload, his efficiency landed right near the top of that very impressive spectrum:

Player
Games
Snaps
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
RecYards
RecTDs
PPR/Games
PPR/Snap
13
564
268
1040
9
48
36
302
1
17.71
0.41
16
555
261
961
3
38
29
245
1
10.85
0.31
16
578
276
1122
9
32
23
125
0
12.61
0.35
4
169
74
354
2
16
11
90
0
16.85
0.40
16
722
287
1138
6
77
59
448
2
16.60
0.37
16
665
272
1327
8
63
53
455
3
18.58
0.45
16
750
284
1105
8
83
58
476
4
18.10
0.38
10
591
242
983
7
38
26
269
2
20.52
0.35
15
796
279
1305
13
87
64
788
6
25.82
0.49
15
945
321
1291
9
106
85
655
2
23.04
0.37
16
786
240
938
8
88
59
350
0
14.74
0.30

Going forward, Cook's prospects may be even stronger. Kirk Cousins' value addition to the offense is still an unknown, but he projects well in Minnesota. He's a demonstrable deep-ball artist who should click immediately with the Vikings' weapons and keep the field open. Any success would be a step forward from 2017: Case Keenum was impressive as a fill-in starter but struggled mightily down the field. In his annual Deep Ball Project, Jonathan Kinsley graded Keenum dead-last leaguewide, detailing his often misplaced and off-balance downfield throws. Assuming Cousins carries over his prowess from Washington, the Minnesota pass game should eventually maximize – and Cook should see less defensive attention in the box. Between that and the Vikings' stout run-blocking line, last year's 4.78 yards per rush might not have been some inflated pseudo-stat.

Furthermore, Cook should find himself on the goal line plenty. Last year's Vikings totaled 40 rushes from inside the 10-yard line, 6th-most in football, and they leaned extensively on Cook in short yardage. Over his 3.5 healthy games, he was given the ball on 5 of their 8 runs from inside the 10 – and on 6 of their 9 runs needing 2 yards or less. Murray carries a solid goal line resume, and he looms a bit over this role, but based on last year's small sample he probably shouldn't.

Whirlpool Talk

Clearly, then, the only factor keeping fantasy drafters from pulling the trigger earlier on Cook is the injury. There are indeed still discouraging numbers out there regarding ACL recoveries, but they don't paint quite the whole picture alone. Those statistics include fringe players and practice squad fodder, guys who were unlikely to ever see an NFL field anyway. Few remember the torn ACLs of recent superstars who played full, productive seasons upon returning. Jamaal Charles suffered one in 2011, then racked up 1,745 scrimmage yards over 320 touches in 2012. Todd Gurley tore his at Georgia in late 2014 but managed to rack up 4.83 yards per rush as a featured back in 2015. Keenan Allen's 2016 tear was quickly forgotten once he caught 102 passes over a full 2017.

For the most part, this recovery is an issue of timing. As long as we can afford the player 8-9 months to recover from surgery and another 1-2 to condition himself into game shape. The fact that Cook went down in Week 4 of last year – and had surgery on it within days – bodes well for his 2018 outlook.

Beyond that, the strongest early indicators of recovery remain offseason activity and conditioning. When is the guy getting back onto the practice field? Is the team saying all the right things to the media, but bringing him along slowly and cautiously? Does he show up overweight or sluggish when he ultimately reports? Did the front office add contingency runners in the draft and/or free agency?

So far, Cook has aced all of these tests. He leaped right into team drills in early June OTAs, barely eight months removed from surgery, which is a little ahead of the typical target. New coordinator John DeFilippo immediately installed him in base sets, including a few reps at wideout – there's clearly not much concern about his fluidity and explosiveness. And, as discussed above, it doesn't appear the Vikings are in a hurry to put in reinforcements. Murray makes for a solid insurance policy, but he's markedly below Cook's skill level, and the team spent no real capital adding backs this offseason. A front office hedging its bets on Cook's injury would have invested cheaply in a name like Doug Martin, Frank Gore, or even Mike Davis. Aside from adding practice-squadder Mack Brown for $630,000, Minnesota stood pat.

Certainly, the Vikings will be cautious with their franchise runner this preseason. He'll have his contact limited throughout the early parts of training camp, and he may not see the field at all during games. But that's likely to be precautionary: every early indication of Cook's recovery has been glowingly positive. Given the volatile job of all of the NFL's workhorse runners, he doesn't seem to present any more real concern than most of his ADP-mates.

Final Thoughts

Simply put: presuming his knee is sound, if this isn't definitively Cook's backfield, then the Vikings were merely joking early last year. Few backs were given his level of opportunity, and few produced on his level. It's hard to go wrong with any of the impressive crop of running backs around the Round 1/2 turn, but Cook has a place in there and boasts every bit the ceiling of a guy like Saquon Barkley or Leonard Fournette. Drafters too risk-averse to stomach his ACL recovery may talk themselves into lower-upside options, but there's little reason to doubt Cook's floor. Pending camp and preseason reports, he's just as a sound a pick late in Round 1 than any of the names above.

2018 staff Projections

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
PPR FanPts
RB Rank
David Dodds
15
258
1153
8.1
41
332
2.0
250.1
RB8
Bob Henry
15
280
1275
9.0
41
350
2.0
269.5
RB9
Jason Wood
16
255
1200
8.0
46
380
2.0
264.0
RB8
Maurile Tremblay
16
291
1209
8.0
50
390
1.4
266.4
RB8
Justin Howe
15
266
1222
8.0
39
322
1.2
244.9
RB8

Other Viewpoints

The Footballguys Shark Pool community is mostly giddy over Cook's outlook:

A workhorse back with better between-the-tackles vision than Gordon. He's fantastic at setting up blocks. He's a better pass catcher than Fournette. In my rankings, it goes Gurley, Bell, David Johnson, Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Hunt. then Cook. And the last two I think are closer than people might expect... I am not too worried about the ACL. I think it's about a 9-month recovery for most, and he got his operation on October 9th last year. He's going at the first round turn (12ish) and makes that turn awesome. Especially when you consider the available options that you can pair with him. It's going to be a great year for the people on Dalvin Cook bus. - member Borden

His situation is better than last year even. McKinnon is gone, and Murray is not going to take over any game situations, likely used to give him a breather. As long as Cook recovers well and stays healthy, he should have a lot of touches in both the run and pass games. 288 carries; 1238 yards, 8 TDs; 48 receptions, 398 yards, 2 TDs - member TripItUp

I have such a man-crush on this kid. I was devastated when he got hurt last year. I really want to draft him again; I'm holding the eighth pick and plan on taking an elite receiver in the first and praying he'll be there after the turn. I know the value of another RB will be similar to Cook at that spot (Gordon or Devonta Freeman), but I would much rather have Cook. I see them using him as the workhorse, but monitoring his carries just enough to be on the safe side, which I'm OK with. McKinnon is gone and Murray isn't going to steal any more carries than enough to give Cook a breather. - member Elevencents

Though a few voices are preaching caution:

I think he's rightfully going after Hunt, Barkley, Fournette, and Gordon. None of them are coming off ACL tears, and none of them are on teams with a backup RB anywhere near as proven as Murray. I think the Vikings will utilize Murray quite a bit more than they did prior to Cook's injury last year, both because of Cook's injury, and because he's useful, especially at the goal line. I love Cook long term, but this is a year I'm highly unlikely to own him. He's a high-end RB2 to me. - member travdogg

My main concern is how much Cook could be limited because of his injury. You hear how athletes are going back earlier from ACL surgery these days, so 10 months after surgery is actually "late." But this is a false narrative. No advances in medicine, outside of steroids, antler spray, or whatever can make you heal faster. To this day, 12 to 18 months is the gold standard as it was 10 years ago. That aside, as I said above, I'm more worried about how much strength, speed, etc. he loses having to recover from surgery. I have no doubt he will have a great career; I'm just not so sure it'll be a great 2018. or a great first half of 2018. - member Dr. Dan