Falcons and Vikings Weighing Overuse vs. Production From Their Now-Healthy Running Backs

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Dalvin Cook and Devonta Freeman go way back.

Before they were electrifying NFL playmakers. Before they were competing for college football titles.

As a ninth-grader, Cook looked up at the varsity depth chart at Miami Central High School and saw Freeman, a four-star recruit destined to play in the ACC at Florida State. The Miami Central star ended his high school career with a 2,240-yard senior season before passing the baton to Cook.

Then Cook began his own meteoric rise, mirroring — and in many ways, one-upping — Freeman. Cook earned five-star recruit status while running for over 4,000 yards at Miami Central. He notched three 1,000-yard seasons with the Seminoles — Freeman had just one — and got drafted in the second round by the Vikings in 2017, two rounds earlier than Freeman, who the Falcons took in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.

Now the two are set to oppose each other for the first time. When their teams last met in 2017, Cook was sidelined with an ACL tear.

“I pretty much stay on the trail of Devonta Freeman,” Cook said during training camp. “We went to the same high school, same college. I pretty much stayed on his trail. I was always hungry for what I wanted, but seeing him and seeing situations that he came from, and I was in similar situation growing up — seeing him do it and get to the NFL and strive how he’s striving, I’ve seen it was possible.”

Cook, 24, is at virtually the same career stage as the 27-year-old Freeman — both are feature backs in their physical primes.

And both are trying to bounce back from injury-plagued seasons.

Photo Credit: Dale Zanine (USA Today Sports)

Road to recovery

A year after his ACL injury, Cook recovered quickly, but he wasn’t able to stay on the field as a nagging hamstring injury took him out of five games and limited him in several others. Cook only got more than 10 carries in five games and never more than 19. He’s shown his explosiveness when healthy, however, including this past preseason, where he got two carries and took one of them 85 yards for a touchdown.

Freeman missed nearly the entire 2018 season with a groin injury that kept him to just 14 carries over two games. After averaging exactly 1,000 yards per season from 2015-17, Freeman is looking to reclaim his spot as the Falcons No. 1 back.

“I think both Devonta and Dalvin, those guys are multipliers,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “The energy they bring, the toughness they bring, and it’s not just in the run game. It’s catching passes out of the backfield or when they align out in an empty formation. When you have that kind of energy and toughness and play-making ability and then it’s not available to you, you try to do it in shifts or in waves or try to feature, ‘OK, this back’s really good at catching, this one might be better running.’

“When you have guys like them that are true dual threats, that’s hard to replace, but the energy, I think, that both players bring to their teams is something that might not show up on the stat sheet.”

Freeman was a workhorse in his three best seasons, averaging 19 touches per game from 2015-17, but Atlanta kept an unprecedented six running backs this year to give themselves depth behind Freeman. Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Kenjon Barner will also contend for snaps.

The Vikings also kept a healthy stable of five running backs to take some pressure off Cook.

As a rookie, Cook accepted huge workloads before suffering the knee injury that ended his season midway through the fourth game. In two of his first three contests, Cook got 25 and 32 touches, respectively, averaging 153 all-purpose yards in those games, but the Vikings quickly put Cook on a pitch count in 2018 as he tried working back from his hamstring injury. Now that he’s healthy once again, Minnesota has to decide whether to test Cook with big workloads again or preventatively give him breathers.

“It’s a Catch 22 a little bit,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “because you want him out there all the time, but I like [Alexander] Mattison and [Ameer] Abdullah and [Mike] Boone, those guys. We’ve got a good group of running backs here that can kind of give him some spells in there, and we’ll try to be smart about it. Chances are, if it’s the end of the game, Cook’s going to be out there.”

Photo Credit: Stew Milne (USA Today Sports)

Minnesota relies heavily on running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu to help determine the running back rotation from the sideline. Minnesota drafted Mattison in the third round to be Cook’s backup, while Abdullah and Boone both showed explosive capability as change-of-pace backs in the preseason.

“I think we’re mindful of all of our players and the usage at every position,” said Stefanski. “That’s certainly something that I’ll work with Kennedy Polamalu to have a plan as we go into this game and future games, not just for Dalvin. It’s really all of our players. We want to be cognizant of their usage.

“I trust [Polamalu] implicitly. He’s got a great feel for those guys, for when they need a breather and when they don’t and when to ride them. He’s on top of it, and I think he does a great job.”

Letting him loose

Zimmer has been cautious with Cook in the past two preseasons, giving him just two carries each year in the third preseason game. But while the head coach wants to remain smart in the regular season, he doesn’t want to let Cook’s injury history influence his usage too much. The kid gloves have to come off.

“I don’t worry about it,” he said. “Anybody can get a knee or a hamstring. I don’t worry about all that. We just go out there and we play football. We understand the problems about if somebody gets hurt, they get hurt. That’s just life.”

Assuming they get out of Sunday’s game healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cook and Freeman meet after the final whistle and exchange jerseys, a gesture of respect that has become commonplace in the NFL. It would be the culmination of a long road the two have shared, and possibly the start of a new chapter as both get back to health.

“He’s a kid that, as you all know, works really hard and has worked his tail off to get back from injury so now he’s feeling healthy,” said Stefanski. “He’s raring to go.”

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