What should we expect after a career year? A year in which a player executes at the level the optimists thought they always could. Think Adrian Peterson rushing for over 2,000 yards after tearing his ACL, or Peyton Manning throwing for 5,400 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013.
Granted, very few players will ever have a career year that is also historic by NFL standards. That is the case for Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 TDs last season — both career highs. Things are looking positive across the board for Minnesota after they added key pieces to the defense and drafted offensive linemen Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis.
How does Cook stand to benefit from this? For starters, having a stout defense will save the offense from trying to get back into the game by throwing the ball, providing more touches for Cook as the game goes on. The Vikings’ defense ranked 27th in the league last year, but it should be meaningfully improved given that key players such as Michael Pierce and Danielle Hunter will be ready to go after injuries and COVID-19 kept them out last year.
The offense also got a facelift this offseason. By drafting Darrisaw and Davis, who will vie for starting jobs in camp, they have bolstered their O-line by bringing in players who can start or at least complement other members of the line in a rotational role. The offensive line was ranked 26th at season’s end by PFF but should be improved next season.
“The offensive line has been an issue for multiple years now in Minnesota,” wrote Ben Linsey at PFF, “and it remains one following a 2020 season where they graded out as the 28th-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL. Once again, it was the interior of the offensive line where most of the issues popped up.”
The front office has noticed a trend and has decided to overhaul the O-line, which should allow Cook to put up Derrick Henry-type numbers. Even with a poor offensive line, Cook finished second in yardage behind Henry, who became the eighth member of the 2,000-yard rushing club last year. Henry and Cook also have similar team scenarios; young receivers, newly acquired offensive linemen, and a less than stellar defense that continues to get better.
Cook could be headed for a feast-or-famine year. He could build upon his success from last year or take a step back because defenses have honed in on him. Cook also has yet to endure a full season since 2017 and frequently plays a lot of hard snaps in the Vikings’ run-first offense — one that puts a lot of pressure on him every week.
Cook is primed to establish himself as a workhorse, do-it-all kind of back who can catapult an offense. Another great season would put him in the upper echelon of running backs alongside players like Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, and Christian McCaffrey. Behind an improving offense courtesy of a retooled O-line, another year of Kirk Cousins, and the emergence of Justin Jefferson, Cook is a part of one of the better offensive cores in the NFL. Now he may become the centerpiece of it.
Given that Cook reached nearly 1,600 yards rushing with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, there looks to be room for continued improvement. If he stays healthy, he can maintain a spot among the top backs in the NFL.
Therefore, the Vikings should avoid creating a Todd Gurley scenario where they run him into the ground and wind up with a back in his mid-twenties who can no longer produce. They stand a good chance to have a healthy Dalvin Cook for years to come if they use him more in the passing game. Cook tallied 44 receptions, good for 14th among running backs, and would stand to take a jump in that respect as Cousins has more time in the pocket and can throw the ball to him more often.
The best backs in the NFL have slowly incorporated pass-catching into their overall abilities. Minnesota should create more consistency in the passing game with Cook, which would allow him to be a game-changer without always having to drudge for touch yardage that could end his career early. Currently, the best backs in the NFL are hybrid players. Think Christian McCaffrey catching 116 passes in addition to 278 rushes in 2019.
Dalvin Cook emerged as one of the best backs in the league last season. But he can become an elite player by getting involved in the passing game and capitalizing on a roster that continues to get better around him.