Vikings

The Tale of Two Dalvins

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

There are only two players named Dalvin in the NFL and both of them play for the Minnesota Vikings. Dalvin Cook and Dalvin Tomlinson will each serve an important role for the team, but they are exactly opposites. Yet despite playing on different sides of the ball, both players will be focused on the run game, albeit with different objectives.

Dalvin Cook is one of the most electrifying and productive running backs in the league. Last year he averaged 111.2 rushing yards per game, which is second-most in the NFL, trailing only Derrick Henry. What makes Cook unique from other Vikings RBs is his ability to do several different things at a high level. He has enough speed to blow past defenders on outside runs, he has fantastic balance and elusiveness that allows him to stay on his feet and turn would-be tackles into glancing blows, he displays good vision pre-snap and post-snap so he makes the right decisions on where to run more often than not, and he’s shown to be a capable receiver out of the backfield. Dalvin Cook is so talented that the Vikings have centered their entire offense around him, but it goes deeper than that.

In today’s NFL, many teams are shifting towards pass-heavy air-raid offenses. The belief among coaches like Kliff Kingsbury is that if you pass the ball the majority of the time, defenses will respond by using more nickel formations, which creates a mismatch with one fewer linebacker on the field when the offense decides to run the ball. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the running back breaks free for a big gain. The trade-off here is when a team passes the ball a lot like the Cardinals do, opposing defenses are expecting it to happen, so your passing yards per attempt can go down. Last year Kyler Murray ranked 22nd in the league in yards gained per passing attempt despite being one of the best young QBs in the NFL.

Since Minnesota has an offense built around Dalvin Cook, teams expect them to run the ball and put three linebackers on the field more frequently. So when the Vikings do decide to pass the ball, the team ends up having a passing offense that is far more efficient. Last season, Kirk Cousins ranked second in the entire league in yards per attempt, one spot ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Having Cook in the backfield is a major part of why Cousins has had success in this area. Oh, and here’s the kicker: Even when defenses expect he’ll get the ball, Dalvin Cook still averaged five yards per carry, which tied for seventh-highest in the NFL last year.

Another benefit of running the football often is ball control and time of possession. This is pretty self-explanatory, but if your offense can’t stay on the field and turns the ball over frequently, you’re gonna have a bad time. Case in point, the top-three teams in time of possession last year were the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and Baltimore Ravens. All three of those teams made the postseason. Additionally, eight out of the 10 teams that had the lowest turnover differential missed the playoffs, with the Chicago Bears and Washington being the only exceptions.

Whereas Dalvin Cook is focused on running the ball, Dalvin Tomlinson will be tasked with stopping the opposing team’s run game.

Tomlinson was the first of many free-agent signings that were intended to help repair the defense. It doesn’t take a keen eye to see what the Vikings are getting in him. He’s 6’3”, 320 lbs. and has been a positive run defender during his four-year career with the New York Giants, boasting an average PFF run-defense grade of 78.08. Compare that to former Giants and Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph, who only had an average PFF run-defense grade of 64.6 during his four-year stint in New York and you can see just how much more effective Tomlinson is against the run at this stage of his career.

Not only is Dalvin Tomlinson great against the run, but he is also starting to show promise as a pass rusher. In his most recent season with the Giants, he had a career-high PFF pass-rushing grade at 74.6, which is a major improvement from his first three years in the league. With an even bigger interior defensive lineman in Michael Pierce taking on double teams and Danielle Hunter there is no reason to believe that Tomlinson can’t replicate or improve upon his success as a pass rusher heading into this season.

Tomlinson is one of the biggest X-factors on the entire team. His performance will greatly impact the effectiveness of both the offense and defense. The better he does his job of stopping the opposing team’s run game, the quicker it’ll be for the defense to get off the field to rest. Additionally, the offense will get on the field again faster, which gives them another opportunity to score, or at the very least keeps the ball out of the hands of opposing QBs. As a matter of fact, the No. 1-ranked run defense last year belonged to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ended up winning the Super Bowl.

The roles the two Dalvins will play this season have a yin and yang effect, a dynamic balance of opposing but complementary and interconnected forces. How well Dalvin Cook runs the ball on offense can impact Dalvin Tomlinson’s ability to stop the run. The inverse is also true, meaning if Dalvin Tomlinson does a good job of stopping the opposing team’s run game, that can positively impact Dalvin Cook’s ability to break down defenses. This is why the performances of the two Dalvins are equally important to each other as they are to the success of the Minnesota Vikings.

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