Buy or Sell: Dalvin Cook
This is the first installment of Draft Kit IQ’s “Buy or Sell” series, in which we use stats and film analysis to determine whether you should be targeting or fading some of the most polarizing players in the fantasy football community. In this post, we break down Dalvin Cook, the explosive (and injury-prone) running back for the Minnesota Vikings. Note: fantasy points are based on PPR standard scoring, and stats are provided by Pro Football Reference unless stated otherwise.
Two years ago, Dalvin Cook was ready to take the league by storm. As a rookie, he ranked third in the league in rushing yards (354) through four games and looked every bit as electrifying as his college tape suggested when the Minnesota Vikings picked him 41st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Then, in Week 4, he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. Last year, a lingering hamstring injury and frustrating timeshare with fellow back Latavius Murray disappointed fantasy owners once again in what was supposed to be a bounce back campaign.
With Murray now a thorn in Alvin Kamara owners’ sides after his free-agent deal with New Orleans, Cook is once again primed for a big year in Minnesota. Is he still the same back we saw flashes of in 2017? And can owners trust him to stay healthy?
What the numbers say
First, let’s address the ugly truth of Cook’s entire career: he hasn’t been able to stay on the field.
In 2017, a nasty cut against Detroit ended a promising campaign too soon. Last year, a nagging hamstring injury suffered against Green Bay hampered Cook when he played and kept him off the field entirely for five games in total. Add to it a coaching staff that insisted on spelling Cook with Murray, and Cook owners had plenty of reason to feel slighted by their likely early-round pick.
Still, Cook’s stats suggest a player that was limited more by opportunity than any nagging injury. In his first two games back from the ACL injury, Cook saw a combined 35 touches (17.5 per game) but led all running backs with 18 broken tackles, per Pro Football Focus -- more than one broken tackle every other time he touched the ball.
He sustained that hamstring injury in the second game of the year, and he suffered his second-worst game all year (10 carries, 20 yards) just 10 days later against the Rams before resting the next four games -- much to the chagrin of fantasy owners.
Upon his return, though, he was the same old Cook. He averaged 15.6 fantasy points in his final eight games despite seeing 20 or fewer touches in every one. Remove two games against the historically great Bears defense, and that number jumps to 18.75 -- which would have ranked second among all running backs, per FantasyPros.
Of course, those two games against the Bears and five spent on the sidelines do count against Cook. But his strong numbers spell potential for him as a talent.
So do the advanced stats. Through 11 games, Cook finished 16th in the league with 42 broken tackles (most among players with fewer than 200 touches), per Football Outsiders, while Player Profiler says Cook had the second-best “juke rate” (broken tackles per touch) in the NFL.
Those numbers are even more impressive considering serious offensive line woes. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota saw runners get “stuffed” 21.5 percent of the time -- eighth-most in the NFL -- which was even worse in clear run situations.
So what does it all mean? Cook can make people miss, even behind a shoddy offensive line. And the Vikings eventually learned that, too.
On Dec. 11, Minnesota fired first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, largely citing an ineffective rushing attack (30th in the league) as the culprit. DeFilippo was known as a passing guru after helping guide Nick Foles to Super Bowl MVP owners, though his usage of Cook maddened fantasy owners -- dialing up no more than 13 carries for the star back in the seven games before his firing.
That changed quickly after DeFilippo left. Cook enjoyed his best game of his career five days later against Miami, turning 20 touches into 163 yards and two touchdowns (29.3 fantasy points) in a blowout win. He also saw a career-high 13 rushes in the red zone that game and converted his lone red-zone rushing touchdown on the year.
Cook saw four of his 10 longest runs in the three games without DeFilippo and two of his five longest receptions, too, using his shiftiness off short passes to take advantage of open space. That came even with a slight dip in his receiving targets.
Don’t worry about his usage in passing game, though -- not after last year. Cook’s hands were a concern in his rookie year after a handful of drops, but his catch rate (81.6 percent) and drop rate (6.1 percent) both ranked sixth in the NFL in 2018, with 40 catches for 305 yards and two scores.
Does any of that suggest that Cook can stay healthy? No. But when he is, he’s among the running backs in the league. And the eye test confirms it.
What the film study says
Because Cook has only seen 258 touches through his first two years -- 85 touches before tearing his ACL, 173 touches after -- it’s worth looking back at his college tape to remind us of what made him so special as an NFL prospect:
It doesn’t take a scout to see the elite vision and sharp cutting ability that Cook possesses every time he touches the ball. Note two plays in particular in that video that showcase Cook’s incredible footwork. One, at 4:04, shows Cook’s ability to read the defense and change direction at full speed for a big gain against Florida. Another, at 5:23, sees Cook drop his weight, spin off a North Carolina defender at full speed and run through contact en route to a goal-line score.
He won’t blow you away with power, but Cook’s ability to shed tackles in open space (see: stats above) made him a scintillating prospect coming out of college -- and he showed all the same ability in his first four games before the ACL tear. (Brett Kollmann did a fantastic film breakdownof Cook last summer, and I highly recommend it.)
That performance, coupled with the injury, left fantasy owners asking the same agonizing question heading into the 2018 season: would he ever be the same? The answer is a resounding “yes.”
Start with his first game back, a Week 1 performance against San Francisco. He saw 23 touches in that game in a somewhat pedestrian showing, but check out this catch on a simple screen pass from Kirk Cousins:
Cook motions left before slipping that direction on a screen behind two blockers. The first defender he faces blows up the outside lane, so Cook charges ahead and hops through the arm tackle of safety Jaquiski Tartt. In his very next step, with virtually no momentum, Cook plants his right leg and bounces left for another 10 yards.
It may look routine, but the ability to string together moves like that is impressive for most backs -- let alone ones with a history of an ACL tear on similar cuts.
That usual springiness was gone against the Rams with Cook battling that hamstring injury. You can even see him clutch his upper left leg after his first run of the game, a six-yard gain that displayed more lateral quickness than any subsequent touch. He gingerly jogged off the field after a stutter-heavy run in the second quarter and sat out the entire second half.
After a 38-day hiatus, Cook reminded fans of what he could do. In his return against Detroit, he showed that same bouncy style that turned heads in his rookie year. But it was a simple straight-line scamper that caught everyone’s attention:
Much of the credit should go to the offensive line, which actually did a great job here to open up a gigantic hole for Cook, who ran 70 yards untouched through the Lions’ much-maligned run defense. But note his top speed on this run: 22.07 miles per hour. It was the second-fastest mark of any running back this year according to NFL Next Gen Stats, just 0.02 MPH short of Matt Breida’s Week 12 run against Tampa Bay. So much for any combine concerns of Cook’s top-end speed.
In Week 15, the first game without DeFilippo, Cook truly shined. Two of his first three touches went for at least 25 yards, each thanks to weaving cuts by Cook to find open space. Throughout the game, he looks like he’s dancing with Dolphin defenders, but only he can hear the music.
This isn’t the best example of his lateral quickness, but watch Cook’s ability to read the defense and change direction on this run, then beat the defender to the edge in his only red-zone rushing touchdown of the year:
It takes him a few steps to get there, but Cook’s speed to the outside illustrates how dangerous he can be as a runner anywhere on the field, despite his modest red-zone numbers.
That score wasn’t even Cook’s most impressive on the day. No, that came in the fourth quarter, when he pulled the Madden spin move out of his endless bag of tricks:
It takes a running back with stellar footwork and a keen sense of his surroundings to even pull off a move like that. Cook has both. The stiff cut to weave through the defense en route to the end zone might be just as impressive as the spin move itself.
Don’t expect Cook to make plays like that every game or even every season; Cook himself was surprised by it after the game. But that skill set is on full display every time you turn on the tape on Cook, who is easily one of the most thrilling running backs to watch in the entire league.
What should fantasy owners do?
Every Dalvin Cook run is like catnip for those who enjoy fancy footwork and excellent vision, and Cook’s per-touch stats rival the best in the NFL. The issues, of course, is the amount of touches he receives -- be it injuries, poor offensive line play or coaching in his way.
The latter of those three is of less concern now, with Kevin Stefanski running the offense after a strong finish to last season. The Vikings also brought in Gary Kubiak, renowned for his success with the type of zone running schemes that would bring out the most in a one-cut runner such as Cook.
The offensive line is still an issue: Minnesota spent much of its remaining cap room to retain linebacker Anthony Barr, leaving in-house progression as the best hope for improvement in 2019. There’s reason for optimism, though, with how the team played in the final few weeks of the year.
That leaves injuries, which unfortunately could be the cloud that permanently hangs over Cook’s career. There is little evidence to suggest Cook is still suffering from any ill effects of his ACL tear, though last year’s hamstring saga understandably leaves a bitter taste in owners’ mouth.
For my money, it’s a worthwhile risk. Cook is one of the premier talents in the league, and injuries plague the majority of top running backs in the league (Todd Gurley, anyone?). With Murray out of the picture, too, Cook should face little concern for competition even if the team brings in a low-budget free agent to spell him.
As of late March, Cook ranks as a late-second or early-third in ESPN redraft rankings, with similar outlooks at CBS and Yahoo. I get it: running back is as stacked as ever, and Cook has more red flags than most. But I’ll buy Cook for that price all day long.
I expect to own a share of Cook in as many redraft leagues as I can, and I’m desperately trying to pry Cook from another owner in my dynasty league. I was among those burned by Cook last year, and I’ll gladly pay the late-first or early-second charge to own him again. He’s that good.