When we think of injuries in today’s NFL, the one that will probably spring to mind immediately is the ACL tear. The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is found in both knees and a tear of this ligament more often than not requires surgery followed by rehabilitation and physical therapy. Some big names unfortunately suffered this injury last season which ultimately ended their year; Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Ryan Tannehill, Allen Robinson, Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Jack Conklin, Malik Hooker all missed large chunks of the season, just to name a few.
One other player who is scheduled to return in 2018 from a torn ACL himself is Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. The Vikings second round pick (#41 overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Florida State, Cook started 2017 extremely well, rushing for 354 yards in 4 games while amassing 444 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns. He also averaged over 5 yards a carry in 3 of the 4 games he played in before his ACL tear.
The Minnesota Vikings still reached the NFC Championship game, of course, despite the loss of Cook. Would they have reached the Super Bowl with him? We will never know, but fast forward to today and the Vikings are most certainly considered an NFC powerhouse, and rightly so. With the addition of QB Kirk Cousins and the return of Cook, the Vikings, along with their elite defensive unit, should once again be Super Bowl contenders.
But back to Dalvin Cook. Some considered him a first round talent before the 2017 draft and the Vikings had a need at the RB position, so for Cook to fall to them the way he did was certainly ideal. Losing him early in the 2017 season to a torn ACL, was not. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is happy with Cook’s progress, however, in his rehab and expects him to return to the practice field sooner rather than later now that OTAs are underway.
Even though Cook’s rookie season was cut tragically short, we were still able to see the reasons the Vikings drafted Cook and the talent and potential is there to see when I went back to his 2017 tape. Will he be the same Dalvin Cook we saw at the beginning of last season? I’ll address that a little later.
Going back and watching the first 4 games of Cook’s NFL career, it’s not too hard to see why we can look ahead to how he’ll perform in 2018 with some optimism despite his injury. A few of the first traits that stuck out to me was his ability to move laterally in the backfield, his awareness, and speed to hit the outside. This play in Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers if a perfect example.
Coming out of the shotgun, this inside zone run play initially is designed to work Cook (#33) to the left, but Steelers LB Ryan Shazier (#50) sees it coming and shoots the gap. Cook sees this and then cuts back to the right, uses his ability to run laterally to work his way to the outside and explodes upfield for what was almost a touchdown.
We see the same inside zone run play here again against the Steelers coming out of the shotgun, except this time Steelers defensive lineman Tyson Alualu (#94) does a nice job of shedding his block, which forces Cook (#33) to use shifty footwork here in cutting to the right. He then explodes up the middle and shows the balance, power, and toughness at the end of this play.
Both of these plays highlight how good Cook can be when running inside zone plays. He has the awareness, footwork and explosiveness to the find the hole even when it’s not directly in front of him. Given that the Vikings offensive line is far from a position group of strength, Cook will need to maintain his ability to make something out of nothing. It’ll be interesting to see if he returns with the same cutting ability and lateral movement in 2018, and this may be something we don’t see straight away.
Instead, we may see Cook running out of a 2 back set with a FB in front of him like he does here against the Detroit Lions in Week 4. The start of this run play, this time to the right, is similar to the second Steelers play above in that Detroit Lions defensive lineman Josh Fatu (#97) gets some penetration but Cook (#33) again demonstrates his explosiveness to turn the corner. This allows Cook to follow his lead blocker, FB C.J. Ham, to the outside and he is able to pick up 8 yards and the first down.
We can also look back to his first NFL game in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints to see the same awareness, cutting ability, lateral movement, and explosiveness to get to the outside that we have already seen. Once again, Cook (#33) is running out of the shotgun the Saints initially get good penetration, but as we have already seen, this is not always enough to break down a run play when Cook has the ball in his hands. What’s perhaps most impressive here is his explosiveness once he turns the corner to avoid the penetration. This play went for 33 yards in a game where he gained 127 yards, in his first NFL game.
While it was fun to go back and realize how impressive Cook was before his injury, the fact that he is returning from a torn ACL shouldn’t be ignored. Despite a projected full recovery from a such an injury, we have to wonder whether it will affect his cutting his ability and explosiveness to work to the outside, among other things. He does have age on his side as he will only be 23 years old when the season starts, and with surgical procedures and rehabilitation programs being more advanced today than they were say 20-30 years ago, we can at least be optimistic that Cook can at least have a good and productive 2018 season.
This leads into another aspect of Cook’s return and what history tells us about running backs who return from ACL tears. Minnesota fans can at least look to a former Viking RB in Adrian Peterson, who himself tore his ACL in 2011, only to then return in 2012 and rush for 2,097 yards in what was an MVP season. Jamaal Charles tore his ACL 2 games into the 2011 season, only to return in 2012 and rush for 1,509 yards in 16 games. Frank Gore tore his ACL not once, but twice while at the University of Miami, before even reaching the NFL, yet has gone on to have a Hall of Fame career. Another running back who tore his ACL in college was Todd Gurley while at Georgia, but he is now considered a top 3 running back in the NFL today.
While some running backs have bounced back extremely well from a torn ACL, there have been plenty that have not and the injury has ruined the careers of running backs like Gale Sayers and Terrell Davis. Although in Sayers’ case especially he suffered his injury at a time when surgical procedures were far less advanced and a torn ACL was likely a career ending injury back in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Minnesota Vikings still maintain a lot of faith in Cook to rebound and carry on from where he left off last season. Jerick McKinnon signed with the San Francisco 49ers in free agency so the Vikings now only really have Latavius Murray as a somewhat reliable option behind Cook. With training camp just under 2 months away, all eyes will be on how well Cook has truly recovered and whether he will in fact be pre-ACL Dalvin Cook.