Dalvin Cook has tantalized fantasy football players since the day he was drafted. Drafted in the second round in a loaded RB draft class, Cook seemed poised to take over the lead back role in Minnesota. This was especially appealing on a team Mike Zimmer coached, where the main tenants would be running the ball, and the team has a strong defense. In his first two years, this wasn’t the case due to injuries and roles from other backs (Latavius Murray especially). But I am here to tell you, nay SHOUT at you, this is the year of Dalvin. And here’s why.
Gary Kubiak (and Rick Dennison his new offensive line coach). I can probably start and end this section there. You know Gary Kubiak from his days as the head coach of the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, where he won the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. He is a disciple of Mike Shanahan, whom he played under when he backed up John Elway. Kubiak still uses the zone run blocking scheme (“ZBS”) that Shanahan and Alex Gibbs perfected. The day Kubiak was hired, I’m guessing Cook was a happy man.
The ZBS, in essence, is when the offensive line blocks an area rather than a specific defensive player. If there is no defender in the offensive lineman’s designated spot, he moves up/down the line to double team the next defender. Cook has great vision and is at his best when he is making one cut. Kubiak’s system will highlight this trait and allow Cook to play fast.
That is an example of the outside zone run. You can see Cook’s head starts outside and because the opening is there he goes right at it. This isn’t an extremely successful play, but not because of Cook. He made the correct read, but number 71 did not move up to the safety in time and ended up throwing him into Cook’s lane.
Because of the style of play, you can see offensive line play is important. Think of the Eagles, Jason Kelce, and the rest of their incredible line.
I know, I know, I can hear the moans through my computer. The Vikings don’t have the best reputation for their line. *Extremely Stephen A. Smith voice * HOWEVA, the line needs to be athletic in the ZBS. Enter Brian O’Neill and Garrett Bradbury, each drafted in the first two rounds the past two years. Both are extremely SPARQ’d up linemen (SPARQ is an athletic testing score based on the NFL Combine and pro day results developed by Zach Whitman at 3SigmaAthlete), which is necessary for the ZBS. O’Neill is in the 85th-percentile of linemen and Bradbury is in the 92nd. That’ll do pig, that’ll do. With Pat Elflien, Riley Reiff and the newly signed Josh Kline, the line should be much improved.
Ability and Increased Opportunity
The first half of this piece was on how the Vikings made improvements to the run game and overall offensive environment. Now, we are going to look at what Cook has done and is capable of.
To be a top 5 RB in fantasy football, a running back must see plenty of opportunities but also be able to create and maximize those chances. The better a player is and the more opportunities they will see and round and round it goes.
Cook proved last year that he was extremely capable of maximizing the opportunities given to him. Cook evaded 66 tackles last season (in only 11 games played), which was 8th at the position per Player Profiler. That pace would have put him at 96 evaded tackles. That would have been good enough for second at the position, trailing only RB Saquon Barkley, and his monstrous thighs.
Evaded and broken tackles are one of, if not the, stickiest stats for the running back position. This is because it isolates the running back’s ability from the rest of the team, whereas yards per carry or other similar stats are affected by blocking or how many defenders are in the box.
Cook also had seven rushes that went 15 yards or more last season. That was 26th at the position (again he only played 11 games). Once Cook gets into space, he will make the defense pay.
In Week 9, Cook had clocked the second-fastest speed any ball carrier reached all of last year. Cook took a handoff from the shotgun 70 yards and hit 22.07 mph, only behind Matt Breida’s leading speed by .02 mph (per NFL’s Next Gen Stats). Take a look:
As you can see, the ACL injury became less of an issue as the season went on and at the start of this year, he will be almost two years removed (more on that in a bit). Now having played 11 games post ACL and looking the part, the Vikings are poised to give the opportunity to Cook. Cook had 133 rushed and 49 targets (21st at the position) last year compared to Murray who was given 140 and 26 (did anyone know Murray had that many targets???) respectively.
Murray had 22 red zone carries last year to Cook’s 16. Murray is now gone along with all those rushes and targets. In addition to seeing more red zone opportunities, Cook will also see positive touchdown regression. Per Bill Barnwell at ESPN, running backs should score on approximately one out of every 26 touches (or close to 3.8%). That means Cook should have scored roughly 6.6 touchdowns last season. Touchdown regression is something that evens itself out season to season. So, we should expect Cook to see a healthy increase to his touchdown total.
Kirk Cousins also tends to pepper his RBs with targets. Cousins has averaged 94.5 targets to his RBs in his 4 years as the starter in Washington and Minnesota. Last year was actually the lowest he has targeted his RB, which was only 78 targets.
This is probably due to a few factors: Murray seeing a lot of the field, the best WR tandem in the NFL, and the scheme. But with no true number three receiver in Minnesota and Cousin’s love for throwing to his RBs, Cook should be in line for a nice boost in targets. Cook will convert these targets. He has a 78.5% catch rate for his career, which is 8th among running backs during that time.
Yes, yes, I am going to address the injury history. Cook has only played 15 of a possible 32 games in his NFL career, and he was not the healthiest in college either. I am not going to try and convince you, that Cook will be completely healthy this season, and play 16 games. There’s no way I can prove that, or you can prove otherwise. The running back position is one of the toughest positions to stay healthy for a full season, due to the constant beating the player has to endure. But that is true for every player at the position, Cook is not singularly at risk.
Cook dealt with lingering complications from his ACL tear last season. Players frequently reinjure themselves in the quest to return from this significant injury (ie. Derrius Guice currently). It is a common tip in the fantasy community, to target players two years removed from an ACL tear. I have not seen any support backing up this claim, other than there will likely be a discount from the player’s poor performance in their first season returning.
So I did some of my own research. Using Pro-Football Reference’s historical fantasy data, I tallied each running back, (only running backs from 2011-2016), that tore their ACLs. I also made note of their season prior to the injury, their first season back from injury, and their second season back. I stopped at 2016 because that was the last year I would have a running back’s second season back (last year). Take a look:
|Averages||Season Prior||1st Season Back||2nd Season Back|
|Season Total PPR Points||230||129.6||200.9|
|PPR Points Per Game||16.6||10.3||14.4|
Clearly, there is merit to the claim. I wanted to make sure there was no bias for a running back not coming back to play a full season immediately. So, I included the per-game averages. As you can see, the second season back, running backs tend to return to form. There would be an even bigger gap if you remove Adrian Peterson’s historic first season back from his ACL tear, which honestly, would be kinda fair. Dr. James Andrews, the world-renown surgeon, compared his knee to a “newborn baby’s!!!”
Look, I can’t tell you Cook is going to have a clean bill of health this season, but I can tell you that he is fully healed from his ACL tear. That historically boosts fantasy production, as shown by the data.
Last year looks like a lost year to me, which can only benefit us fantasy players. When drafting later in the first or early second, you want to find the RB that has the strongest chance to break into the top tier of RBs. The numbers and scheme scream that this year it’s Cook.
We know Zimmer wouldn’t stop bringing up how he wanted to run the ball more. He brings in Kubiak. Drafted athletic lineman. Latavius Murray is now gone. Cook is a far superior player and now he will be given the opportunity share that is commensurate with his ability. On top of all of that, the Vikings will face the third easiest schedule for running backs, per FantasyPros. Do I need to say anymore? It’s Dalvin and the Chipmunks’ time.
(Photo by Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire)