The show, taped in Southern California and hosted by former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, also featured three other top running-back draft prospects: Samaje Perine of Oklahoma, Joe Williams of Utah and Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State.
“I was asked which of the four guys here do I like, and said, “I really like Dalvin,’ ” Davis said. “He just had that natural ability, his feet were really quick, and he had an effortless ability to change directions in drills.”
It must be said that Perine, Williams and Pumphrey didn’t go on to do much in the NFL. But now, when he considers every running back in the league, Davis still likes Cook, in his fourth season after being taken by the Vikings in the second round of the 2017 draft.
“It’s hard to argue that he’s not the best back in the game now,” Davis said.
Davis is not alone in his opinion. Including Davis, the Pioneer Press talked to five former all-pro running backs. Roger Craig and Otis Armstrong also called Cook the best running back in the NFL. George Rogers placed him second behind New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara. Hall of famer Jerome Bettis listed Cook in his “top five,” but added that he is “ascending very quickly.”
Is Cook ever. He has won consecutive awards as NFC Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 163 yards, accumulating 226 yards from scrimmage and scoring four touchdowns Nov. 1 at Green Bay, then rushing for 206 yards, rolling up 252 yards from scrimmage and scoring two touchdowns last Sunday against Detroit.
Cook went into Week 10 leading in the NFL rushing with 858 yards before Tennessee’s Derrick Henry gained 103 against Indianapolis on Thursday night to get to 946. But Cook will have a chance to regain the lead in Monday night’s game at Chicago.
“I think he’s right at the top of the list (among NFL running backs),” said Craig, who played in the NFL from 1983-93, winning three Super Bowls with San Francisco before closing his career with the Vikings from 1992-93. “He’s playing great. He’s a complete running back. He can catch the ball, run the ball.”
Craig knows versatility. Playing for the 49ers in 1985, he became the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards in a season both rushing and receiving. The accomplishment since has been equaled by Marshall Faulk of St. Louis in 1999 and Christian McCaffrey last year with Carolina.
“I think he can do it, too, one of these years,” Craig said of Cook, who got off to a slow receiving start this season but has 109 yards in the past two games to get to 173 for the season. “He’s got good hands. He’s tough, and he can take a pounding.”
Cook is on track to become just the third running back in Vikings history be named all-pro. Chuck Foreman was the first in 1975, followed by Adrian Peterson, who did it in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2015.
“It’s always good to be out front in statistics,” Cook said of having the rushing lead entering Week 10. “It just shows the hard work you put in. But I’m big on letting my guys know up front that this thing can be done. … I think being first in some of the statistics just shows that to the O-line, gives them that confidence.”
Cook also entered Week 10 leading the NFL in touchdowns with 12 rushing and 13 overall. He is also on track to become just the second Vikings back to win the rushing title, which Peterson did in 2008, 2012 and 2015.
“We would welcome him to the club,” said Armstrong, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,407 yards for Denver in a 14-game season in 1974. “I think he’s in a class by himself in the NFL now. He’s a monster. I wish I could have played like that.”
Cook is closing in on a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season after injuries derailed his first two years in the NFL. He gained 354 yards as a rookie in 2017 before a season-ending ACL tear in the third quarter of the fourth game. He rushed for 615 yards in 2018 when he missed five games and was limited in other because of hamstring issues.
Cook rushed for 1,135 yards last season, making his first Pro Bowl. Even then, he sat out two games and nearly two full halves of two others with shoulder and chest injuries.
This season, Cook already has missed one game and a nearly a full half of another with a groin strain. But he has been fully healthy the past two games, and it has showed.
“He’s been balling,” said Davis, who led the NFL in rushing with 2,008 yards for Denver in 1998 and was named NFL MVP. “He’s healthy, that’s the biggest thing. He had these little nagging injuries before and that kind of slows you down, and now he’s just playing free and getting into a rhythm.”
Davis can relate to how Cook is being used with the Vikings. When Davis played for the Broncos from 1995-2001, his offensive coordinator was Gary Kubiak. He now has that job for Minnesota.
“Koobs always had the best game plans,” Davis said. “He’s able to look at the defense and find a weakness and put people in the right position to make plays. I just see him using Cook in so many different ways. I see them running multiple screens, and he’s perfect for the screen game.”
Like Davis, Bettis met Cook when he was coming out of Florida State in 2017. Bettis, who gave Cook advice then about taking care of his money in the NFL, called him a “sensational young man” and said he was impressed with his humility.
A day before the 2020 season opener, Cook signed a five-year, $63 million contract extension. And Bettis has watched as Cook, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, has burst out of the gates.
“He understands that you’ve got to run inside to get outside in the NFL because in the NFL everyone’s so fast,” said Bettis, who played from 1993-2005, and won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh in his final season. “Once he gets in the open field, he’s a special player and he makes things happen. He’s a workhorse back, and they’re also giving him the opportunity to catch it out of the backfield. That’s what you want out of your superstar back.”
Still, Bettis isn’t ready to call Cook the best back in the NFL. Without giving specific rankings, he listed the other four in his top five as Henry, McCaffrey, Kamara and the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, who tore his ACL in Week 2 and is out for the season.
“Dalvin’s had an outstanding year and he’s taken it up a notch from last year, but we’re only (halfway) through the season,” Bettis said. “But he’s ascending very quickly, I will say that. I want to see him do more of this on a consistent level. Can you get a full season at this level?”
At the midpoint of the season, Cook is on pace to finish with 1,716 yards rushing. If it is taken into account the one game he missed and his seven-game average of 122.6 yards per outing is projected over the final eight games, he is on pace for 1,839 yards.
“I would give the ball to him every time,” said Rogers, who led the NFL in rushing in 1981 with 1,674 yards as a New Orleans rookie after winning the Heisman Trophy at South Carolina. “That’s what (then-Saints coach) Bum Phillips used to tell them to do with me, wherever we were on the field. The thing about the kid is he gets stronger as the game goes on. He’s on all cylinders.”
Still, Rogers ranks Kamara, who has an NFL-high 1,036 yards from scrimmage to Cook’s 1,031, as a better back because he is such a good receiver.
However, Rogers seems willing to change his tune if Cook leads the NFL in rushing. He was asked what it means to be a rushing champ.
“Well, it means you are the best running back in the NFL that year,” he said.