INDIANAPOLIS -- Five months from the day he tore his left ACL in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' Week 4 loss against Detroit, Dalvin Cook continues to make significant strides in his rehabilitation.
The running back has impressed the Vikings' staff by how quickly he’s progressed since his rookie season ended prematurely last October. Coach Mike Zimmer sounded optimistic at the NFL combine that Cook could return as early as organized team activities, which begin at the end of May.
“I think he’s going to be pretty close,” Zimmer said Thursday. Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman "tells me he’s doing great and he should be as good as new ... better.”
Since the Vikings’ season ended in the NFC Championship Game, Cook has remained in Minnesota to work through his offseason program, which has included on-field rehab with Sugarman.
“We’re very excited about the progress he’s making,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “Anxious to see where we are with him back in the fold along with whatever combination is there."
In four games in 2017, Cook rushed for 354 yards and two touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 90 yards. Should he be back to full health in time for Week 1, all indications point to Cook regaining his job as Minnesota's featured back, a role for which he beat out Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon during training camp.
Cook earned his role as the Vikings' workhorse and was No. 2 in the NFL in carries behind Rams running back Todd Gurley at the time of his injury. While the Vikings plan to go back to Cook as their featured rusher, Zimmer said the coaching staff will have to be cognizant of his workload.
“I think he’s going to get a lot of plays,” Zimmer said. “The one thing we have to be careful about with Dalvin is, you know, we don’t wear him out. It’s a long season; we’ve got to be smart about it, so we’ll have to have a ... not necessarily a pitch count, but be mindful that it’s a 16-game, maybe 20-game season and we’re going to have to be smart about how we use him. Because he is a three-down back.”
In Cook’s absence, the Vikings were able to turn to Murray and McKinnon to split the carries. Minnesota signed Murray last offseason as the expected replacement for Adrian Peterson, but offseason surgery on his ankle kept him sidelined from March until late August.
Murray ended his fifth NFL season with 842 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, helping raise Minnesota from last in rushing in 2016 to seventh in 2017. In Cook’s absence, Murray made sure the run game was able to maintain its explosive edge.
“Latavius, he played really well for us this year, helped us a lot,” Zimmer said. “Had a lot of explosive runs. But he was physical and I think that’s part of the mentality that I’m trying to continue to bring here is we want to be a physical football team, and when the game’s on the line, you know we’re going to run. We’re going to run and tell you to stop us.”
Minnesota will need to make a decision regarding Murray’s future by March 16, when $5.15 million of his base salary ($6.35 million) becomes guaranteed. The Vikings can decide to cut Murray by the third day of the 2018 league year or choose to restructure his deal, keeping him for another season. With the possible departure of McKinnon in free agency, Minnesota could decide to look at a handful of options for a No. 3 running back in April’s draft.