Yes, it’s early. Yes, anything can happen. And, yes, knock on wood if it makes you feel better.
But as far as the Vikings are concerned, there is no hesitation or feeling of premature celebration in taking a victory lap 31 months after their pre-draft due diligence told them it was safe to move up in the second round to select Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, a first-round talent who was free-falling in large part because of a bouquet of red flags involving off-the-field issues and his character, or perceived lack thereof.
On Thursday — three days before the Vikings and their NFL leader in total yards from scrimmage were to face Denver at U.S. Bank Stadium — coach Mike Zimmer was asked if there’s been anything since Day 2 of the 2017 draft that has caused him to question Cook’s character.
“No,” Zimmer said quickly.
The same question was posed to offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. The only delay in his answer was to laugh at the absurdity of the inquiry.
“That might be the easiest question I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “No.”
For emphasis, Zimmer added, “Absolutely nothing, and he’s been a tremendous leader, done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
Zimmer wasn’t done. He kept searching for ways to drive home the point, lest there be any doubt. He found one.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever even fined him,” Zimmer said.
And that, Zimmer said, isn’t normal for even the squeakiest of clean players.
“A lot of times, rookies get fined early because they mess up,” Zimmer said. “But, no, I don’t think he’s ever been fined.”
The Vikings wouldn’t make Cook available for this story at this time after he already had done his weekly group media interview Wednesday. And General Manager Rick Spielman doesn’t talk to local reporters in-season until the bye week, which is next week.
But presumably the two of them feel pretty chipper about that 45-minute conversation they had on the phone the morning of April 28, 2017.
Convinced that the Eagles and possibly other teams wouldn’t let Cook fall to the Vikings at 48, Spielman called Cook for one last assurance before shipping a fourth-rounder to Cincinnati to move up seven spots for Adrian Peterson’s replacement.
“I asked him very pointed questions, and I knew he was sincere and honest with how he answered everything,” Spielman said after making the pick. “I think he has probably woken up a little bit about how important football is. And I truly believe that he is on a mission coming up here and is going to be a great football player for us.”
So far, so good. And making matters even better this year is that Cook is still healthy through 10 games for the first time in his career.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m good to go. Ready to play tomorrow or whenever.”
The result of that good health, versatile skill set and 24-year-old legs is a 10-game sprint to the top of the league’s stratosphere for running backs. Cook leads the league in yards from scrimmage (1,415), ranks second in rushing yards (991) and is coming off a 183-yard, 33-touch performance that earned him the second NFC Offensive Player of the Week award of his career.
“As far as me being a leader, I try to lead by example,” Cook said. “Try to do it with my play. Go out there and make plays and make my play make other people better. And holding each guy responsible. That’s the type of player I am.”
That prime-time explosion in Dallas helped the Vikings beat the Cowboys and two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, who was held to 47 yards and no first downs on 20 carries (2.35).
Watching the disparity in the two backs’ performances last week was the impetus for this 31-month checkup on the character concerns that dogged Cook coming out of Florida State.
Elliott was the fourth overall pick in 2016. He’s now the highest-paid running back in NFL history after signing a six-year, $90 million extension with $50 million in guarantees. Cook, meanwhile, checks in as the 39th highest-paid running back in 2019 with an average annual salary of $1.58 million.
And yet it is Elliott, not Cook, who has experienced character issues as a pro. He was suspended six games last year because of domestic abuse charges.
A rough road
Cook’s tough upbringing has been well-documented. He grew up in Miami-Dade County, Fla., near Opa-Locka, one of the most crime-infested areas in the country.
“For the majority of these guys, coming from a poverty-stricken area, it’s survival of the fittest,” then-Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “If you make a mistake, where he’s from, you end up dead or hurt.”
At a young age, Cook moved from his mother’s home to live with his paternal grandmother, Betty Cook, known as “Miss Betty” by those in the neighborhood and the many at-risk children she has fostered.
At 14, Dalvin was arrested and charged with robbery. Charges were dropped.
At 15, he was arrested and charged for firing a gun on school property. Charges were dropped.
Cook became Florida’s Mr. Football in 2013. He ended up at Florida State after choosing Clemson and then Florida.
In Tallahassee, he was cited for breaking car windows with a BB gun. He was cited for mistreating puppies. And before his sophomore year, he was accused of punching a woman outside of a bar. Fisher suspended Cook and then reinstated him when he was found not guilty.
Cook hasn’t had any known run-ins with police since 2015.
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said he didn’t prejudge Cook before he arrived after tumbling out of the first round.
“We’ve all been young at one point in our lives,” Rudolph said. “We’ve all made mistakes. A lot of times, we might do something in high school and college that when you look back upon it you say, ‘Yeah, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world.’
“But you learn from it. Dalvin is a guy who has come in here from Day 1 and worked extremely hard and done all the right things.”
The litmus test
Running back Ameer Abdullah didn’t join the Vikings until Cook’s second season. But he remembers hearing about Cook’s perceived character issues before the 2017 draft.
“I don’t rely on sources that aren’t my own eyes,” Abdullah said. “That’s just who I am as a person. I don’t care if you have a felony record or whatever. I understand people make mistakes, and I feel like as a society and as a world, we live in this bubble where we act like we’re all so perfect.
“If someone makes a mistake, you think you’re so much better than that person. Until you are that person who makes that mistake and then you want that saving grace from the next man.”
Cook also came out of college with medical red flags — including three shoulder surgeries — and fumbling concerns. The Vikings quickly dismissed those issues but did have to talk through the character concerns and whether Cook would be able to turn the page on some questionable ties to the old neighborhood.
Six months apart in late 2018 and early this year, Cook’s younger uncle, Anthony Jones, and 14-year-old half-brother, Demarcus Cook, were shot in drive-by shootings.
Asked if Cook is a guy he has to worry about off the field during a bye week, Zimmer said, “It didn’t cross my mind until you said it.
“You never know,” he added. “But I’m not worried about him. He’s a pretty levelheaded kid. You know, his brother got shot. So there are some areas that they need to stay away from.”
Zimmer said he now considers Cook one of the team leaders. Apparently, so do many others.
“In fact,” said Zimmer, “I was told that if we had a vote, he’d probably get voted captain.”