Jim Souhan
See more of the story

Dalvin Cook collected impressive numbers on Sunday — 21 carries, 111 yards, two touchdowns — yet the most significant digits, to him, were affixed to an opponent’s jersey.

Cook received No. 24 after the game, and that means the world to him because it is from his world.

Cook attended Miami Central High but didn’t play football as a freshman because Devonta Freeman was dominating at running back. Cook would succeed Freeman as a star there and at Florida State, and on Sunday Cook demonstrated that he may already be better than Freeman as a pro.

After the game, Cook (No. 33) and Freeman (No. 24) exchanged jerseys. The Vikings limited Freeman to 19 yards on eight carries in the Vikings’ 28-12 victory over Atlanta at U.S. Bank Stadium, but Freeman remains a running model for Cook, because Freeman has stayed healthy for a 16-game season, rushed for 1,000 yards, made a Pro Bowl and played in a Super Bowl.

“It’s a special moment in my career, to come from where he came from, and to come from where we came from, to see him make it,” Cook said. “I’m proud of him and he kind of set the standards for me, and he set the bar high. He went to Florida State, put up some numbers, came into the league, went to the Pro Bowl, and I’m trying to do things just like he did them and even better.

“I’m just trying to do everything better than he did.”

Cook is bigger, stronger, faster and just as versatile as Freeman, and he has learned, as has Freeman, to believe Bud Grant’s mantra: The greatest athletic ability is availability.

Having Cook available and productive is the unifying theme of the 2019 Vikings. He is the rare non-quarterback who may be his team’s pivotal player. If he runs well and stays healthy, he makes life easier for the quarterback and offensive line, improves field position and allows the defense to rest.

He is also the rare athlete about whom other pro athletes gush.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins called him “a white tiger” — meaning he’s that rare species you want to see, but rarely do, at the zoo.

Receiver Adam Thielen called Cook “unbelievable,” saying, “We know we have one of the best running backs in the NFL, if not the best, and we know we have an offensive line that can ground and pound. We have to keep doing those things because that’s what Coach [Mike] Zimmer wants our identity to be and that’s what we’re going to make it.”

Center Garrett Bradbury said, “He makes us look good.”

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman’s strength is finding superior athletes outside of the first round. He drafted Cook in the second round, and now Cook has a chance to be one of the most valuable backs in the game, given where he was drafted, what he’s being paid (less than $2 million), his importance to Zimmer’s plans and the fact that he has not yet held out, unlike Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell.

His talent may have been enough to win friends in the locker room, but Cook has proven himself as a teammate with his work ethic and willingness to share the spotlight. Instead of looking for cameras when he hits the end zone, he looks for teammates and hands one the ball.

Saturday night, Cook gave each offensive lineman a “Chef Cook” T-shirt, and right tackle Brian O’Neill wore one after the game.

The ingredients for Zimmer’s favorite offensive stew are simple: “Coach Zim wants to run the ball and play defense,” Cook said. “As long as I’m on the field there’s a lot of special things that can happen. I just have to stay on the field. That’s the main goal — being available for my team.”

After handing out T-shirts and touchdown balls, Cook received a souvenir from Freeman. If Cook is able to give away 15 more sweaty jerseys this season, the Vikings will be back in the playoffs.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com