EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made good on his word, allowing running back Dalvin Cook a brief cameo in the third preseason game, 10 months removed from a season-ending ACL tear.
Cook's action in the preseason lasted all of four snaps, but the minutes were well worth it for the second-year back to get a taste of live speed before the games count.
It actually was more of a favor to Cook than anything else. The Vikings didn't need him to provide a spark in the preseason. They ran the ball effectively in his absence, a credit to the way they've built their running back corps around him.
Cook was third in the NFL in rushing with 354 yards at the time of his injury in Week 4 of 2017. His workload (74 rushes) was the second-most in the NFL behind Todd Gurley.
When Latavius Murray took over for Cook, he was nearing the end of his rehabilitation from offseason ankle surgery, which caused him to catch on later than he anticipated. Along with Jerick McKinnon, Murray helped the Vikings finish seventh in rushing, taking on the bulk of the work out of the backfield (216 rushes for 842 yards and eight touchdowns) and catching 15 passes for 103 yards.
The plan in getting Cook ready for the 2018 season focuses on monitoring his workload. When the Vikings let McKinnon walk in free agency, they found a way to keep Murray to complement Cook and carry the load while he rehabbed his left knee. Hours after Kirk Cousins inked his $84 million deal in March, Murray agreed to restructure his contract, lowering his salary in 2018 by $1.5 million and voiding the third year.
"Latavius did an unbelievable job for us last year," general manager Rick Spielman said in February. "He led our team in explosive runs last year once Dalvin got hurt. Also, I think we were top or one of the top in third-down and fourth-down-and-1 situations. Also, much better success when we were in goal-line situations as well. I know that was an area that we needed to improve on, and I think with the combination of him and the combination of our offensive line that we redid last year, that that made a significant difference in our success in those areas."
With a healthy Cook ready to go for Week 1, the Vikings haven't been clear about how they will split time between the two backs. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has two different styles to work with because of their varying skill sets.
"Latavius is a bruiser-type back, but it can still be a three-down back," DeFilippo said. "There is no doubt in my mind that he can be a three-down back and wear people down. Obviously you see the explosiveness from Dalvin, and he can be a three-down back as well because both of those guys are really, really good in pass protection. To me, I'm not really one to say, ‘Hey, we need three different body types in the backfield.' We just want the best players we can get."
So what does this tell us about the way DeFilippo will use his two running backs? A handful of things can be inferred from what is on tape from the preseason, but let's first look back at how DeFilippo utilized his backs the last time he was an offensive coordinator.
During the 2015 season in Cleveland, Isaiah Crowell accounted for 706 yards and four touchdowns on 185 rushes. He also caught 19 passes for 182 yards and a score. Duke Johnson, the Browns' jack-of-all trades back, made his biggest impact as a receiving threat, catching 61 passes for 534 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 379 yards rushing.
We've seen DeFilippo get creative with his running backs in the preseason. The sole target that went Cook's way against the Seahawks came when he was lined up in the slot. With rookie Mike Boone, a scatback who has a background as a pass-catcher, DeFilippo chose to line up the No. 3 RB candidate as an outside receiver. Given their versatile skill sets, Cook and Murray could see time on the field together in the regular season with one lined up in the slot and the other in the backfield.
The big question, however, is how Cook will be utilized as a running back. By all indications, monitoring Cook's workload will be a week-to-week process. If Minnesota wants to ease him back, that could mean gradually increasing his carries as the season wears on. Maybe that number is capped at 10 the first couple of games and jumps from there. In four games as a rookie, Cook was averaging 18.5 carries a game.
So what might that mean for Murray when Cook is finally back to speed? As Spielman noted at the combine, Murray's work as a threat near the goal line paid tremendous dividends in 2017. Six of his eight touchdowns came from inside the 5-yard line. In Week 3 of the preseason, Murray scored a 1-yard touchdown. It's possible his biggest impact might be as a situational threat.
Either way, the pair aims to become the most powerful one-two punch in the NFL this season. Just how good can they be?
"As good as we want to be," Cook said. "I think this thing got started as soon as I got back, as soon as everybody got back. We know what's ahead of us, we know what we can accomplish. Me and Tay go to work every day, we work hard, man, so everything we want to accomplish is right there in front of us, and we just gotta keep going at it, man. Don't look at the end of it, we gonna take every game, game by game and we gonna work, man."