How a (finally) healthy Dalvin Cook has 'juiced' the Vikings

Cousins on how the Vikings turned the season around (2:05)

Kirk Cousins breaks down what the Vikings did to turn the season around and end up at their current standing of 8-3. (2:05)

EAGAN, Minn. -- Don't put Xavier Rhodes on the spot about the NFL's MVP race -- not when it comes to choosing between two of his South Florida brethren.

"C'mon man, next question," the Minnesota Vikings cornerback said with a smile.

The Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm as the most dynamic quarterback in years and has emerged as the front-runner for the award, but Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook is stating a strong case of his own.

Cook is putting into existence the things he once imagined. He has gone back and forth all season with Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (and more recently Cleveland's Nick Chubb) for positioning as the rushing and scrimmage yards leader. In his first 11 games, Cook ranks second in yards from scrimmage (1,472) and third in rushing yards (1,017). But the basis of his MVP candidacy is how he makes his entire team better.

"He envisioned himself being this way, living this way," Rhodes said. "He always spoke on 'I'm going to be one of the best.' He always said, 'I'm going to be the rushing leader. I'm going to run hard.' He has great confidence. Believe me, if you're around him, you'll see his confidence.

"It's a guy you want on your team. It's a guy that you can depend on. Dalvin says, 'Just give me the ball. I can make something happen.'"

Cook's explosive playmaking abilities are the cornerstone of the Vikings' system and have boosted quarterback Kirk Cousins' play. What Cook has accomplished in 2019 -- his first healthy season in three -- is what the Vikings envisioned when they traded up to draft him 41st overall in 2017.

As the Vikings travel to perhaps their biggest game of the season on Monday against the Seattle Seahawks (8:20 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Cook effect can be felt across positional lines. He has influenced every aspect of his team's identity while restoring the Vikings to relevance in the NFC.

Before the season, Minnesota recommitted to a running game that struggled in 2018. The Vikings ranked 30th in yards (1,493), 27th in carries (357) and 25th in yards per carry (4.18). This season, a revitalized zone-blocking scheme has produced the fifth-highest output in running back yards (4.80) and open-field yards, defined as when a team's running back earns more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Football Outsiders.

Cook is quick to credit his blockers for his success. But it's his patience to see the play develop in front of him that makes his offensive line's job easier.

"It puts a lot of confidence in us, just knowing that our block doesn't necessarily have to be perfect," Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill said. "A lot of times if you're just in the way, he'll be able to break one, and not a lot of people can do that. He's probably the best at that -- taking a lot more than he's necessarily given. He can make it into something a lot more so than I've ever seen anybody do or block for. All we need is one or two inches, and he can do it."

Going into Week 13, Cook leads the NFL with 63 rushes this season on which he hit a maximum speed of 15-plus mph, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He also has the fastest average speed at the line of scrimmage among running backs on rushes (10.9 mph).

The zone scheme allows Cook to "literally go anywhere," according to left guard Pat Elflein, forcing defenses to chase him to the perimeter on outside runs or whiff on tackles as he cuts up the middle of the field. Cook leads the league in scrimmage yards after contact (533) and receiving yards after contact (161), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Now that he's healthy, he's just such an explosive player," Elflein said. "Every time he touches the ball, he can break two, three, four tackles, and he does it consistently."

Cousins has benefited largely from Cook's shouldering a heavy load.

The Vikings quarterback leads the NFL with 11 play-action touchdown passes, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt on such throws when Cook is on the field and 7.7 when he isn't.

"The more I watch these defenses, the more I see defenses that want to prevent big plays," Cousins said. "So what ends up happening is your running back becomes a primary target in the pass game because defenses are going to take away a lot of deep shots and make you have to earn it.

"How effective he's been not only running the football but helping us in the pass game with screens and checkdowns and different things, it's been a huge benefit as a quarterback. Great running backs tend to make the first guy miss. You can't block them all, and the ones who are really good make the unblocked guy have to miss, and he's done that time and time again."

Much of the success in the passing game is a result of how effectively the Vikings run the ball. This season, Cousins is averaging an NFL-high 9.3 yards per pass attempt when the previous play was a run (minimum 50 attempts).

When Cook is on the field, the success rate for receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is greater.

"When you have a running back, when you have a running game like we have, it allows you to not see some of the coverages or defenses that we've seen in the past when our running game wasn't where it was at," Thielen said. "It just makes it more versatile. The run and the play-action, they look similar, and it's just tougher for teams to play a shell coverage and just take two guys, three guys out of the game.

"Obviously, in this league, we've seen it. You can't just have a run game, and you can't just have a pass game. You need to have both working together to have success, and you see it across the league. You look at the playoff teams, you look at the teams that have won Super Bowls. They have the ability to run and pass and make it all look the same."

The Vikings rank 17th in time of possession, but they are seventh in number of 10-play drives (22).

The efforts of Cook and the run game help keep the Vikings' defense fresh and off the field. In Minnesota's Week 10 win at Dallas, the Vikings scored the winning touchdown off a drive that featured 10 straight runs.

"Dalvin? [He] gets us juiced!" Rhodes said. "The runs he makes, it's just unbelievable watching him. How explosive, how he hits the holes. You see him one moment -- then you don't. He runs through the holes so fast. He runs fearless. That's one thing I can say: He runs fearless. There ain't no tip[toeing] through the hole or 'I'm afraid of this linebacker, this D-lineman.' He's trying to run through you."

Practicing against Cook gives Minnesota's defense a tutorial on how to slow players with similar traits. The old adage of beating the best by competing against the best is a teaching tool for the Vikings, albeit one they know might be a harder test than the backs they'll have to cover in games.

"With a guy like him that can actually outrun you if you're a step behind or he can run you over if you're on your heels, a guy like Dalvin, he can read all that," Rhodes said. "He can read your body language, so you have to be careful with how you are. You have to have him in a great position where he can only go one way, and that's inside.

"You have to force him inside to your help because if you allow him to have a two-way street on you, it's over. There's no tackling him. There's no catching him because he's really explosive."

Cook's health has been a matter of high importance. After knee and hamstring injuries to his right leg limited him to 15 games in his first two seasons, he has shown just how critical his staying healthy is for his team to sustain success.

"If it's a win or loss, just stick to the routine," Cook said. "So you get your body back right physically and mentally. It can drain you in both ways."

A routine built off what has worked for him, along with ideas he has gotten from teammates, makes Cook's off-field rehab just as important as the time he spends cramming for an opponent.

"You can tell he's hungry and it means a lot to him," O'Neill said. "I see him in here on Tuesdays, on the days off when people aren't here. He's in here with the strength coaches, by himself, and it's just no surprise to us that it's happening."

Over the summer, Cook worked out with Bills running back Frank Gore, who is 12 years his senior and shared some tips on career longevity, along with former Jaguars backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor.

Following games, Cook checks off a host of things on his to-do list: Pilates, massages, dry needling, boxing with strength and conditioning coaches to work on his rhythm. Sharpening his reactionary speed from a mental standpoint was also important after almost a season out of the game while recovering from his ACL injury.

"It kind of sets you back on your timing, how you hit holes, how you see things," Cook said. "My vision is never going to fall off, but the timing of everything is the key to playing running back, and I felt like that was missing last year."

Cook ranks fourth overall in fan voting (259,313 votes), but his chance to win the MVP is probably a long shot. It is often viewed as a quarterback's award, as only four running backs have won the MVP in the past 20 years.

Accolades aside, the numbers prove the obvious: Minnesota is better with Cook on the field. Down the stretch of the season, Cook's explosive playmaking abilities will be relied on to carry the Vikings into the playoffs.

It all adds up to an MVP run that rivals that of the league's best players. In Minnesota, that race has already been decided.

"I feel like we're kind of going as he's going," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "Any time he gets going, even on defense, it really gives us a boost. He's doing just an amazing job taking pressure off the rest of the offense, the rest of defense and allowing, I'm sure, [offensive coordinator] Kevin [Stefanski] to make some easy calls for him. We can trust him back there."