Ideally, the NFL Combine should answer questions—not create them. At running back specifically, we should make special note of weight-adjusted 40-yard dash times and the three-cone agility drill. As you would expect, being fast and relatively agile is important for NFL success. That’s not necessarily groundbreaking.

However, for a running back that was tabbed to be selected in the first round, Dalvin Cook’s Combine performance was wholly peculiar.

Cook's size-to-speed relation is well behind the likes of Leonard Fournette and last year's top RB, Ezekiel Elliott, but his 4.49 40-yard dash can earn him a comparison to Melvin Gordon.First and foremost, Cook posted a 4.49 40-yard dash time at 210lbs, giving him 66th percentile weight-adjusted speed among running backs to run at the Combine over the past 15 years. That’s solid. Inherently, Cook’s 40-time is not a red flag. To be fair, Cook’s size-to-speed relation is well behind both Leonard Fournette (92nd percentile) and last year’s first round cream-of-the-crop, Ezekiel Elliott (89th percentile). Instead, Cook’s weight-adjusted speed—among recent former-first round picks—is closer to Melvin Gordon (65th percentile weight-adjusted speed) and Doug Martin (69th).

However, as a prospective top-20 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Cook’s three-cone time was a bit of a disaster.

Among all qualifying running backs since 2003, Dalvin Cook’s three-cone was in the 10th percentile overall—meaning 90% of backs posted a better time at the NFL Combine than Cook. More specifically, per Zach Whitman’s SPARQ score approximation (which measures athletic testing data into one composite score), Cook is a ninth percentile athlete among running backs. Per Whitman, too, no running back that tested out below the 10th percentile (in SPARQ) has been drafted in the first round since 1999-2016. That is scary.

There is clearly a lot to uncover with Cook’s relatively poor athletic testing.

Let’s keep it simple, strip Dalvin Cook’s Yards Created data down to the bare bones, and answer a few key questions.

FSU’s Yards Blocked and Dalvin Cook’s Yards Created

Per Att. Data

Yards Blocked/Att.

Yards Created/Att.

Attempts: 107

0.66

5.53

Sample Average

1.10

5.13

To illustrate how sub-par FSU’s offensive line played in Cook’s five game sample, consider that of the 23 running backs I have charted over the past two years, only Louisiana Tech (0.59 Yards Blocked/Attempt) was worse on a per play basis. However, the various injuries and lack of continuity in the trenches at FSU did not really matter to Dalvin Cook.

Instead, Cook balled out in his Yards Created sample.

Cook’s unfiltered Yards Created/Attempt doesn’t stand up to the tops in the 2017 class, but because of FSU’s lackluster offensive line, we need some context here. By in large, Cook is considered a top-4 running back in the 2017 draft class. The other three running backs mentioned in the same vein of Cook’s talent level—Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Joe Mixon—each had offensive lines that averaged over 1.06 Yards Blocked/Attempt:

Name

Yards Blocked/Att.

Yards Created/Att.

Joe Mixon

1.21

6.75

Leonard Fournette

1.06

5.83

Christian McCaffrey

1.36

5.69

Even though FSU’s offensive line did not manufacture a lot of room on a per play basis, Cook did what any world-class running back would do: He transcended his situation.

Run Type Data

Inside

Outside

Counter

Toss

Other

55.1%

31.8%

6.5%

5.6%

0.0%

Cook ran out of shotgun and with the quarterback under center on an almost equal amount of his attempts:

Shotgun/Pistol

Under Center

51.4%

48.6%

Once you look at the initial data, it’s easy to see why Cook is considered a top prospect. However, Cook’s Yards Created gets better when considering important filters.

Right off of the bat, it’s notable that Florida State did not run exclusively out of shotgun or under center with Cook. Instead, we get a rare instance where a running back coming out of college is experienced in both formational sets.

The results are uncanny.

Cook dominated on his off-tackle carries and despite the poor run blocking he had while at FSU, his 7.23 Yards Created per attempt in rushes from the shotgun is by far the best in the 2017 class.Despite poor run blocking, Cook created 7.23 yards per attempt in his rushes out of the shotgun. That is by far the single best figure in my database over the last two years. For comparison’s sake, Joe Mixon (6.75) and Ezekiel Elliott (5.98) are No. 2 and No. 3 behind Dalvin Cook in Yards Created/Attempt from the shotgun.

Not only did Cook create the most yards per rush out of shotgun; he also dominated on his off-tackle (outside) carries. Among qualified runners, Cook (7.66 YC/A on outside attempts) just marginally bested Ezekiel Elliott (7.63) for the top spot in my database.

What makes his Combine so confounding is just how fantastic his Yards Created data actually is. Cook has incredible natural suddenness in his game. Above all, the FSU product is unmatched at setting the edge with his feet and eyes working in tandem to explode up the field on off-tackle runs. In fairness, Cook is closer to average on inside-zone attempts—he created 4.47 yards/carry as an interior runner—but so too was Leonard Fournette (4.46 YC/A on inside carries).

Still, all of the Yards Created data points to Dalvin Cook being an authentically strong prospect.

Defenders in the Box

7 or fewer

8 or More In Box

Avg. In Box

57.94%

42.06%

7.51 

Because FSU was fairly liberal in their rushing sets from both the shotgun and under center, Cook faced a normal distribution of defenders in the box.

For reference, I have found that the average college running back faces seven or fewer defenders inside of the tackle box on 70 to 75 percent of their attempts. As such, this gives us a barometer of how running backs perform against similar defensive fronts.

Cook dominated here, too.

Among the 10 running backs I have finished charting in the 2017 class, only Joe Mixon (6.98) created more yards/attempt versus seven or fewer defenders in the box than Dalvin Cook (6.73). So far, Alvin Kamara and Leonard Fournette (6.53) are tied for third in Yards Created/Attempt vs. seven or fewer defenders.

Everything about Dalvin Cook’s ability as a runner—from my Yards Created data—suggests that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Just check out how many missed tackles (MTs) Cook forced on a per attempt and per opportunity (carries plus targets) basis in his five game sample:

MTs Forced/Attempt

MTs Forced/Opportunity

0.495

0.453

Average: 0.360

Average: 0.365

Once again, Cook completely outshines his peers. Over the past two running back classes, Cook is second in missed tackles forced on a per attempt basis and first in missed tackles forced by speed alone (0.21). That is obviously fantastic.

What’s interesting is that despite a poor showing in the agility-based three-cone drill at the Combine, Cook’s elusiveness wasn’t an issue at all in his data. In fact, Cook is fourth in the 2017 class behind Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, and Christian McCaffrey in missed tackles forced by elusiveness (defined as “cutting” in space or in tight quarters) on a per attempt basis.

Cook’s extremely poor Combine really makes zero sense.

Blending Film, Data, and Metrics

After charting Cook and comparing his data to collegiate baselines, I was certainly surprised by Cook’s lackluster athleticism. Yards Created clearly shows that Cook produced astronomically behind a poor offensive line, prevailed at making defenders miss routinely, and to boot, he posted above-average pass protection and receiving figures. Cook’s pass protection execution rate of 83.3% is moderately strong compared to the full sample average (78%) and he is well above the baseline (3.57) in receiving yards gained per pass route run (4.52).

In a perfect world, the NFL Combine and athletic testing should work in tandem with what our eyes see and what the data tells us. In Dalvin Cook’s case, it simply doesn’t. While Cook’s straight-line speed checked out at the Combine, his agility (10th percentile three cone) and zero-inertia burst (8th percentile vertical and broad jump summation) raised eyebrows. Hopefully Cook will answer these athletic-based questions at FSU’s Pro Day.

It’s certainly easy to get carried away and let the NFL Combine confirm our biases towards players when they perform well. Conversely, it’s just as easy to dismiss athletic testing when the players that we like fail to achieve as expected. Even though his Yards Created profile is exceptional, Cook’s poor showing at the NFL Combine should not be easily swept under the rug. However, at least while he was on the field at FSU, there is no doubt Cook was in a league of his own.

Post-NFL Draft Update (5/15/2017)

It appears that Dalvin Cook's year-one range of outcomes is wider than Leonard FournetteChristian McCaffrey, and Joe Mixon's.

Let's start with some positives; the first of which is obvious: Cook's off-field, medical, and athletic-testing concerns shouldn't be necessarily absolved—but slightly alleviated by the Vikings use of a draft-day trade to secure Cook. Minnesota moved up seven spots to No. 41 overall. 

The Vikes' used a premium capital selection on a back that is immensely talented per Yards Created's data. Among the 14 rushers in the Yards Created sample for 2017, Cook finished first in Yards Created/Attempt from shotgun, fourth in receiving yards gained per route run, and he was second in Missed Tackles Forced per attempt.

There is no question Dalvin Cook is immediately the best back on the Vikings' roster and is in the same talent arena of Leonard FournetteChristian McCaffrey, and Joe Mixon

However, Cook landed in a fairly murky situation. Latavius Murray signed with the Vikings in March on a 3-year deal worth up to $15M (only $3.4M was guaranteed) and could be a thorn in Cook's ceiling. We have to remember that while it makes sense for Dalvin Cook to be the lead man in touches after the Vikes' spent a good deal of NFL Draft capital to acquire him, this is still a Vikings' team that gave Matt Asiata a significant role once Adrian Peterson went down with a knee injury. 

Asiata only touched the ball 153 times and averaged a 39% snap-rate in 2016, but he finished tied for eighth in red-zone carries among all running backs. It's quite possible the Vikings envision an Asiata-esque red-zone role for Latavius Murray in 2017. Like Asiata (220-225lbs), Murray (230lbs) is a big, grinding back while Cook (209lbs) is far more nimble.

Beyond the muddy touch allocation, the Vikings also have major problems in their trenches. Per FootballOutsiders, the Vikings owned the third-worst run blocking unit in the league in 2016. 22% of Minnesota's runs were "stuffed" for zero or fewer yards, the sixth-worst rate in the league.

The lone positive is that Cook is certainly accustomed to poor offensive line play. The average collegiate line opened up 1.22 Yards Blocked per Attempt when facing seven or fewer defenders in the box in 2016 while FSU’s group posted just 0.56 Yards Blocked/Attempt. That was the worst clip, by far, in the 2017 class. In spite of the poor line play in front of him, Dalvin Cook went ahead and finished second in the class in Yards Created/Attempt versus seven or fewer defenders in the box.

The overarching concerns surrounding Cook's possibly dampened ceiling due to Murray's presence and the Vikings offensive line gives me pause for his current RB18 draft-day cost in MFL10s. Cook's Yards Created data was stellar, but he now has a new set of challenges ahead of him to produce and pay-off his re-draft average draft position as a rookie.