Dalvin Cook, who on Tuesday was named to his first career Pro Bowl, is featured on the cover of the Playbook for the Vikings-Packers game on Monday Night Football. Cook's status is unknown at the time of posting this story.
Dalvin Cook's eyes are his lenses, taking a mental snapshot before ever snap.
The visualization technique helps Cook diagnose the action and often allows him to have a counter move that utilizes one of his many athletic gifts.
"I've always done it … it's like reading a book, right when you get in your stance," Cook said. "That's why I line up so fast … just read the book and give you a visual of what's going on."
That approach has helped Cook produce multiple memorable plays in 2019, whether it was his 75-yard touchdown scamper at Lambeau Field or his 31-yard catch-and-run against Washington on Thursday Night Football, where he moved at a different speed than the defenders.
View photos from the 2019 season of Vikings RB Dalvin Cook who was named to the 2020 Pro Bowl hosted in Orlando.
Cook has played plenty of football in 2019, and he has played it as well as any other running back in the NFL.
The third-year back currently ranks seventh in the NFL with 1,135 rushing yards and is tied for second with 13 rushing touchdowns.
After being limited to just 15 games in his first two seasons because of ACL and hamstring injuries, Cook has emerged as the focal point of Minnesota's offensive attack.
He's also delivered highlight after highlight in 2019, but rarely with the same move or tactic. Cook has shown he can run through defenders, zip around them or glide once given space in the passing game.
We asked teammates and coaches, "What is Dalvin's best attribute on the field, and how does that make him on successful?"
First came the humorous responses.
"This is going to be a big article if you want to talk about that," Vikings safety Anthony Harris said with a laugh. "I feel like he does everything really well."
Quipped Vikings fullback C.J. Ham: "This is almost an impossible question."
Not according to Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, who brushed off the thought that the answer wouldn't be easy to pick.
"Yeah, it is [easy]," Polamalu said with a smile. "He's smart. Smart kid. Smart football IQ. It's unbelievable."
The longtime coach who spent time at both USC and UCLA detailed how Cook's brain might be his best gift.
"He understands football, the patterns, the [run] fits, coverages. He's a really smart kid, and it's almost an innate thing," Polamalu said. "He's played a lot of football, so he sees it and understands it and doesn't have to repeat something.
"You go back to when he first got here [in 2017]. We left him in on third downs as a rookie, and he's in there seeing all the different exotic [blitzes]," Polamalu added. "He understands the combination of blocking, the depth of routes, why he has to run it at that [depth]. And he understands were to escape."
Polamalu said what he liked most about Cook coming out of Florida State was his toughness and willingness to compete, traits he felt were best highlighted in Cook's final college game.
The Seminoles were matched up against Michigan in the Orange Bowl at a time when some college players were choosing to skip bowl games to get ready for the NFL.
Not Cook, who played and excelled, running for 145 yards and a score on 20 carries. He added 62 yards on three receptions for good measure.
That toughness endeared Cook to the Vikings, who traded up and took him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 41st overall pick.
And it's made an impression on Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak, who is in his first season in Minnesota but has been around plenty of top-notch backs.
"The one characteristic … when I look at some of these backs that I've had — Arian Foster and [Clinton] Portis — they have a toughness edge to them," Kubiak said in mid-November. "Dalvin's not the biggest guy in the world, but when he runs, he runs angry, pass protects. He'll stick his face in there, do those types of things.
"Those guys have an edge, and Dalvin has it. The thing that Dalvin's done a great job for us, he's a three-down player," Kubiak added. "He's on the field protecting Kirk [Cousins], catching the football, so we're able to get him other ways to help us win than just handing it to him."
Vikings running backs Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone helped distribute free healthy meals from the Vikings Table food truck.
Those who get the chance to play with Cook on offense rave about other factors that make him special.
Ham eventually found his answer to the "impossible" question, going with Cook's creativity. The fullback couldn't name them all, but he said there have been dozens of instances where Cook picks up six or seven yards on a run that should be a minimal gain or perhaps a loss.
"Really, just his ability to make something out of nothing," Ham said. "Maybe my guy beats me, but then he makes my guy miss … but he creates on the run, and that makes him a special running back.
"We had a play [in Detroit] where I was supposed to get up to the safety and I got up to him late. The safety met him in the hole, and it should have been maybe a 1-yard gain," Ham added. "He turned that into a plus-10 run and got the first down. We were still successful because of him."
The play Ham referenced occurred midway through the first quarter at Ford Field. Lions safety Tracy Walker shed Ham at the line of scrimmage and attempted to bring down Cook, only to see No. 33 in the white jersey absorb contact, spin away and gallop for 15 yards.
As Cook slipped away, all Walker could do was flail his arms out to try and bring down the elusive back.
Pull up that highlight clip, and you'll notice Vikings running back Mike Boone going wild on the sideline while cheering for Cook.
Boone struggled to come up with a singular answer for our question.
"One thing? I can't honestly say one thing. It's multiple things," Boone said. "The way he presses the line of scrimmage to set up his blocks … he's great at that. His feet are so quick, man. He can hit any hole with any amount of space. It's not one attribute."
Harris pondered the question and eventually went with Cook's balance, a trait the safety said would drive him mad if he had to go against him in a game.
Harris pointed to Cook's work in the passing game — the running back has 53 catches for 519 yards — and said he almost feels bad for opposing defenders who are often left in the dust when they close in on Cook.
"One thing I always see is, whether you want to call it balance, but those yards after first contact," Harris said. "The first guy rarely gets him down. Whenever I see he's 1-on-1 … I think, 'That [defender] is going to miss. And I think the second guy has a high chance of missing, too.'
"Whether it's his balance or ability to lower his pad level and run after contact — whatever combination that is — it's amazing," Harris added.
Cook, too, was presented with the question about himself. He went with his vision, a trait that is enhanced by those mental snapshots he takes before each snap.
"I'm fast, obviously, but I think it's my vision that sets me apart," Cook said. "Seeing stuff and trusting it … that's what vision is all about. Trusting your eyes and getting to where you're going."
And similar to the split-second decisions Cook makes on the field, he already had a play in mind to describe how he relies on his vision.
Minnesota led 28-7 late in the third quarter of a Week 3 home game against Oakland. The Vikings faced first-and-11 at their own 38 when the play call was for Cook to take a handoff and veer right.
But with his mental snapshot already taken, Cook said he anticipated an opening on the left side of the line before the play began.
The 24-year-old promptly took the handoff and immediately made a jump cut to his left, breezing past rookie defensive end Clelin Ferrell's attempted tackle and through a hole created by tight end Kyle Rudolph and left tackle Riley Reiff.
"I took it backside even though I knew the guy was back there because I knew I could break his arm tackle," Cook said. "That's just trusting your instincts and your eyes once again. I knew he was back there, but I believe in myself to break through that tackle and do what I do."
Cook finished with an electric 25-yard run on the play, his longest carry on a day where he cruised to 110 rushing yards on just 16 carries.
Truth be told, Cook has used all of his incredible attributes to help the Vikings be in playoff contention in the final couple weeks of the season. His smarts, toughness, creativity, balance and vision are just a few of the tools he has in his arsenal.
It's just a matter of which one he's going to use on the next play.
"Dalvin does [something new] every single week," Ham said with a shake of his head.
Through it all, Cook brings an infectious joy to teammates and the sport.
He likes to hop up and down after big runs, throw his hands in the air to get the home crowd going and hand the ball to an offensive lineman after a touchdown for a colossal spike of the pigskin.
"That just comes from not taking the game too serious," Cook said. "Once you're too locked in or too serious about it, I think you can overlook the fun part of playing football.
"We've been playing football from whatever age you started — I started playing when I was 4 — and I wasn't worried about no pads," Cook added. "Just playing football … that's what I try to revert myself back to. Once I touch the field, it's just having fun and being Dalvin."