The Vikings currently hold an NFC playoff spot after starting the season 1-5, and much of that has to do with Dalvin Cook’s production. There have been rumblings of him being thrown into the MVP conversation, but it is unlikely that anything comes to fruition given this is a quarterback-driven league.
While he probably won’t get that MVP trophy, Cook has at least played his way into the discussion of being the top running back in the league. In PFF’s Week 12 edition of their All-Pro teams, Cook earned the second team All-Pro spot, just behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. Henry and Cook have been the debate all season, but is Henry really better than Cook?
Going into this, I honestly had no idea where I stood. I believed that Henry and Cook were at the top, but they were both so close in my mind that I couldn’t put one above the other. If I were to start an NFL team and had to choose one, durability would probably make me lean towards Henry. Looking at it from a purely talent and impact perspective, I really didn’t have a definitive answer though. But, after looking at the different responsibilities of the position, I think I have finally reached my conclusion.
This is the meat and potatoes of the position. If a running back can’t make plays on the ground, they probably aren’t going to make it very far in the NFL. It’s also an area that I expected to be in favor of Henry. We’ve all seen the highlights of him running over defenders en route to huge gains. His ability to dominate the game from the ground largely carried the Titans to the AFC Championship Game last season.
Henry leads the league in both rushing attempts and yards, which by itself speaks volumes to his ability. However, Cook ranks right behind him in both these categories. Looking beneath the surface of these stats, the two backs become even closer.
While Henry certainly has more of a reputation as a power back, neither of them shy away from contact by any means. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Cook ranks 14th among backs in yards before contact per rush at 2.5 yards, and Henry ranks 27th at 2.1 yards. On the other hand, Cook is sixth in yards after contact per rush, and Henry, believe it or not, is third, not first. Here’s the list in case you were wondering:
- Ronald Jones II- 3.2
- Aaron Jones- 2.9
- Derrick Henry- 2.8
- Nick Chubb- 2.8
- Mike Davis- 2.7
- Dalvin Cook- 2.5
At any rate, Henry is not worlds better than everyone else as a power back like everyone seems to want to believe. Granted, Henry’s sample size is larger than anyone’s, but it’s still at least close. I can’t blame you for falling into this trap though because I drank the Kool-Aid too.
There are fewer surprises here. I think that by watching the two many would think Cook is more elusive with his agility and just being a smaller guy. Cook has broken a league-high 29 tackles, and Henry has broken 23, still ranking second.
The difference is bigger when you take into account that Cook has 20 fewer carries this season than Henry. Again per Pro-Football Reference, Cook breaks a tackle every 8.7 carries, and Henry does so every 11.8 carries. This elusivity certainly makes sense given that Cook ranks better than Henry in YBC.
Finally, one of the biggest jobs as a rusher is having a knack for getting into the endzone. Looking at the stats, Cook and Henry are in a deadlock here. Both are atop the NFL in touchdowns with Cook at 13 and Henry at 12. In the red zone, Henry has rushed 50 times for 144 yards and 10 scores. Cook has rushed 44 times for 159 yards and 10 scores. Like I said, it’s pretty much a tie between the two.
The biggest question here is how much of their production can be attributed to the offensive line dominating opponents? Well, if you go by PFF’s grades, Tennessee’s line is significantly better. The only Vikings player that ranks higher in run blocking at his position is tackle Brian O’Neill.
While not always as prevalent, an RB’s ability to get involved in the passing game can make an offense much more dynamic. Just take a look at New Orleans’ offense since they drafted Alvin Kamara. They’ve had a top-five scoring offense every year since drafting him in 2017, and it’s usually either him or Michael Thomas the go-to for a conversion on 3rd-and-8.
I don’t think anyone can argue that either Cook or Henry are as good in the passing game as Kamara, but they are much better pure rushers which makes up the difference. That said, they do each have a role as receivers.
It’s not even close as to who has a bigger impact, though. Here’s the numbers.
Like I said, it’s not close. Take into account that Cook’s catch percentage is 81.4% compared to Henry’s 55.6%, and the gap is even wider. Henry’s numbers are massively skewed by his 53-yard catch against Houston, too. Then, it’s also worth noting that Minnesota has some very talented receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, so Cook’s numbers could probably be a lot higher on another team.
Finally, we come to a category that gets thrown under the radar until a defensive end gets by an RB to sack the quarterback. Blocking still is part of the job description as an RB. While neither are elite blockers by any means, it looks as if Henry has a slight edge in this department.
By PFF’s ratings, Henry has a pass blocking grade of 59.2 on 51 plays. Cook has a 54.5 grade on 41 plays. For reference, this is the same difference as Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari and Detroit’s Taylor Decker. While Bakhtiari will definitely be picked as the better lineman, the difference is really not that big between the two as pass blockers.
Taking in these stats as a whole, I think the answer has become pretty clear to me. The rushing abilities of these two players is at the top of the league when you take into account power, elusivity, and scoring. However, Cook has the edge in both elusivity and scoring when you look at his tackle-breaking skills and his higher touchdown count even with one less game played. Henry is better as a power back, but it’s probably closer than many think.
For blocking, Henry has a slight edge, and even though it is not often thought of as an RB’s role, it is still part of the game. It has to count for something.
However, the real difference here is in the passing game. Cook’s impact as a receiver does laps around that of Henry. Because of this, I think it is safe to say that I have settled the debate as to who is the best RB in the NFL. Dalvin Cook, come on down!