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.
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.|
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.|
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
Cook ran out of shotgun and with the quarterback under center on an almost equal amount of his attempts:
Once you look at the initial data, it’s easy to see why Dalvin 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.
Despite poor run blocking, Dalvin 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, Dalvin 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 strong 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 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|
Because FSU was fairly liberal in their rushing sets from 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.
Once again, Cook dominated. 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|
|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 Dalvin Cook and comparing his data to collegiate baselines, I was blown away 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 perform fail to achieve what we expect. However, while he was on the field at FSU behind a terrible offensive line, Yards Created showed that there is no doubt Cook was in a league of his own.
(Originally posted March 2017 at Fantasy Guru).