Zulgad: Vikings need Chris Cook to prove he can remain on the field
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Chris Cook didn't worry much about taking notes when he attended defensive meetings at the University of Virginia.
But then Cook was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2010 and began sitting next to Antoine Winfield as the defensive backs met at Winter Park. Cook observed, and eventually began to copy, what the veteran was doing. The top three plays each opponent used were carefully charted and dissected.
"It was eye-opening," Cook said of seeing just how much off the field work Winfield did. "I would just see stuff and I would just recognize it without taking notes. But I realized if he's doing it, and he's one of the greatest, it has to work. I just wanted to model my note taking and my study habits after him and it has definitely helped me elevate my game."
Up until this season, Cook not only enjoyed the luxury of modeling himself after Winfield, but also having the veteran nearby to answer any questions that might have arisen.
That is no longer the case.
Winfield is now with the Seattle Seahawks, meaning the 26-year-old Cook is the elder statesman among Vikings' cornerbacks.
Josh Robinson, 22, is entering his second year and it appears as if he will open the season as the starting left corner opposite Cook. Robinson will slide inside when the Vikings go to their nickel defense.
Xavier Rhodes, 23, was the second of the Vikings' three first-round picks last April and is expected to play the left corner spot when five defensive backs are employed.
Among the members of the starting secondary, only safety Jamarca Sanford (27) has been in the NFL longer than Cook.
Asked if coach Leslie Frazier has talked to him about taking a leadership role, Cook said: "(The coaches) haven't really exactly said it, but I feel like it's just something that's expected of me. Being that I've been around the longest and I'm the oldest cornerback, I know what they expect from guys when it comes to playing Cover-2, 3 or whatever. I think it's an expected thing."
Entering the final season of his rookie contract, Cook has plenty of incentive to establish himself as a key member of this defense, both on and off the field.
A second-round pick by the Vikings in 2010, the 34th selection overall, Cook impressed during training camp of his rookie season. But he ended up undergoing surgery on the meniscus in both knees at different points that year and was limited to six games.
That set the tone for Cook being unable to stay on the field. He has yet to play more than 10 games in a regular season. In 2011, he again played in only six games, this time because of charges he assaulted his girlfriend. He ended up being acquitted of all charges.
Last season, he missed six weeks after suffering a broken arm on Oct. 25 against Tampa Bay.
"It's frustrating but I'm blessed to still be able to do what I love to do and I can't look back on my past," Cook said. "You have to move forward at some point. ... I feel like this is an important year. I just have to go out there and stay on the field. That's the biggest thing for me is just to show that I can stay on the field more than 10 games, 11-12 games. Show that I can finish out a season and finish it out healthy."
Despite the time he sat out in 2012, Cook still ended up leading the Vikings with 14 pass breakups. Frazier liked what he saw of Cook but he also wants to see him finish what he starts.
Cook played in the first eight games last year and returned for the final two regular-season victories over Houston and Green Bay. He also started the playoff loss against the Packers.
"He had a spell where he was really playing well for us, and then he got banged up," Frazier said. "But I thought his finish was good. He came back for the Texans ballgame, and we matched him up on their good wide receiver, Andre Johnson, and I thought he did a good job in that ballgame. He played in the remaining games, and his whole deal is staying healthy. When he is on the field, we see him get better and better. It is just keeping him on the field."
Cook, who at 6-foot-2, 212 pounds is the biggest of the three Vikings corners expected to get regular time, has used his frame to break up passes but has yet to get an interception in 23 career games.
Provided he can stay healthy, and considering how pass-happy the NFL has become, that should change in 2013.
Cook, though, isn't concerned.
"I didn't really have many opportunities throughout my first three years," for interceptions, he said. "I had a few balls here and there that I should have picked but I went back and watched every play that I've had since I came in the league and there's a few, two or three, that were just drops and then other ones were out of reach and other ones I just had no chance. They'll come. ... It's right place, right time, I guess. I don't really harp on it."
If Cook is going to become the leader of the corners, what he will have to harp on is the importance of getting off to a good start going against teams like Detroit and Chicago in the opening two weeks of the season.
The Lions, of course, feature the combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and the Bears have Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.
"We know those guys are going to throw the ball. Especially Detroit," Cook said. "They have Matthew Stafford, who probably has one of the strongest arm in the league and Calvin Johnson being arguably the best receiver in the league. We're going to get tested and I expect them to throw the ball.
"They're going to get Calvin his touches. Who wouldn't? Our first four games, they're going to test us out. But, like I said, we're going to make our plays. We're all confident guys and we all believe in each other."