I had to double-check my roster last month to locate, corral and interview Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook. Gone were the long braids. Dismissed was the No. 31, in exchange for No. 20. The old smile was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a stern countenance that at least offered the appearance of intense focus.
Cook has missed more games (20) than he's played (12) in two seasons after the Vikings made him their top selection (No. 34 overall) of the 2010 draft. His Week 7 arrest last season after a domestic incident embarrassed the franchise and nearly scuttled his career, and quite frankly, it's time for Cook to justify the Vikings' patience and become the player they clearly think he can be.
What I can tell you, after watching him in several offseason practices and speaking to him during minicamp, is that Cook fully recognizes it's his turn. He has taken some symbolic steps toward a new beginning, including his tightly-shorn hair and new number, but he also knows none of that will matter if he doesn't produce on the field and stay out of trouble when he's away from it.
"I'm very grateful for this second chance," he said. "It was a very stressful time for me, and to know that this organization, and the people that are in this organization, stood behind me ... that gave me a sense of relief while I was going through everything."
Placed on a paid suspension for the remainder of the season, Cook was fully reinstated when a jury acquitted him of all charges in the incident. The Vikings' spring practices offered a reminder of why they didn't simply release him prior to the trial.
Cook is a legitimate 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, making him the tallest cornerback in a division stocked with big receivers from Calvin Johnson to Brandon Marshall to Jordy Nelson. He provided a glimpse of his coverage skills early last season, breaking up seven passes in the Vikings' first six games, and picked up where he left off early in organized team activities by blanketing receiver Michael Jenkins and making an over-the-head interception of quarterback Christian Ponder.
Indeed, this is a 6-foot-2 cornerback who can run (4.46 in the 40-yard dash) and has demonstrable ball skills. The chart shows how much better quarterbacks fared against the Vikings after Cook's departure last season. Several other factors were involved in the historic collapse, but all told, Cook brings with him the quiet confidence of import at a position that requires it.
"I feel like I can be mentioned among the greats, not only in this division but around the whole league," he said. "It's all mental, and it's all how you approach the game and how you study the game. I put in a lot of work here, a lot of extra time, and I'm always try to find something that can make me better."
A court order required Cook to remain in Minnesota during last year's suspension, and he said he passed the time by watching tape of every game and practice play he was involved in during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Vikings appeared pleased by his reintegration this spring -- "So far, so good," coach Leslie Frazier said -- but I was struck by how stern Frazier sounded when discussing it beyond that.
"We're hoping that he will be a starter for us this next season but [it's] still early," Frazier said. "We haven't even put on pads. We have so much work to do between now and when we open the season up against Jacksonville. He's one of those guys who we're counting on to really help our football team in 2012. We'll see how it unfolds over the weeks and months to come."
Yes, the Vikings are probably done giving to Chris Cook, whether it's the benefit of the doubt or a guaranteed starting job. It's time for him to give back. By the (very) early looks of it, he's ready.