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Reporters' Notebook

Dalvin Cook's return, Falcons LB buzz, Jordy Nelson's impact

With all 32 teams in the thick of training camp,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- The most buzzworthy development from Falcons camp.

-- A source of optimism for the Lions.

-- Jordy Nelson's impact for the Raiders.

But first, one of the NFL's top young RBs opens up to Jeffri Chadiha about his return from injury ...

EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook can only laugh about his stubbornness today. There he was last October, dubiously watching Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman inspect his injured left knee in the third quarter of what would become a 14-7 loss to the Detroit Lions. Cook had been running an inside zone play when he cut, surged past the line of scrimmage and then felt a strange crack in the joint. Sugarman saw the play from the sideline and sensed immediately that Cook had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. Cook wasn't so willing to accept that diagnosis.

"I was in denial at first," Cook told me after practice on Wednesday. "I always thought an ACL injury was a real freaky injury. Mine wasn't like that. I made a cut and felt something, but that was about it. I kept telling (Sugarman) it wasn't my ACL. But then I woke up all stiff the next day, and that's when I told my mother something was wrong. It was tough swallowing that pill, because we were building something."

The Vikings are still building something, as anybody who watched the defending NFC North champions go 13-3 and reach the NFC Championship Game would attest. The only difference now is that they hope to have Cook play a bigger role in whatever success they achieve. The Vikings lost him only four games into the 2017 season, at which point he already was exciting fans with his quickness and versatility. If Cook is anything close to what he showed as a rookie -- and free-agent signee Kirk Cousins delivers on all his promise -- the Minnesota offense will be as scary as any in the league.

Cook already had rushed for 354 yards on 74 carries when his knee blew out. That pace would've given him 1,416 yards over 16 games, which would've been plenty good enough to lead the NFL. Now consider the fact that Minnesota has another talented back to pair with him in the backfield (Latavius Murray), a duo of dangerous receivers with big-play ability (Stefon Diggs and Pro Bowler Adam Thielen) and a two-time Pro Bowl tight end (Kyle Rudolph). As long as the Vikings' offensive line can stay healthy -- and they already are dealing with injuries to three starters in training camp, including one that could be season-ending -- it's easy to see why Cook is so excited about his potential in this system.

The Vikings even had him running some wide receiver drills during the offseason to gauge the ways he could be used in a game plan.

"He really has a second gear to be a home-run hitter every time he touches the football," said Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. "We're going to keep putting him in different spots to just get him the football. He's going to be an explosive guy anywhere he gets the football, whether that's running it, catching it, screens, whatever."

"When you have an honest defense, there's so much that a running back can do," Cook said. "We have the weapons outside, threats at tight end and backs that can run. If we keep the defense honest, we'll be something special to watch."

Cook is candid about how hard it was for him to watch from the sidelines last season. He'd never sat out for nearly a full season in his life. It was even more difficult to do that on a team like Minnesota's, one that relied as much on chemistry as it did sheer talent. There were plenty of days when Cook kept his spirits up by talking to teammates like Murray and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

The only upside in Cook's injury was the timing of it. His recovery went faster than anticipated and he was able to be a limited participant in offseason workouts while wearing a protective brace. By the time the Vikings started training camp, Cook had dumped the brace because, as he said, "It wasn't limiting but you know you have it on." He also was ready to go when the Vikings held their first training camp practice in pads.

Cook's teammates have been impressed by what they've seen thus far.

"He looks explosive," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. "He looks quick and he looks healthy."

Added Thielen: "It's a totally different offense with him back. The guys who filled in last year did a great job -- and Latavius will play a big role this year -- but Dalvin is one of those guys who comes to work and takes care of business. It's a good thing as a receiver when he's on the field, because he opens up so much on the outside."

Cook appreciates the support he's received during his comeback. He's equally grateful for the lessons this injury taught him. There isn't a day that goes by in training camp where Cook isn't excited to simply be on the field again. All he wants is to make up for lost time and see where the Vikings could go with him at full strength.

"When you establish yourself on a team with great guys, it's hard to sit out." Cook said. "But I learned a lot. You have to cherish this game. That's why I come out here every day with a smile on my face and ready to work. I know this can all be taken away from you real fast."


ATLANTA FALCONS: LBs the talk of camp. While most of the talk with Atlanta has been about the emphasis on red-zone scoring, the true buzz stemmed from how frighteningly good its linebackers could be.

Middle linebacker Deion Jones is establishing himself as a big-time playmaker and Sam 'backer De'Vondre Campbell might be one of the most overlooked players in the NFL. Duke Riley is the weakside linebacker who plays mainly in base sets.

Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel told me that Jones and Campbell, entering their third years, play very much like Seattle's middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and Sam 'backer K.J. Wright. Though Jones is about 20 pounds lighter than Wagner, a perennial Pro Bowler, Manuel, who was on Seattle's staff from 2012 to '14, said Jones' speed and instincts allow him to get to the ball just as fast and with just as much impact as Wagner.

Campbell, a long, physical specimen, will play on the line of scrimmage sometimes and occasionally be used as a pass rusher, but like Seattle's Wright, he's also adept in coverage and is seemingly always around the ball. Riley, like Jones, is smaller, but can fly to the ball.

Manuel said that the linebackers as individuals are pretty special, but as a group, it could be the unit that really takes the Falcons' defense to the next level.

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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Flock of rookies making moves. All the focus on Lamar Jackson has overshadowed the potential immediate impact of the rest of outgoing Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's final draft class.

Start with their top pick, tight end Hayden Hurst, who seemed to be everywhere during Tuesday's joint practice with the Rams. Another tight end, third-round pick Mark Andrews, has also impressed in camp. And two other rookies have shots to start: Orlando Brown Jr. (third round) at right tackle and Kenny Young (fourth round) at linebacker.

Brown, the son of the late former Ravens tackle, is a fascinating story. Poor workouts harpooned his draft stock. He wasn't much for the weight room at Oklahoma and put up a position-worst 14 bench reps at the NFL Scouting Combine. But now the Ravens have Brown on a strength program and are seeing early dividends. Having right guard Marshal Yanda healthy and (soon) lining up next to Brown should help, too.

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DETROIT LIONS: Better days ahead in the backfield? For a team that hasn't run the ball effectively in years, the Lions sure have an intriguing group in the backfield with veteran LeGarrette Blount and second-round pick Kerryon Johnson joining third-down ace Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, who has shown flashes since spring of the player he was before a 2016 foot injury slowed him down.

"I think the competition is just so high back there, man," veteran guard T.J. Lang told me last week. "LeGarrette being the older guy, being a big guy, I think he brings a different dimension that we didn't have in the past. He's going to be hard to bring down with one tackler. I think that gives you some motivation -- 'Hey, let's get this guy to the second level, let's get him to the third level, let's see what he can do, man.'

"But I think the guy I'm probably most impressed with so far is probably Ameer. Obviously, we've got some new faces in the room, new faces in the backfield there and he hasn't hindered from the competition, man. He's stepping up and working his ass off. Kerryon's a quick (twitch) guy, he sees the defense, he's got great vision. Theo is Theo. He does his thing coming out of the backfield and making guys miss and he's got a highlight tape from every game that most guys have from the season."

Put more simply by Blount: "Everybody's special in their own way."

Blount said he's only seen a few backs do what Riddick does -- a list that includes former teammates Le'Veon Bell, James White and Dion Lewis. Those last two, of course, played with Blount on the Patriots, whose old defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, is now the Lions' head coach ... and figures to mix a similarly deep stable of backs, depending on matchups.

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GREEN BAY PACKERS: Question marks at wide receiver.Davante Adams and a healthy Randall Cobb headline the Packers' receiver group in the post-Jordy Nelson era. But the depth chart behind them seems fairly wide open.

"Geronimo (Allison) -- I've seen some good things there," coach Mike McCarthy told me last week. "Trevor Davis needs to take a step, and then after that, you've got three rookies, (Jake) Kumerow, (DeAngelo) Yancey -- you've got a bunch of young guys, and guys have got to come out of that pack. That's really what preseason games are for."

Aaron Rodgers recently spoke highly of Kumerow, who has spent parts of three seasons on practice squads in Cincinnati, New England and Green Bay, but has yet to play in a regular-season game. (Rodgers also excluded Allison and Yancey in his assessment of "piss poor" effort by some young players during a practice period Tuesday; Davis has been sidelined with a hamstring injury.) McCarthy spoke most highly of Allison, who has 35 catches over two seasons with the Packers. The rookies McCarthy referenced are all Day 3 draft picks: J'Mon Moore (fourth round), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (fifth) and Equanimeous St. Brown (sixth).

Of course, new tight end Jimmy Graham -- who once filed a grievance (but lost) against the Saints that argued his actual position was receiver -- just might catch a few balls, too.

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HALL OF FAME: One of the most powerful moments happened behind the scenes. The emotion generated from the Class of 2018 at this year's Hall of Fame events was hardly describable.

There was senior enshrinee Robert Brazile saying that the hug he got from his father, Robert, after his dad put the Gold Jacket on him was one of the few times in his life they'd ever embraced. Brian Dawkins moved us during his enshrinement speech, speaking about his battle with depression and his planned -- but thankfully never executed -- suicide.

But there was something only a handful of us experienced that took us to our emotional core.

Former Vikings, Falcons and 49ers LB Chris Doleman is battling brain cancer and is wheelchair-bound. After taking part in the "Gauntlet," where incoming Hall of Famers walk through a parade of Hall of Famers at the Gold Jacket ceremony, Doleman was wheeled through the "Gold Room," the backstage set at the Canton Civic Center where the new inductees wait and do television interviews.

He stopped in front of Class of 2018 members Randy Moss and Ray Lewis, who were about to do a television interview, and said, "Welcome to the family." He went on to say that when he was struggling with cancer initially, the Hall of Fame and its members were there for him. The financial and emotional support showed by the Hall and former players helped him push through.

He then told Lewis and Moss, "Now that you're in, I know you've got my back." He then added that he is going through the toughest fight of his life right now. Moss and Lewis said they had his back, offered more words of support and then sat silent for a few seconds.

"That changes your perspective on a lot of things really fast," Lewis said.

Yes, it did.

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Draft slotting drives top pass rusher.Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is entering his third season and went to the Pro Bowl after recording 12 sacks in 2017. And he is still not over the 2016 draft. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash said Ngakoue plays with a chip on his shoulder. Why?

"Third-round pick," Ngakoue said. "Should have been a first-round pick. Guess GMs were messing up. I'm not mad about it. I guess because I was a smaller guy playing in a 4-3 defense, I feel like I changed the game for this position, with my style, how much I weigh, the physicality I play the game with. I hope the next guy who plays hybrid in college knows."

Wash was sent to work Ngakoue (6-foot-2, 246 pounds) out before the draft and he advocated taking him in the first round. He said he has talked to coaches from teams that drafted right after the Jaguars in the third round, who told Wash they planned to select Ngakoue before the Jaguars plucked him. If the NFL could redraft that 2016 class?

"He has the ability to be a top-10 pick," Wash said. "He also fits our scheme. He could fit a 3-4 scheme. He doesn't fit into everyone's scheme. He does fit into how we are set up with a little end and a big end. I shouldn't say little. That offends Yann a little bit. He fits in well with our scheme."

New helmet rule helping Jaguars O-lineman improve. Doug Marrone, a former offensive line coach, put together the tape for the Jaguars' offensive linemen to learn the new rule that bans use of the helmet to initiate contact. One of the big questions about the rule is how it will be officiated for linemen, who play in such close quarters. Even as the rule has generated controversy, Marrone supported it this week.

"We have taken clips from practice and showed them to some of the officials that came in last night," Marrone said Tuesday. "We are continuously coaching on that, because I really believe it's extremely important to make our game safer. I think it starts with us as the coaches, because then I think it will get passed down to college, youth football and things of that nature. It is a challenge for us, but again, it is the right challenge, with player safety and trying to play this game in a safe way without losing the physicality of the game."

Marrone singled out fourth-year guard A.J. Cann for praise.

"The first player I put on the tape was A.J. A.J, I don't want to say had a problem, but A.J. would drop his head at times and put himself at risk and other players at risk," Marrone said. "The one thing now that I have seen is that he plays quite a bit now, he's playing it with the proper technique and his head up. Because of that, he has been playing better."

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Jordy Nelson's impact already being felt.Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson was talking with a visitor about Nelson before a recent practice when the veteran wideout happened to walk by. Olson called out to Nelson and asked what the former Packers standout brings to Oakland's receivers group.

Nelson smiled and paused before answering: "Age."

The 33-year-old Nelson is nine years older than standout Amari Cooper, but don't let him fool you; he brings a lot more than age to the group, according to coaches. Most notably:

-- Professionalism: Nelson arrives on time and is fully engaged during meetings. He understands what it takes to be successful and sets the example for others. For instance, he's accommodating with media requests, but not until he has completed his workouts, because he knows how important they are when it comes to preventative maintenance.

-- Wisdom: Nelson has been like an extra coach on the field and in the meeting room, using his experience from nine seasons in Green Bay to offer suggestions on specific plays and routes that could accentuate the individual skill sets of the other receivers.

-- Stability: Young receivers often feed off the energy of the veterans in the room, and Nelson is as even-keeled as they come. That means no highs or lows, which makes for a better learning environment.

Rookie D-linemen well worth the risk? It's safe to say there were a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden's first draft class in a decade. It included everything from small-school players to guys with off-the-field concerns and a player with medical issues. But after Oakland's first joint practice against the Lions, the first time these players have lined up against NFL talent outside of the organization, the results show some of the risks Gruden took may pay off.

Defensive tackles P.J. Hall, a second-round pick out of Sam Houston State, and Maurice Hurst, a fifth-round pick from Michigan who dropped in the draft because of a heart issue, were part of a defensive line that believed it physically dominated the Lions' offensive line in the trenches Tuesday.

"That was our mindset, and we were," veteran LB Derrick Johnson told me Tuesday. "Was it perfect? No. But you can still dominate and not be perfect, and that's what I tell the guys. These young inside guys we got," Johnson said, which he followed by giving me a look and mouthing "wow." "92 (Hall) and 73 (Hurst). Better than average. Just explosiveness and smart. They get a one-on-one block, they win every time. For a young guy, that's pretty impressive. And that helps me out."

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