"I think I had more emphasis on being physically fit than I was last year," Cook said. "I think I reported five pounds less than I did last year, so it's not a big jump by any means, but I feel a lot better and I just look forward to keep playing. Getting a full offseason with the weight staff here and kind of falling into the system helps you progress."
Cook is listed at 295 pounds on the Vikings' training camp roster; he was listed at 328 pounds in both last year's and this year's media guide. No matter which official listing is closer to reality, the results are evident to the eye – whether his weight is down substantially or only about five pounds, he looks better conditioned.
But that might not be the only thing that gives him reason for optimism this year. Last year, he spent the majority of the offseason working as a backup center. By the end of November, he was rotating in at right tackle with Mike Rosenthal, who had just taken over the starting role from Marcus Johnson. Three weeks later, Cook was starting at right tackle and finished the season with three starts at that position.
This year, Cook has only spent limited time at center as a precaution in case of an injury to Pro Bowler Matt Birk. The extended practice time at tackle should help Cook, Birk says.
"Any time a young player can get reps, that's key," said Birk. "People don't realize how hard it is for a young player to learn a different position and he wasn't playing that position all year. It was kind of a tough situation. He's definitely a lot further along than he was last year."
Birk knows all about the difficulties playing multiple positions early in an NFL career. The Harvard alumnus started his professional career working as a substitute right tackle and right guard before making his first start at center in 2000 and making the Pro Bowl in his first season there.
"It's like night and day," Birk said of switching positions along the offensive line. "You don't realize it, but it's a whole different game at each position. It just takes time to learn the nuances of those."
Cook, who played center his entire collegiate career at New Mexico before being drafted in the second round in 2006, said the different footwork used at center still comes naturally to him. His technique at tackle is still progressing.
"The center (footwork), I did it for so long that it becomes second nature a little bit. As far as the tackle goes, that's still a work in progress. I think I've improved over where I was last year, but there is still definitely some work to be had."
Cook is officially in a competition with Marcus Johnson for the starting spot at right tackle, but all indications point to Cook winning the job. He became the eventual replacement for Johnson last year, delayed only by a three-game substitution from the since-departed Mike Rosenthal. So far, Cook has taken many more snaps with the first-team offense at tackle than Johnson, who has been working primarily with the second-team offense. "Obviously, the starter is not set in stone as we speak now, but as far as being out there (at right tackle), I think knowing my plays and knowing what to expect has taken a lot of the burden off of me, as far as knowing what is going to happen in presnap and just give myself a little advantage for the future and keep playing the same," Cook said.
"To be honest with you, after about the first series, I was like, 'This ain't really any different than practice,'" Carriker, a rookie first-round pick, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the game. "It was just like practice to me."
All the normally quotable Birk had to say when told about the quote was, "That's all right."
Asked if it bothered him, Birk said, "Not at all."