EAGAN, Minn. -- Ezekiel Elliott became the highest-paid running back in NFL history two months ago, resetting the market with his $15 million annual salary.
His extension was a victory for the running back position. The Dallas Cowboys' decision to give Elliott a six-year, $90 million deal (more than $50 million in guarantees) highlighted the position’s worth in an era when NFL running backs have been considered expendable pieces that can be replaced every few years.
"Running backs are valuable," Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said. "We take a lot of beating in pass [protection]. Everybody wants us when we got the ball. And it’s like almost every play, so it’s a physical position. For guys to get rewarded for how physical, how much they get their bodies ready each and every week to go take that pounding, guys [are] getting rewarded for that. The running back value kind of went down, but I think we’re just as valuable as any position."
Like the Cowboys this offseason, the Vikings soon will need to make a decision with Cook and determine whether he’s worth the money Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell and other top running backs earn.
Sunday’s Vikings-Cowboys matchup features two of the league’s premier backs, with Cook, the NFL’s leading rusher (894 yards), on one sideline and Elliott, who led the league in rushing in 2016 and 2018, on the other.
Cook, a second-round draft pick who is on the third year of his rookie deal, is eligible for an extension following the 2019 season. His performance in a contract year has proved his value not only to the Vikings' offense but league-wide at his position -- he is averaging 5.1 yards per rush to go with nine touchdowns. His 33 receptions for 338 yards are a part of his expanding role in the passing game, and his 1,232 yards from scrimmage are the most by any Vikings player through nine games.
Minnesota hasn’t had a running back this versatile since Adrian Peterson departed as a free agent months before Cook was drafted in 2017. In fact, many will argue that Cook’s efforts beyond the run game are what make him as dynamic as he is -- even more so than what the Vikings previously had at the position.
"The more I watch these defenses, the more I see defenses that want to prevent big plays," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "They want to make you earn it play after play after play. So what ends up happening is your running back becomes a primary target in the pass game, because defenses are going to take away a lot of deep shots and make you have to earn it. So I've seen [Dalvin] so involved in our pass game too, you start to realize, boy, your running back not only has to be a guy who can run between the tackles and make the special play running the football, but he has to be a big part of your pass game. He has to be comfortable in the pass game because defenses are going to make you throw it to him.
"How effective he's been not only running the football, but helping us in the pass game with screens and checkdowns and different things, it's been a huge benefit as a quarterback. Great running backs tend to make the first guy miss -- you can't block them all -- and the ones who are really good make the unblocked guy have to miss. And he's done that time and time again."
The deal Elliott received in early September was a long time coming for the running back, whom the Cowboys chose to extend ahead of quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper. The timing made sense given how much of Dallas’ offense runs through Elliott, who was the fourth overall pick in 2016. Very rarely do teams not pay those players their market value when their time comes.
Cook has proved to be the integral part of an offense predicated on an outside zone rushing scheme and play-action passes that ranks eighth in yards per game (386.7), fourth in yards per play (6.23), third in rushing yards per game (153.0) and ninth in rushing yards per attempt (4.75). He has shown the injury issues that limited him to 15 games over his first two seasons are no longer a concern, and it’s all setting him up to earn a big payday.
The last time Minnesota spent big dollars on a running back was the deal it gave Peterson in 2011, a six-year extension that had $36 million in total guarantees and paid him an average of $14.38 million per year. Peterson earned his contract coming off four straight Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro nods and a rushing title.
Cook has kept an eye on running back contract situations around the league, both the ones that worked out (Elliott) and others that didn’t (Melvin Gordon), but he doesn’t believe there’s a blueprint he needs to follow to earn his due.
"No, you just take care of your situation because everybody’s situation is unique and is different," Cook said. "And my situation is totally different than those guys. So I’m chasing the game. I’m just not chasing nothing else but the game. I want to learn as much as I can. I want to be the best player, the best back, the best teammate that I can be for the Vikings, and doing that if you’re chasing anything else but the game you’ll fall short of that. And I ain’t trying to fall short of that."