Dalvin Cook leads the NFL in rushing yards, and the Vikings tailback’s 100-yard games seem to be aligned like steppingstones toward a big payday.
That payday would be somewhat of a rarity, since digits in most running backs’ paychecks have become fewer. Modern front offices continually devalue the position that once had a rich stable of workhorses.
But you won’t think the value is endangered if you watch Sunday night’s NFC showdown between the Vikings and Cowboys. The team’s offenses are turning back the decades with Cook (894 yards) and two-time NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott (741), whose summer holdout in Dallas ended with a six-year, $90 million contract.
“I’m trying to go outrush him, and I know he’s trying to do the same thing,” Cook said. “It all comes back to this game is going to be won in the trenches. My offensive line against their defensive line, and it’s the same thing with [Elliott]. I think if we win in the trenches, this thing can go right for us.”
Cook sees how Elliott raised his own financial ceiling with a 40-day camp/preseason holdout that ended with the Cowboys star becoming the richest running back in NFL history, thanks to $50 million in guarantees.
About 16 months away from free agency, Cook is doing a good job on and off the field to defend the worthiness of his position. He’s eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage in 13 of his 23 NFL games.
“Running backs are valuable,” Cook said. “They take a lot of beating, pass pro[tection] — everybody’s on us when we got the ball; that’s almost every play. It’s a physical position. For guys to get rewarded for how physical, how much they get their body ready each and every week to go take that pounding, guys getting rewarded for that; the running back value kind of went down, but I think we just as valuable as any position.”
The Cowboys’ style agrees with Elliott, who touches the ball most (about 23 times per game) for a Dallas offense boasting a league-best average of 436.8 yards. Elliott is riding a three-game streak of 100-yard rushing games.
“We’re finally getting into a groove,” Elliott told Dallas reporters this week. “We’re finally playing to our potential. We’re finally just putting it all together.”
The Cowboys’ high-powered offense was the one envisioned by owner Jerry Jones when, just four days before the season opener, he agreed to the record-setting extension with Elliott. Jones made Elliott a priority, despite quarterback Dak Prescott’s looming free agency in March and a shrinking upper class of elite veteran running backs. It’s a position where a rookie contract, signed by the Giants’ Saquon Barkley before last season, ranks sixth highest in average salary behind Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman.
“[Elliott] just makes everybody around him better,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters. “We’ve built our team to be physical on the offensive and defensive lines. We want to be able to run the football, and he’s been a guy who’s been able to do that week in and week out.”
General Manager Rick Spielman will have to decide whether the Vikings, with an already tight salary cap situation and many high-priced veterans, will be among the few teams willing to secure their star running back with a lucrative multiyear contract. Cook, a 2017 second-round pick, becomes a free agent after the 2020 season.
Cook’s breakout season should initiate that discussion now that he’s realized his potential after missing 17 of his first 24 NFL games because of injury. The risk at running back is heightened, but Cook is stockpiling touchdowns to bring to the negotiating table.
Cook said he’s just focused on Sunday night, when he’ll look across the field and see Elliott and that proverbial bar he’s trying to reach.
“Zeke’s been putting in the work since Day 1,” Cook said. “That’s what it comes back to. He’s been putting in the work and not looking for a payday, just looking to get wins and looking to do good things for the organization. It’ll pay itself off.”