Alexander Mattison wasn't sure this day would come, at least not in purple.

The Vikings' new No. 1 running back spent his first four NFL seasons growing close to four-time Pro Bowl player Dalvin Cook. Mattison watched Cook dominate the playing time and stack up four consecutive seasons with 1,300-plus yards from scrimmage.

Behind the scenes, they were in awe of each other: Mattison by Cook's home-run plays and Cook by Mattison powering through defenders. They talked about how one day there'd only be room for one of them in Minnesota.

Mattison, a 2019 third-round pick, just assumed he'd be the one hitting the road.

"It reminds me of that Spider-Man meme where they're pointing at each other," Mattison said. "That's how we were in the running back room. It was one of those things where we knew eventually."

The Vikings chose Mattison, who was a free agent for five hours on March 15 before agreeing to stay in Minnesota on a two-year deal worth up to $8 million. Coach Kevin O'Connell sees Mattison's power as a path to an efficient run game and a counterpunch for star receiver Justin Jefferson.

Minnesota's front office also sought financial efficiency by releasing Cook and moving on from his $14.1 million cap hit before his age-28 season.

While Cook, who signed with the Jets, remained on the roster until June 8 amid trade talks, both knew upon Mattison's re-signing who was in the driver's seat.

"He called me [March 16] after the news broke," Mattison said. "We talked and he knew what it was going to be. He said, 'If they were going to make anyone come in and fill my shoes, then I'm glad and honored that it's you.' He passed me the keys, and it was one of those moments we'd been talking about for four years."

'No brainer'

This spring, Mattison was among a handful of free-agent runners for hire. The top of the class — the Giants' Saquon Barkley, the Raiders' Josh Jacobs and the Cowboys' Tony Pollard — got franchise-tagged. Mattison was among the second tier of free agents behind the likes of David Montgomery, Miles Sanders and Jamaal Williams.

The Vikings inquired about others while Mattison said he got "lowball" offers from the Eagles and Lions.

But a reunion quickly came together. In about 24 hours, Montgomery agreed with Detroit for $6 million annually and Williams with the Saints for $4 million annually. Mattison said that's when the Vikings' offer arrived worth up to $4 million per year.

The Vikings "had the most respect behind their offer," he said, which included $6.35 million fully guaranteed — trailing only Sanders, Montgomery and Williams among runners who signed multiyear deals. He was also promised "RB1" status.

"He's very intelligent as far as our scheme," offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. "He's always going forward. He's got more wiggle than some people give him credit for. … It was kind of a no-brainer for us to try to get Alex back."

In Minnesota, Mattison hopes to prove the position's value. Gone are the days of NFL teams shelling out eight-figure annual salaries to workhorse running backs. Cook, the 2017 second-round pick, was among the last wave with a 2020 extension worth $12.6 million annually. He got a one-year deal worth $8.6 million with the Jets.

The position's best younger players — Barkley, Jacobs, Pollard and the Colts' Jonathan Taylor — are struggling to reset the market. Sanders, the former Eagles' lead back, signed for $6.25 million per year in Carolina despite 1,269 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last year.

"We had a part in making that a reality when you have a duo like we had," said Mattison, who averaged 115.5 yards from scrimmage in six NFL starts. "Or you have a duo in Dallas that they had [with Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott]. You had all these duos and trios, now they can't just pay one guy and have the rest. It's more of a running back by committee."

But Mattison has stepped into an unchallenged lead role for 2023.

"I see it as a great opportunity to go out there and be one of the backs in this league that can prove a point," he said. "Not only to myself, not only to the people that believe in me and trust me, but with the way this market is set — these owners, GMs, [for them] to see the value of the running back position."

'Beast Mode 2.0'

Mattison has always been called "Deuce," referencing his longtime jersey number since he was a 6-year-old in youth leagues in San Bernardino, Calif., where he attended a Spanish immersion program through high school and graduated with a 4.7 GPA.

During his rookie NFL season in 2019, he earned a new nickname from Cook and other veterans: "Beast Mode 2.0," a nod to bruising former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch.

Vikings coaches believe Mattison's style can make for a more consistent rushing attack. The team ranked 26th in yards per carry last season, when Cook was too often taken down within a couple yards of the line. In fewer carries, Mattison more frequently shed tacklers — averaging one broken tackle per three runs — compared to Cook, whose rate was closer to one every five runs, per Pro Football Focus.

The Vikings also want to improve on short yardage runs. They ranked last in 2022, converting 54% of attempts when needing no more than 2 yards on third down, fourth down, or at the goal line.

"Alex's superpower is his strength and power," running backs coach Curtis Modkins said. "I anticipate him being a tackle breaker."

"Whereas Dalvin maybe could go 80 [yards]," he added, "Alex is a little bit more of a powerful runner who has his own strengths. I'm looking forward to him showcasing that and helping us win."

Even Mattison's newer teammates see Beast Mode 2.0.

"I tell him all the time he kind of reminds me of like a young Marshawn Lynch because of how angry he runs," said right guard Ed Ingram, a 2022 second-round pick. "He always keeps his feet moving."

Leading a young backfield

Mattison, 25, has assumed a new role off the field, too.

For the first time this summer, the 5-11, 215-pounder from Boise State was one of the veterans hit up for questions about the playbook or NFL life by younger teammates. Both he and fullback C.J. Ham were seen after training camp practices working with second-year running back Ty Chandler on pass protection nuances and footwork.

"He's like a big role model," said practice squad running back DeWayne McBride, a seventh-round draft pick in April. "I look up to him because he's always there when I need him. He always explains the little details with the run or the pass, or how to block, how to set your feet around different runs."

Fatherhood has also brought the running backs closer. Mattison, who on Friday was named this week's NFL Players Association Community MVP for a back-to-school event he hosted for 250 local kids, and Kene Nwangwu each had their first child born last year. Ham, the eighth-year senior of the group, has three kids. Chandler also has a daughter.

They talk about sleepless nights and parenting tips. The families of Ham, Mattison and Nwangwu have grown close and spend time together, which Ham said will help them adjust to Cook's departure that "hit our group pretty hard."

"It makes us want to play for each other even more," Ham said. "When things get tough, we know we can lean on each other and have confidence in each other."

The Vikings are expected to lean on Mattison a lot this season.

Chandler and new running back Myles Gaskin — signed Aug. 30 after being cut by the Dolphins and released Friday in a procedural move; he is expected to re-sign this weekend — are expected to spell Mattison when he needs a breather. Coaches have also discussed using Ham, the Duluth native and former Augustana (S.D.) running back, as a third-down back and pass protector.— are expected to spell Mattison when he needs a breather. Coaches have also discussed using Ham, the Duluth native and former Augustana (S.D.) running back, as a third-down back and pass protector.

But even when the Vikings flirted with signing free-agent veteran Kareem Hunt during an August visit, O'Connell said Mattison's status as the lead back "will not change."

"I've been preparing like a No. 1 back since college," Mattison said. "Every week, I'm going out there like I'm starting the game, so that you don't have to switch it up or mix up anything when that time comes."

That time has arrived.