Ezekiel Elliott, the highest-paid running back in NFL history, was the third-best running back on the field at AT&T Stadium Sunday night.

For fans, the Vikings’ 28-24 stiff-arming of Elliott’s Cowboys was thrilling. For Dalvin Cook’s agents, it was a three-hour, 33-touch PowerPoint presentation they’ll no doubt use when it comes time to butt heads with Vikings salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski. And for the many NFL teams leery of overpaying running backs, Vikings rookie Alexander Mattison was another fresh-legged example of the position’s many younger, cheaper and still high-quality laborers.

Monday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked whether there was much drop off between Cook, the best back in football, and Mattison, who ran the ball eight times for 52 yards and a game-high 6.5-yard average.

“No,” he said, “[Mattison] is a good player. He runs hard, he’s physical. I think he averaged six-something, maybe.

“He can take some of the carries off Dalvin. I like the way he finishes runs. He seems like he’s always falling forward and is an aggressive-style runner.”

Elliott’s 20-carry, 47-yard dud didn’t diminish him as an elite modern back who’s in his prime and worthy of a record-breaking six-year, $90 million contract that came with a $15 million average salary and $50 million in guarantees.

But his two more effective peers on Sunday night’s other sideline — Cook and Mattison — rank 39th and 60th among running backs in average annual salary at $1.58 million and $867,795, respectively. And, unlike Elliott, neither was drafted in the first round.

Cook, right now, is the most explosive running back in football. He proved that again on a national stage with 183 scrimmage yards that were as quick and powerful as any he’s had as a pro.

But don’t overlook Mattison’s role, both Sunday night and through 10 games as arguably the best No. 2 back in the league.

Just compare what Sunday night’s teams did at the end of the third and fourth quarters.

The Cowboys were trailing by four points when they passed their way into the red zone in the game’s closing minutes. Then, much to their fans’ chagrin, they tried to muscle their way into the end zone.

On back-to-back runs, Elliott, the two-time rushing champion, was dropped for no gain and a loss of 3 yards.

Now stack that next to what the Vikings did a quarter earlier while trailing by a point. During a 13-play drive, they run the ball on 10 consecutive snaps to end the third quarter.

And they didn’t just lean on Cook. He ran five times for 27 yards and a touchdown on fourth-and-goal. But Mattison ran it four times for 35 yards, including a 5-11, 220-pound cannon blast over left tackle that went from the Cowboys’ 17-yard line down to within inches of the goal line.

Zimmer said Mattison’s ability to break tackles is better than expected.

“He was a good player [at Boise State], but you don’t really know,” Zimmer said. “I think his ability to hit the hole and then the violence he runs with … he doesn’t go down easy and doesn’t go out of bounds.”

As the last pick of the third round, Mattison is making $495,000 this season. Two of his predecessors as Vikings backups are Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray, who are ranked seventh and 17th among running backs in average annual salary at $7.5 million and $3.6 million, respectively.

Murray is having a solid season as a backup in New Orleans, but a torn ACL has kept McKinnon from playing a single down since signing with the 49ers before last season.

Mattison has 79 carries for 389 yards and a 4.9 average. Murray has six more carries, 18 fewer yards and a 4.4 average.

Mattison’s yardage total is more than the No. 1 rusher in Arizona, Atlanta, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami and the Chargers. And no other No. 2 back can match the combination of Mattison’s yardage total and average per carry.

Fellow rookie third-rounder Devin Singletary of Buffalo has a 6.4-yard average but fewer yards (309). Five other No. 2 backs also have a better average but fewer than 288 yards.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman is the only No. 2 back with more yards (395). But he has a 4.3 average.

“Yeah,” Zimmer said of Mattison, “he’s a good back. And we’re glad we have him.”


Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com