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In recent years, the NFL has taken a crusade against running backs the likes of which would make Richard the Lionheart proud.

Many NFL teams are paving their path to running game enlightenment with a special emphasis on blocking schemes and competent offensive lineman, rather than highly paid star running backs.

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As such, the new-age mega contracts that have been frequent with quarterbacks, wide receivers, and even a select few defensive players have eluded the running back position.

Looking at the numbers (according to Over the Cap), when searching for players that make over $10 million a year on average, there are: 11 safeties, 19 cornerbacks, 26 wide receivers, and 34 edge rushers — just to name a few position groups.

Running backs? There are only seven who make over $10 million a year.

NFL front offices are placing less and less value on star running backs — and it shows.

Prior to the eventual contract extension, many people were perfectly comfortable — albeit discouraged — to let Dalvin Cook walk, in favor of letting Alexander Mattison take the reins in the backfield.

Reports were circulating that Cook was determined to become one of the highest paid running backs in the league, and the Vikings were in a tough position financially to make his contract work for the team.

Mattison, on the other hand, was cheaper, younger, and seemingly just as competent.

After being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Mattison made an impact on the field that pleasantly shocked the front office and fans alike.

His cuts, jukes, and straight-line speed have been surprisingly Dalvin-esque, and his career average of 4.6 yards per attempt is just .1 lower than Cook’s 4.7.

But without playing a single down, Cook showed Sunday why the NFL — and the Vikings — need to value top running backs.

In what seemed like a surefire win against the previously 0-4 Falcons, Mattison couldn’t get anything going on the ground against PFF’s eighth-worst rushing defense. He finished the game with only 10 carries for 26 yards.

Yes, playing from behind as well as incompetent run blocking was largely to blame for that lackluster performance, but Dalvin Cook is currently the NFL’s third leading rusher despite missing a game to his peers.

Hasn’t he achieved those stats behind the same offensive line that gave Mattison fits?

Without Cook in the lineup, the Vikings’ rushing attack looked incompetent. In fact, the Vikings’ rushing attack looks incompetent period whenever Cook misses time.

Going back to 2018, the Vikings have performed considerably worse when Cook has not been in the starting lineup.

(Quick note: I did not include week 17,2019 in which the team played almost all second-stringers.)

Vikings Rushing YardsGamesAvg. Rushing Yards
Without Dalvin Cook778.2
With Dalvin Cook30124.6

In the seven games Cook has missed, the Vikings have rushed for roughly 46 yards a game less than they do with him in the lineup.

Is it coincidence? Failed game planning? Opposing defenses taking advantage of Cook being out?

Those are all reasonable explanations, but in the end it boils down to pure skill.

There have been a handful of talented running backs on the Vikings’ roster since 2018: Latavius Murray, Alexander Mattison, and Mike Boone. But no one has come close to the physical skill and feel for the game that Dalvin Cook brings to the field week in and week out.

One can look at a myriad of examples to compare the Vikings’ current options in Cook and Mattison, but one doesn’t have to look much further than two weeks ago.

In a now infamous rush, Mattison was stopped on this crucial fourth down play when he had all the space in the world to bounce outside and comfortably secure a first down.

Contrast that with these plays from Dalvin Cook last year:

Alexander Mattison and all second-tier running backs across the league are more than competent. They’re skilled. They have the quality to be starting running backs.

But there is a huge gulf in skill between the second-tier affordable running backs, and the Dalvin Cooks, the Derrick Henrys, and the Alvin Kamaras of the bell-cow world.

Simply put: Star running backs can perform week in and week out regardless of the competency of their teammates.

And that is worth the money.

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