When Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott's month-long holdout in 2019 ended in a contract extension worth over $15 million per season, only three other running backs were making eight-figure annual salaries.
Now the NFL's upper class of backs has eight players, including the Vikings' Dalvin Cook, who ahead of Sunday night's game reflected on what he and Elliott have done for a position that can be shortchanged at the negotiating table.
"We did a pretty good job of waking the world's eyes back up to how much the running back position is valued," Cook said Wednesday. "How much we mean to teams and organizations.
"We do a lot of dirty work. Zeke, starting with him, they reset the market. Whatever they had to do, they did it. I appreciate those guys for doing that before my time."
Elliott set a bar that both the Saints' Alvin Kamara and Panthers' Christian McCaffery passed in annual value, while lifting the ceiling for Cook, who signed for $12.6 million annually a year ago. The Browns' Nick Chubb and the Packers' Aaron Jones followed with deals worth at least $12 million per season.
Hits and injuries pile up among running backs, but only Cook and McCaffery have missed games so far among the league's eight highest paid at that position. Now Cook is healthy, removed from the team's injury report for the first time since spraining his ankle Sept. 19 in Arizona, and looking to make another statement after his 140-yard rushing day in Carolina.
"I feel good," Cook said. "The bye week was necessary. But after the [Panthers'] game, I didn't feel too bad. I feel like I was headed in the right direction. I didn't have no setbacks."
Pierce remains sidelined; Prescott limited
Nose tackle Michael Pierce is still unable to practice because of the elbow injury he aggravated Oct. 3 against the Browns. Pierce was one of two players, joining receiver Dede Westbrook (ankle), held out of Wednesday's practice. The defensive anchor warmed up with his teammates before going into the training room at TCO Performance Center.
Linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and tight end Ben Ellefson (knee/foot) were limited. Ellefson, the blocking tight end, was already wearing a knee brace when he came up limping after a routine catch in warmups. He left practice with a team trainer.
The Cowboys returned from their bye week with quarterback Dak Prescott (calf) and left tackle Tyron Smith (ankle) limited in practice. Prescott strained his calf on the final play of Dallas' Oct. 17 win in New England, while Smith had left the game briefly because of a sprained ankle.
Jones, Willekes 'to get reps'
Defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Kenny Willekes are "both going to get reps," according to defensive co-coordinator Andre Patterson, in the wake of Stephen Weatherly's trade to Denver. Neither Jones nor Willekes have appeared in an NFL game. Willekes, a 2020 seventh-round pick, tore his ACL as a rookie. He'll have to be elevated from the practice squad before Sunday night.
Jones, a third-round pick, has been inactive for six games after missing a handful of assignments in the preseason.
"He's good on that part," Patterson said. "It's just continue to master the technique of how we play the run, how we rush the passer. It's the same progression all young guys go through. They all do. It's like I was telling him the other day, [Everson Griffen] didn't start here for five years."
'Has a good memory'
Game planning in the Vikings' defensive backs room is a bit more specific this week because safety Xavier Woods started 48 games over four seasons for Dallas before joining Minnesota this offseason. Woods' intelligence has been lauded through his first six Vikings starts, and safety Harrison Smith admitted he's been picking his teammate's brain this week.
"It's always nice having guys that spend a lot of time around personnel. You try to take what you can," Smith said. "For the most part, you're going off the tape. But Xavier's a guy who spent a lot of time there. He's a smart guy and has a good memory."