Will the Patriots or Jets benefit more from their free agent running back signings?
Two running back-needy teams in the AFC East helped themselves at the position on Monday. The New England Patriots signed former Cowboys All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott, while the New York Jets inked former Vikings standout Dalvin Cook.
Cook was released by Minnesota in June. He signed a one-year, $8.6 million contract with the Jets. Elliott can earn up to $6 million on his incentive-laden deal in New England. Cook’s contract is worth more, but is that worth commensurate to his value to the team? Both backs are 28 years old and are former Pro Bowl players. Cook has made four straight, while Elliott has been named to three (most recently in 2019). Elliott has 2,167 career touches between rushes and receptions, but has been fairly durable, missing just 10 of a possible 113 games in his career. Cook has less total touches (1,503) but has been a little less durable. Excluding his rookie season, during which he appeared in just four games, he’s missed 13 of 85 contests. Cook did play in all 17 games last season, however, as well as Minnesota’s playoff loss to the Giants.
You could make an argument that 664 less touches, which equates to two seasons for a full-time back, makes Cook the more valuable acquisition. That, however, may not be the case. The key to determining each player’s value lies in the role he will fill.
In New England, the Patriots needed depth behind incumbent Rhamondre Stevenson, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year but wore down as the season progressed. The backups to Stevenson — Ty Montgomery, Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, struggled in camp, prompting Bill Belichick to seek a more reliable alternative. Stevenson will remain the starter as he seeks to become the first New England back to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since Curtis Martin in 1996-97. But when Belichick wants to spell him, or if Stevenson goes down for an extended period of time, Elliott is a fine alternative.
Elliott also sures up New England’s biggest need at running back, which is in short yardage. Stevenson was 28th in the league last season at converting 3rd-down runs, while Elliott was excellent in that area. Elliott had the fifth best percentage of red zone runs that went for zero or negative yards, and he converted 8 of 11 carries from the +3-yard-line or better into touchdowns. Elliott is the one-cut-and-go veteran who immediately upgrades a Patriots offense that finished last in the league in red zone scoring percentage.
Cook upgrades New York’s running back room, too. He is a talented back with 5,993 yards and 52 touchdowns over six seasons. He has a hard-nosed, downhill running style that will make him a fan favorite in New York. And he’s perfectly suited to take on a heavy workload at running back while incumbent starter Breece Hall recovers from the knee injury that ended his 2022 season in Week 7.
What happens when Hall returns, however? He’s New York’s future at running back, and after averaging 5.8 yards per carry last season prior to the injury, it seems logical he’ll want his feature role back. If Cook gets off to a great start, will he be content making way for Hall? The Jets feel like a team teetering on a see-saw. If everything goes well, they are as talented as anyone in the AFC and could win the conference. If not — if the New York media gets under Aaron Rodgers’ skin, and the Hall/Cook situation becomes sticky, and the Jets stumble out of the gate, the bottom could drop out. Cook was a popular locker room presence in Minnesota and drew the respect of his veteran teammates, so it’s unlikely he’ll become a distraction, particularly given the fact he’ll need a new contract in 2024. The balancing act the Jets may have to navigate, however, makes this a riskier signing than Elliott’s in New England.
By signing Cook, New York bolsters its claim to championship contention in the AFC. By signing Elliott, New England gives quarterback Mac Jones a security blanket that just might save his job. All things considered, the Cook signing is probably a better short-term deal, while the Elliott signing fits the roster better over the course of a full season.