The two biggest names left in free agency came off the board in quick succession Monday.

First, Ezekiel Elliott agreed to terms with the Patriots, ending a five-month stint in the NFL wilderness for the former Dallas Cowboys star.

Hours later, Dalvin Cook joined one of New England’s primary rivals, the New York Jets. He’ll be yet another weapon for new quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Neither landing spot was surprising.

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All along, Elliott seemed like an obvious choice for the Patriots, who lacked any semblance of proven depth behind lead back Rhamondre Stevenson. Cook had long been linked to the Jets, and an earlier report indicated New England’s interest in the ex-Minnesota Viking, described as “peripheral” by The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, had faded.

Elliott, as expected, signed the cheaper contract, getting a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. He received a $1 million signing bonus and a $3 million base salary, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and can earn the rest through incentives. Cook’s deal reportedly has a $7 million base, with a chance to make up to $8.6 million if he hits his incentives.

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The specifics of both contracts had yet to be reported as of Wednesday morning, so we don’t know what each back needs to do to earn his maximum value. But for now, you can view this as Elliott getting $4 million from the Patriots and Cook getting $7 million from the Jets.

(UPDATE: According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, Elliott actually got a $600,000 signing bonus and $1.55 million base salary from the Patriots, plus $850,000 in per-game roster bonus and $3 million in available incentives tied to playing time and yards from scrimmage. To reach the max value of $6 million, he’d need to play at least 70% of offensive snaps and surpass 1,475 yards from scrimmage. It’s hard to see that happening without a long-term injury to Stevenson.)

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Should New England, which entered the week with upward of $16 million in salary cap space, have shelled out an extra few mil and prioritized signing Cook? That’ll be a valid second guess if he becomes a key weapon in Rodgers’ arsenal and Elliott fails to impress in Foxboro. Cook averaged half a yard more per carry in 2022 and is widely considered the better player entering this season, even if both 28-year-olds are past their respective primes.

But you can argue that Elliott was the better fit for what the Patriots needed.

Though his all-around effectiveness has diminished in recent years, Elliott still excels in three areas: short yardage, pass protection and ball security. Let’s break those down (stats via Radar360 and Pro Football Focus):

Short yardage
Even after falling behind Tony Pollard in the Cowboys’ backfield hierarchy last season, Elliott remained one of the NFL’s most efficient goal-line rushers. He scored on eight of his 13 carries from inside the 3-yard line (61.5%) and seven of his eight carries from the 1-yard line (87.5%), ranking second in the league in 1-yard touchdown plunges behind Detroit’s Jamaal Williams.

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Cook was far less effective in those situations, scoring on two of nine carries from inside the 3 (22.2%) and two of six from the 1 (33.3%). The man Elliott will be backing up in New England also was not especially effective at the goal line. Stevenson was 1-for-6 on attempts inside the 3 and 1-for-3 on 1-yard tries.

Thanks largely to this goal-line prowess, Elliott was able to score 12 touchdowns last season and 24 over the last two even as his role shrank. Cook had 16 during that span. Stevenson had six last season in his first year as a No. 1 back.

You saw a similar gap between Elliott and Cook in third/fourth-and-short scenarios, though the former saw far more opportunities there than the latter. On third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards to gain, Elliott carried an NFL-high 26 times and converted 73.1%. Cook was at 50% on six attempts. On third/fourth-and-1, Elliott converted on 81.3% of his rushes, while Cook went 2-for-5 (40%).

Offensive line play is an important factor when evaluating short-yardage rushing performance, but the advanced metrics didn’t see a sizable gap between the ones Elliott and Cook were running behind. PFF’s final O-line rankings for the 2022 season had Dallas in 13th and Minnesota 14th.

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The Patriots, whose much-maligned line surprisingly graded out as PFF’s 11th-best, were awful in all of the aforementioned categories. They ranked 28th in goal-to-go conversion rate, 26th on third/fourth-and-short and tied for 20th on third/fourth-and-1.

Pass blocking
Elliott has a reputation as being one of the league’s best at picking up blitzers, while Cook is viewed as a less-than-stellar pass blocker. Some of that is anecdotal, but the numbers favored Elliott in 2022. He allowed pressures on just 4.9% of his pass-blocking opportunities last season, per PFF. Cook was at 10.2%.

With the state of New England’s O-line — specifically the right tackle position — a major question mark, the Patriots might need that extra layer of security in front of quarterback Mac Jones.

Ball security
Elliott has dealt with fumbling issues at times in his career. But over the last two seasons, he was excellent in that regard. Elliott touched the ball 532 times in 2021-22 (468 carries, 64 catches) and fumbled just once — in Week 9 of the ’21 campaign. He’s gone 23 straight regular-season games without putting the ball on the ground.

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Cook? His seven fumbles over the past two seasons were tied for fourth-most among running backs.

Stevenson also battled ball-security problems as his body wore down last season, with all four of his fumbles coming in the Patriots’ final six games. Three of those occurred in the final three weeks, including the one he lost at the 5-yard line in New England’s four-point loss to Cincinnati.

Health also could be a factor here.

Cook played in every game last season for the first time in his career, but he’s coming off offseason shoulder surgery and isn’t yet ready to practice. Jets coach Robert Saleh said it would be at least a week before he’d be able to get on the field with his new team. Perhaps that scared off the Patriots, whose last Stevenson understudy, Damien Harris, struggled to stay healthy.

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Elliott is no sure thing from an injury perspective, but the Patriots believe he can be the reliable, high-end No. 2 back that they lacked both last season and this summer. He seems like a good match.

“He’ll do great up there,” Elliott’s former head coach, Mike McCarthy, told reporters Tuesday. “Play-style alone, I think he’s a really good fit for how they like to play.”

Featured image via Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports Images