When healthy, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is one of the best all-around backs in the league. A rare combination of speed and size, we’ve seen Murray break big runs in the open field and bowl over defensive linemen. He’s an adept blocker and caught 53 passes out of the backfield in 2013. Murray enters a contract year in 2014 coming off his first Pro Bowl season, so what’s it going to cost to keep him?
First let’s establish his place among the league’s hierarchy of backs. Here’s a breakdown of some of Murray’s 2013 season stats, along with his NFL ranking in each category, courtesy Pro Football Reference:
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Judging by his production, it’s fair to say DeMarco Murray is a Top 10 back. When he’s healthy. But we’ll get back to that. And these stats don’t really measure his value as a blocker and a receiver out of the backfield, important traits for a running back in today’s pass-happy offensive schemes. Now let’s look at what Top 10-caliber backs have fetched on the open market recently, courtesy overthecap.com and Roto World:
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Jonathan Stewart is not a Top 10 back, but he’s included here because the age is right, the year he signed is right, and the contract terms are too hilarious not to share.
If we exclude the Peterson contract as an outlier, top NFL backs tend to get about 5 years at $7 million a year, with an average of around $15 million guaranteed. Now let’s chip away at that.
Murray has missed 11 games in three seasons with injuries to his ankle, foot, and knee. Peterson missed three games in four years prior to his massive extension. McCoy missed two games in three seasons. Same with Foster. None of the other backs on this list missed more than four games prior to signing extensions.
At 26, Murray would also be among the oldest backs on this list, should the Cowboys choose to extend him this year. Notice six of those eight contracts are structured in such a way that cutting the player at age 29 won’t result in too much dead money. The Circle of Life for an NFL running back has a notoriously short radius, and smart GMs plan for that.
Finally, there was plenty of pending free agent talent goosing the market in 2012, when six of these contracts were signed. The running backs from Murray’s draft class are less inspiring, and less likely to push up prices. The “stand outs” are pretty much limited to Mark Ingram in New Orleans, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in New England, and Detroit’s Mikel Leshoure. Murray is easily the class of the 2011 draft. The Cowboys are rightly worried about how contract terms for pending free agent wide receivers such as A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Michael Crabtree might impact the market price of Dez Bryant, who also needs a new contract. They have no such worries with Murray.
Even with another Pro Bowl year in 2014, Murray’s agent will be hard pressed to argue his Top 10 back deserves a Top 10 contract. Age and injury risk coupled with a weak market could bring a potential perennial Pro Bowler back to Dallas for another three or four seasons on cap-friendly terms. The team shoulders some risk, but gets a productive player at a bargain price. Murray gets a pay raise from his rookie contract and the chance to post some special peak seasons running behind three first-round draft picks. For the right deal, one high on performance incentives and low on injury guarantees, everyone wins.