I believe Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is the best back in the NFL. He is an elite package of power, burst and vision. He is excellent in the passing game, both as a receiver and a blocker.
He is mentally and physically tough, competing hard on every down regardless of score or circumstance. He’s a great teammate – his drive and ability make the players around him better.
I also believe the Cowboys will be a better team if they let Murray walk in free agency.
Given his assumed All Pro market value of $6 to $8 million annually, retaining Murray can be done only at the expense of failing to improve the talent and depth of the defense in 2015, or borrowing against future caps by restructuring veteran contracts.
In a capped league, general managers have to make tough choices: Do we keep our All Pro running back, or do we upgrade the talent and depth of our defense? Or do we try to do both, and hurt future iterations of the team by pushing guaranteed money out to future caps?
In the first three years of head coach Jason Garrett’s tenure, the Cowboys organization made a commitment to change how they manage their cap. They ate bad contracts by cutting high-priced, under-performing veterans such as running back Marion Barber, center Andre Gurode, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, and wide receiver Miles Austin, among others.
They got younger, and rawer. They played small-ball during free agency and built through the draft. They carried vast swaths of dead money on their cap. This led to a top-heavy roster – dead money affects roster depth. They looked talented, but behind the “ones” they didn’t have much going.
As a result, they struggled to compete. When attrition hammered the Cowboys late in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, guys like safety Danny McCray, linebacker Brady Poppinga, defensive end Everette Brown, and scores of other B- and C-caliber players were on the field for far too many meaningful snaps.
Those three 8-8 campaigns that started the Garrett Era were as much a result of fixing the cap as they were of anything else. Garrett said as much during his 2013 season-ending presser the day after his team lost at home to the Philadelphia Eagles – a third straight Week 17 loss, and a third straight 8-8 season in which 9-7 could have won the division:
"“Nobody’s happy with 8-8. We want to be a playoff team. We want to win the division. We want to challenge for a Super Bowl title. We also wanted to make the right decisions along the way. To build a program that can sustain itself for a number of years. So I think we’re still in that process.”"
Garrett just signed a five-year contract extension. He wants to win in 2015, but not at the expense of sustaining his program in subsequent years. Cap health is key to fielding a consistently competitive team. Cap health is achieved and maintained by hitting on the right number of draft picks every year, and stubbornly investing only in cornerstone players at key positions.
So why not invest in Murray? He is the poster boy for Garrett’s “Right Kinda Guy.” Tough. Smart. Driven. Team oriented. And an All Pro, to boot.
Sadly, he’s also a running back: A position almost entirely co-dependent on the ability of the offensive line to create creases and gaps in the trenches. From a football perspective, Murray looks great running behind the team’s Pro Bowl offensive linemen. From a cap perspective, the Cowboys invested three first-round draft assets on the O line, so now they don’t have to pay a running back.
Will they be as good at running the football without Murray? Maybe not. Can they still be an excellent running football team without Murray? Absolutely. Call it the 80/20 rule: The Cowboys can very likely get 80 percent of Murray’s production from a player who will occupy 20 percent of his cap space in 2015.
That 80 percent line from the RB position would look something like this: 1,476 yards and 10 touchdowns. Ask yourself if the 2015 Cowboys would be more dangerous with Murray, or with 80 percent of Murray and a deeper, more talented defense? Yeah, it’s rhetorical.
If DeMarco Murray, with all his Right Kinda Guy qualities, was a 26-year-old edge rusher coming off an All Pro contract year, the Cowboys wouldn’t hesitate to lock him up long term. It’s not about Murray. It’s about the position he plays, the current strengths of the Cowboys existing roster, and the realities of player personnel management in a capped league.
The Cowboys sacrificed a lot during the three years it took to get their cap in order. Don’t expect them to break it to keep a running back.
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