DeMarco Murray’s future with the Dallas Cowboys remains uncertain, with the start of free agency less than a week away. The running back is set to hit the open market on March 10, and recent transactions might indicate that the 27-year-old has a good chance of signing elsewhere.
Along with the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis and Randall Cobb, Murray will be one of the best free agents of the 2015 offseason. He was the league’s top running back in 2014, leading the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards and 2,261 yards from scrimmage. He set an NFL record by rushing for at least 100 yards in the first eight games of the season, and he totaled the third-most rushing yards in a year since 2006.
Salary cap restrictions, however, won’t make it easy for the Cowboys to keep Murray. Recent moves won’t prohibit Dallas from giving him a new contract, but they certainly haven’t increased the likelihood of a Murray return. Dez Bryant was also set to become a highly coveted free agent, but Dallas used their franchise tag to keep the wide receiver, paying him $12.823 million next season. The Cowboys also re-signed wide receiver Cole Beasley, giving him a four-year contract worth $13.6 million, more than half of which is guaranteed.
Before re-signing Beasley, the Cowboys had $142.645 million committed to players’ salaries in 2015, via spotrac.com. That leaves them less than $6 million to spend under their adjusted salary cap number of $148.578 million. With Tony Romo set to make $27.7 million next year, nearly 30 percent of the team’s payroll will go towards their top quarterback and wide receiver. Dallas might be unwilling to give Murray what he is seeking, because doing so would force them to pay Romo, Bryant and Murray close to $50 million in one year.
It will be interesting to see what kind of offers Murray receives in free agency. He made $1.4 million last season, and Adrian Peterson will lead all running backs with a $12.75 million salary in 2015. But the recent trend suggests that Murray won’t be paid close to what Peterson is set to make, despite his historic season.
Since Peterson signed his extension in 2011, the top running backs haven’t even made $10 million per season. LeSean McCoy signed a five-year, $45 million deal in the 2012 offseason, and Ray Rice agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract two months later. Reggie Bush was the highest paid free-agent running back in 2013, getting a $16 million contract over four years. Last offseason, Chris Johnson was given a two-year, $8 million deal as the top free agent at his position. By next week, it's likely that Peterson will be the only one of those five running backs that's still on the team with which he signed his contract, and there are rumors that he could be gone from Minnesota when the season starts.
As the NFL rules continue to make it easier for teams to pass the ball, running backs are becoming less and less valuable. Three years after signing a contract extension with the Philadelphia Eagles, McCoy will reportedly be traded to the Buffalo Bills for a Kiko Alonso, linebacker that missed the entirety of the 2014 season. McCoy was the league’s top rusher in 2013 and ranked third in the NFL last year, but the more than $24 million that he’s owed through 2017 has made him expendable for Philadelphia.
If the way teams value running backs prevents Murray from getting a lucrative offer, there’s a good chance he’ll be back in Dallas. Murray’s No.1 choice is to stay with the Cowboys, and he’ll re-sign with Dallas if their offer is similar to what he gets on the open market, according to ESPN’s Ed Werder.
The McCoy trade, though, proves that there are some teams who are still willing to pay a top running back a lot of money, and Murray could get an offer that the Cowboys refuse to match. The 2015 NFL Draft will feature a few potential starting running backs, and Dallas could choose to pick someone like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon or Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Drafting at No.27 overall, the Cowboys’ first-round selection has a projected cap number of just $1.416 million.
There are reasons to believe that Murray’s days in Dallas are numbered, but the team is hopeful that they will re-sign him.
"We've got to at the end of the day decide how we want to divide up the pie,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said on Sirius XM. “Of course we certainly want to give a nice piece of it to DeMarco. We'll just see how that works out. We really feel we got a great relationship with DeMarco and his agent Bill Johnson.”
With the help of Murray’s career year, Dallas went 12-4 and won the NFC East, posting their best record since 2007.