Running back DeMarco Murray's goes unappreciated by most Dallas Cowboys fans. While he's not an elite back in the mold of Adrian Peterson, Murray is an above-average player who doesn't receive the credit he deserves in Dallas.
Those who might be finally coming around on Murray after his three-touchdown performance on Thanksgiving should have seen the back's stellar play coming a long time ago. In the preseason, I published four reasons why Murray would break out and explained why I was leading the Murray hype train.
One reason was that Murray is big and fast. Guess what? Speed matters for running backs. A lot. I charted approximate value for backs based on their 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine.
If a running back doesn't clock in faster than 4.50 in the 40-yard dash, his chances of NFL success are tiny. We'll always have Alfred Morris-esque outliers, but for each Morris, there are bunches of other runners who've thrived on straight-line speed.
The second reason I was bullish on Murray is that we often place too much emphasis on film study. Murray hardly looks overwhelming on tape, but he consistently gets the job done for Dallas. When a 215-pound back with 4.4 speed is highly efficient in his first three seasons in the NFL, I'm not really too concerned with what he looks like on film. The numbers are meaningful enough that I don't need to let my eyes be deceived.
Let's take a look at those numbers.
While league-average efficiency typically hovers around 4.2 YPC, Murray's career mark is 4.8 YPC. That's impressive, especially when you consider that the Cowboys offensive line has long been considered one of the worst in the league.
Take a look at how Murray stacks up with the backs drafted ahead of him in 2011.
That graph says a lot about the inefficiency of NFL teams when drafting running backs, but Murray has still been far more effective than his peers.
Murray's largest weakness up until this point in his career has been his inability to stay on the field. Is he injury prone? Maybe, maybe not. But even in terms of bulk yards, Murray blows the other backs out of the water.
Murray has missed 11 games during his three-year NFL career. At this point, it's really difficult to determine if that's due to being injury prone or simply the result of randomness. Murray could very well be more susceptible to injuries than the average player, but we just don't know that for sure at this point.
Either way, he's been efficient enough that he's certainly worth his four-year, $2.97 million contract. Murray is on pace for 1,351 total yards, 55 receptions and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2013, despite already missing two games.
The Value of Lance Dunbar
In the last few days, Murray's importance to Dallas skyrocketed. When running back Lance Dunbar was lost for the season, the Cowboys suddenly became extremely thin at running back.
I hyped up Dunbar in the preseason, and he certainly delivered in his limited action with 150 yards on 30 carries (5.0 YPC). With Dunbar no longer available to step in for Dallas in the event of a Murray injury, the Cowboys could be in serious trouble if their starter goes down.
A Severe Lack of Depth
Dunbar was important to the Cowboys because the two running backs behind him, rookie Joseph Randle and veteran Phillip Tanner, aren't NFL-caliber players. Take a look at this.
Hmm, what do Murray and Dunbar have that Randle and Tanner don't? Could it be that their above-average speed has led to highly efficient play? Fifth-round pick or not, it sure makes you wonder how Randle could have been on the Cowboys' radar, especially ahead of running backs Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington.
I was low on Randle before he was even drafted by Dallas.
Murray's Future in Dallas
Murray is an underrated running back. But should Dallas retain him after his contract ends? Maybe not.
Take a look at historic running back efficiency by age. I charted the backs according to their fantasy points per touch, which is simply a combination of yards and touchdowns.
That's a pretty shocking graph and points to the importance of youth at the position. Running backs play at near peak efficiency from the moment they enter the NFL. Murray will already be 26 years old next season, so he's probably not the future for Dallas at the position.
Instead, the Cowboys need to draft a running back in 2014, but they don't need to spend a high pick on one. Actually, since 2000, running backs drafted in the first two rounds have averaged 4.23 YPC. Those drafted in the third round or later have totaled 4.25 YPC.
Running back is such a dependent position that there's no need to waste a high pick on a player. But instead of drafting a slow, thin back in the fifth round, this time the Cowboys should go with one who actually has the prerequisite skill set to even produce in the NFL.
In short, they need to find their DeMarco Murray 2.0.