It’s 1st-and-19, and the Dallas Cowboys are backed up deep in their own territory. DeMarco Murray lines up behind Tony Romo and Tony Fiammetta. Romo gets the snap and gives a delayed handoff to the rookie. Murray shoots up the middle, jukes two defenders and swallows up 91-yards of turf in St. Louis—touchdown.
In one moment, a star was born in Dallas, but could that star burn out after the 2014 season?
Since mid-2011 Murray has been the Cowboys' uncontested starting running back. Now, as he enters his contract year, his future seems unfamiliarly unclear, as Jerry Jones is faced with some very difficult financial decisions.
Murray has actually been extremely valuable to the Cowboys. In 11 career games with 20-plus rushing attempts, the Cowboys are an astounding 11-0. Last year Murray flirted with “elite” territory, as he rushed for 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns while also notching 53 receptions for 350 yards.
Even more impressive was Murray’s impact beyond his traditional stat line. According to Pro Football Focus (premium stats, subscription required), Murray ranked second in average yards after contact (2.71), third in rate of dropped passes as it relates to catchable passes (3.64) and seventh among running backs with a pass-blocking efficiency score of 93.6.
The stats may suggest that Murray is the prototypical all-around back, but that may not be enough when the time comes to make a decision. The evolution of the NFL as a pass-happy league has significantly dropped the running back market, and the draft is becoming the best way to supplement departing rushing production for half the cost.
Running backs are now being used differently. The implementation of spread offenses and change-of-pace backs have made it less desirable to have one highly paid workhorse. Maybe that’s why guys like Maurice Jones-Drew don’t get re-signed and why the top-25 highest-paid running backs in the league have a lowly average salary of $5.4 million in 2014, according to Spotrac.com.
The bottom line is that it's becoming easier to replace running back talent. While DeMarco Murray figures to have another 1,000-yard rushing season, his price tag promises to be somewhere in the $3-4 per year range in 2015. That kind of contract is hard to give to a player who has never completed a 16-game season without suffering an injury. With players like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Auburn's Tre Mason available in this year's draft and Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon potentially headlining the 2015 class, Murray's extension could easily fall off the Cowboys' priority list.
So make no mistake—despite Murray’s recent performance, he remains very much in the cross hairs. He’ll have to prove he can consistently rate among the best running backs in the league and that he can stay healthy if he wants a second contract. If not, Jerry Jones will be glad to draft his replacement.
The NFL is a business and aging, oft-injured running backs aren't exactly a hot commodity.