DeMarco Murray Deserves a Big Payday That May Never Come

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 23, 2014

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Think you're overworked and underpaid? DeMarco Murray has you beat. 

Murray has been the Dallas Cowboys' leading rusher for four seasons. He leads the NFL in rushing by a margin of 298 yards. He leads the league in carries by a margin of 61, roughly three extra games' worth of work for a typical 21st-century running back.

Murray will earn roughly $1.4 million for his efforts this season. That's a lot of money for you and me, but neither of us play one of the highest-profile positions in professional sports at an All-Pro level. We also never get tackled by J.J. Watt in our daily lives.

Murray's current contract, which expires at the end of the year, has paid him a grand total of less than $3 million since 2011. Seven punters are making a higher average salary in 2014 than Murray has earned for four seasons as the most productive running back for one of the most recognizable sports franchises in the world.

The Cowboys opened talks with Murray early in the month, but don't expect any eight-figure announcements in the near future. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported Dallas offered Murray a four-year extension worth "more than any running back got in 2014 free agency."

The devil is in the wording of that report: The largest contracts free-agent running backs received this offseason were the three-year, $10.5 million deals Toby Gerhart and Donald Brown signed with the Jaguars and Chargers, respectively. Gerhart and Brown are journeymen committee backs; using their contracts as a template for a Murray extension is like using Josh McCown's contract to open negotiations with Russell Wilson.

The usually generous Cowboys are in poor position to offer Murray a lucrative extension. They have less than $3 million in cap space for 2015, thanks to a handful of massive contracts and lots of dead-money debt. They also have Dez Bryant to take care of.

Bryant's contract is up at the end of the year, and like Murray, he should become one of the highest-paid players at his position. Never bet against Jerry Jones' ability to finagle the cap, but it is hard to see how the Cowboys manage to keep both players without a massive salary purge elsewhere or the most creative accounting since the savings and loan scandals.

So Murray may have to test the market. That's where the news gets worse: The running back market just ain't what it used to be.

The New Running Back Frugality

Shaun Alexander's $60 million contract was the beginning of the end for running back salaries.
Shaun Alexander's $60 million contract was the beginning of the end for running back salaries.John Froschauer/Associated Press/Associated Press

Running back salaries have been slowly retreating for the last decade.

LaDainian Tomlinson signed a contract with the Chargers that had a reported value near $60 million in 2004. With any NFL contract, the real meat is in the guaranteed money, and Tomlinson earned $21 million once the fluff was taken out of the numbers. 

Tomlinson signed his deal just months after Clinton Portis received $50.5 million from the Redskins, including over $17 million in bonuses. Two years later, Shaun Alexander received an eight-year, $62 million deal from the Seahawks, with $15 million loaded into the first season.

Edgerrin James' rookie contract in 1999 was reported at $49 million. In 2007, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson signed a five-year contract reported at $43.2 million, with $19 million guaranteed.

Fast forward to 2014. Only four running backs (Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Trent Richardson) have contracts that guarantee more than $20 million across the term of the deal. Four others (Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, C.J. Spiller and Jonathan Stewart) receive more than $10 million in guarantees.

Guaranteed money may have crept up slightly for a select few over the last decade—with inflation, both national and in sports salaries, canceling the advantage out—but the earning potential has dropped off for second-tier 1,000-yarders.

Peterson, McCoy, Foster, Stewart, Forte and Lynch are the only running backs with contracts worth more than $30 million in total reported value. Former 1,000-yarders who change teams in their mid-to-late 20s must settle for $8 million over two years (Chris Johnson) or $7.5 million for three years (Maurice Jones-Drew).

When the Falcons wanted to acquire young power runner Michael Turner from the Chargers bench in 2008, they paid $15 million guaranteed in a six-year contract. When the Browns wanted young power runner Ben Tate from the Texans bench, they got him for $6.2 million over two years.

Eighteen running backs counted for $4 million or more against the salary cap in 2009. Only 12 occupy more than $4 million in cap space in 2014, even though the cap itself has increased by $10 million.

Adrian Peterson's $36 million guaranteed contract, signed in 2011, sticks out like Mount Fuji on the running back salary list. That deal is now a relic of the past age of Tomlinson-Portis-Alexander contracts, a dinosaur of a compensation package that is facing extinction.

Two Offseasons of Stagnation

A 2011 injury nearly jeopardized Matt Forte's chance to earn the contract extension he deserved.
A 2011 injury nearly jeopardized Matt Forte's chance to earn the contract extension he deserved.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/Associated Press

The McCoy, Foster and Forte contracts are the best templates for a Murray deal. Like Murray, all three rushers were multidimensional, young workhorses seeking extensions from their respective teams. All three signed their new deals during the 2012 offseason.

McCoy and Foster earned roughly $20 million guaranteed each, with reported values of $45 million (McCoy) and $43.5 million (Foster). DeAngelo Williams signed a similar deal in the 2012 offseason but has since restructured to save the Panthers cap space.

Forte had to settle for $32 million reported, with $13.8 million guaranteed (early sources list the guaranteed money at $17 or $18 million). Forte's plight in 2012 may be the model for what Murray will soon face. The Bears offered a low-ball, $14 million total value extension before the 2011 season, then franchised him at the start of the 2012 offseason.

If the Cowboys are really trying to tempt Murray with "it's better than Gerhart's deal!" offers, then the low-balling has already begun. Forte had to lobby hard to earn a contract roughly on par with his peers, who in turn earned less than the backs who came before them.

That was two full offseasons ago. There have been no major running back signings or extensions since then. Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, two indispensable contributors to playoff teams, held out at the start of training camp to force modest adjustments to their salaries.

Charles' restructured deal includes $18 million in guarantees over two seasons—big bucks until you remember that Charles is one of the five most important non-quarterbacks in the NFL to his team. (He was also not a free agent, which gets around the report that Murray's first offer was bigger than any offered to a free agent.)

Murray could break the trend toward shorter deals with fewer guarantees. He could also fall victim to it.

Forte understood in 2012 that his mileage had become an issue: After 982 offensive touches in his first three seasons, he needed to make as much money as possible quickly, while the Bears knew that running backs do not come with extended warranties.

For Murray, a rusher on pace to shoulder one of history's heaviest workloads, 400 touches and a rushing title may become a double-edged financial sword.

Pinched from Both Sides

Recent first-round busts have contributed to lower running back salaries.
Recent first-round busts have contributed to lower running back salaries.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

When it comes time to get paid, running backs are beset on all sides by market forces beyond their control.

The 2011 rookie salary cap locks all players into draft-slotted salaries for a minimum of three years. Trendsetting contracts like the one James signed in 1999 are no longer possible.

Only four running backs have been selected in the first round since the rookie cap was imposed in 2011: Trent Richardson (third overall, 2012), Mark Ingram (28th, 2011), Doug Martin (31st, 2012) and David Wilson (32nd, 2012).

Because rookie contracts are determined by draft position, running backs have been shut out of the most lucrative entry-level opportunities. The fact that all four running backs on the list above have been disappointments suggests that this trend will not reverse itself.

Running backs are more likely to have their best career seasons during their initial contracts than players at most other positions. Three of last year's top 10 rushers were playing under post-2011 rookie contracts: Murray, Eddie Lacy and Alfred Morris. Three of this year's top 10 (Murray, Morris, Le'Veon Bell) are playing under the terms of their bargain rookie contracts, with Gio Bernard of the Bengals enduring several brutal hits per week to rank 11th.

Research confirms that too many carries are harmful for a running back's long-term value. Coaches have discovered multiple benefits of a "committee" approach: injury insulation; fresh legs; the ability to customize roles for fast, powerful or sure-handed backs; and so on.

Coupled with the always increasing emphasis on passing, committee systems devalue running backs, causing them to slide down draft boards. The result is a salary decrease for running backs on the front end (they are drafted lower) and the back end (they are less coveted on the open market).

Research also confirms that running backs wear down significantly after age 26. Teams know this, and the Shaun Alexander deal has become a cautionary tale.

The general manager who signs a running back after a huge year risks "buying high" for the services of a player about to fade suddenly, thanks in part to the workload that made him so desirable in the first place. The sudden drop-off explains why the Chiefs and Seahawks opted for short-term fixes to their Charles and Lynch problems: Even superstar running backs are becoming job-for-a-year employees.

Murray turned 26 in February. His workload just went through the stratosphere. Data-driven general managers (the majority these days) will be gun-shy of offering him a huge deal. Young rushers like Bell, Morris, Lacy and Bernard will soon face the same problem.

A cynic would suggest that franchises know full well that they are squeezing every last drop of juice from these running backs at rock-bottom prices, then using the player's own success as a bargaining point against him. Teams hold all the cards when negotiating with running backs, even young superstars.

Murray the Market-Adjuster?

Dec 15, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA;  Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) celebrates scoring a touchdown with wide receiver Dez Bryant (88)  in the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TO
USA TODAY Sports

Running backs are stuck in a downward salary spiral, and Murray is in poor position to make things better. The Cowboys cannot afford to offer him a trendsetting deal. Other suitors may be wary.

It's rare for a big-name, prime-of-his-career running back to change teams via free agency. Only three of last year's top 20 rushers were playing for teams other than their original club, and Reggie Bush is the only one who was ever a "name" free agent. (The Seahawks acquired Lynch via trade; Chris Ivory was a lower-tier signing by the Jets.) That makes it hard to find a basis for comparison if Murray leaves Dallas.

Maybe a cash-flush team will offer Murray something new: a front-loaded two- or three-year deal with lots of guaranteed cash. Perhaps Jerry Jones will cut his roster to the quick to keep Murray and Bryant. Maybe Murray will chart a new course for Bell and Morris, players who run the risk or whittling away their value one carry at a time without ever seeing a true NFL star's payday.

Let's hope it happens before Murray suffers a high-ankle sprain or takes the 400th handoff that will set off red flags for any would-be future employers. Murray's production has been the story of the Cowboys' success, which has been the story of the 2014 season so far.

He deserves better than to have disputes, disappointment, franchise tags, low-ball offers and holdouts become the story of his future.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. All salary information via overthecap.com, unless otherwise noted.

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