Dallas Cowboys Have Wealth of Options to Replace DeMarco Murray

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 19: Running back Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska speaks to the media during the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 19, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Moving on from DeMarco Murray likely wasn't an easy decision for the Dallas Cowboys.

The running back had the best season of his career in 2014. In 16 regular-season games, he touched the ball an incredible 449 times, which was almost 200 more touches than his previous career high. With his greater workload, Murray was able to compile 2,261 total yards and 13 touchdowns.

Murray entered free agency as the league's leading rusher at just 27 years of age. It was no surprise that he was considered the top back on the open market. Although he was forced to wait for it, he eventually signed a five year, $42 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Although the decision probably wasn't easy, the Cowboys never appeared to waver on their decision to let Murray leave. Their interest always appeared to be muted.

Instead of fighting for Murray, the Cowboys focused on bringing in controversial edge defender Greg Hardy and running back Darren McFadden. Even though McFadden is a running back, he can't be considered a direct replacement for Murray. His contract is small and heavily reliant on matching incentives.

With McFadden on the roster, the Cowboys have four different types of running backs at different stages of their careers.

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Lance Dunbar is a 25-year-old who has proved himself to be a capable backup after joining the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Dunbar is unlikely to become a viable starting option in Dallas. Ryan Williams was a second-round pick in 2011. He is just 24 years of age, but his career has never recovered after he tore his patella tendon during his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals.

Williams, like McFadden, is a low-risk player who will enter training camp with no expectations. Dunbar should remain a depth option if he is healthy.

If the Cowboys don't add another running back to the roster before next season, Joseph Randle would be expected to start. Randle was a fifth-round pick of the 2013 draft. He was impressive as a complementary piece last season, but it's unclear how he would hold up in a full-time role.

Randle also has some off-field concerns that make his future less certain.

Each of the running backs currently on the Cowboys roster comes with significant concerns if elevated into a starting role. Because of that, it's unlikely the franchise is done adding to the position yet during this offseason.

The franchise has repeatedly been speculated as a destination for Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Peterson is obviously the best player the Cowboys could bring in, but he may not be a legitimate option. Just this past week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer reiterated that the Vikings have no intention of letting Peterson leave, per ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert.

I'm not going to speculate on what he wants or doesn't want. Adrian's under contract for three more years with us, and that's why you sign those contracts. That's why you get these big bonuses, you know? We have no plans to trade Adrian.

Although what the Vikings are saying publicly now may not accurately represent what their intentions are privately, their resolve to this point suggests they won't be letting Peterson leave cheaply. Giving up a high draft pick for an older, expensive back doesn't seem like a smart move with this incoming draft class.

This year's running back class appears to be significantly better than last year's.

Five incoming rookies recently visited Dallas, and each would be considered a potential starter as a rookie. Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon would cost Dallas its first-round pick. It may make that choice to land Ameer Abdullah or Jay Ajayi also. If Abdullah and Ajayi do fall, they are very unlikely to fall to the Cowboys' pick in the third round.

Of the five backs who visited Dallas, only Tevin Coleman is likely going to be available to them in the third round. He could even fall as far as the fourth or fifth round.

Coleman could be very productive behind the Cowboys' dominant offensive line, but he has a limited upside because of his passive running style. Coleman submits to tackles without any violence or upper-body power.

Therefore, it's not simply a case of the Cowboys comparing Coleman to the other backs in terms of cost.

If the Cowboys want the most talented back in the draft, then Gurley is the obvious option. On talent alone, Gurley should be a top-five pick. However, the devaluation of the running back position and a torn ACL late last season has hurt his stock.

Even considering both of those negatives, it's still very unlikely that Gurley is on the board when the Cowboys make their first selection at the end of the first round.

Gordon has a better chance to still be available for the Cowboys in the first round, but he's probably not worth that investment for a team that desperately needs upgrades on the defensive side of the ball. Gordon is exceptionally fast (has clocked low-4.4-second 40), but he lacks the vision, footwork and power of Gurley.

Spending a second-round pick on a running back seems like the right balance for the Cowboys in this draft.

One of Abdullah, Ajayi or Duke Johnson out of Miami (Florida) should still be available at that point. Abdullah and Johnson are their two best options, as Ajayi's vision and decision-making would be as a starter early in his career.

Ameer Abdullah

Ameer Abdullah may not be the best running back in this class, but he is someone who can offer a familiar skill set to the Cowboys.

Like the departed Murray, Abdullah is a very explosive athlete who has a well-rounded skill set. He doesn't have exceptional breakaway speed (4.60 40-yard dash) or size (5'9", 205 lbs), but he offers the ability to be both abrasive and elusive as a runner.

Despite his physical properties, Abdullah isn't an exceptionally creative running back. He doesn't have the precise footwork or anticipation to manufacture space consistently. Instead, like Murray, he relies on his decisiveness and awareness to exploit the space that is given to him.

Behind the Cowboys offensive line, it's more important for the running back to not miss the yardage he is given than to create his own. As such, Murray was a perfect fit, and so is Abdullah.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

It's very important for NFL backs to be able to attack every area of the line of scrimmage on any given play. It's especially important for a back who is likely going to be asked to attack the edges of the defense on a regular basis. Abdullah has the speed, quickness and balance to comfortably do this.

Abdullah has just enough speed to be a big-play threat on a regular basis while not being so in love with his speed that it distorts his vision. He understands how to attack cutback lanes and proved to be a disciplined runner while being used in a variety of ways at Nebraska.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

On this play, Abdullah shows off his subtlety and discipline to evade the edge defender who has beaten his block. Abdullah is initially directed toward his right tackle, bringing him toward the failed block on the right side. His decisiveness and subtle footwork allow him to aggressively attack the inside.

The running back found the right running lane quickly and gained a first down by wasting no motion to attack it.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

As the above play highlights, Abdullah showed in college that he understands big plays don't all come down the sideline. His willingness to cut back and attack the middle of the field will prove to be very attractive to the Cowboys.

His compact frame and explosiveness should make him effective between the tackles in the NFL.

Even though Abdullah offers limited immediate upside as a receiving option or as a pass-blocker, his versatility as as runner should make him a quick contributor on offense. He likely couldn't take over Murray's full role from Day 1, but he and Randle could form a formidable partnership.

Duke Johnson

A fair argument can be made that Duke Johnson is the second best running back in this draft. The highly productive prospect from Miami offers positive attributes and traits in every single area that you can evaluate a running back.

Yet, you won't ever hear Johnson being mentioned as a first-round pick. Some mock drafts won't even include him in the second round if they stretch that far.

Why is Johnson being overlooked? It's simple. He's small. At the combine, Johnson measured in at 5'9" and 207 pounds. His lack of size paired with some injury concerns and ball-security question marks that are born out of his size at the next level will make some teams wary of his value.

Johnson will be a divisive figure for teams. Not all 32 teams will believe he can become a starting back and carry the ball 250-plus times per season. Those that do will see him as a potential three-down player because of his comfort as a receiver and breakaway ability.

Although we have no way of knowing what the Cowboys are truly thinking at this time of the year, it would make sense for them to value Johnson.

In Dallas, Johnson's ability to create and attack space would carry more value than any concerns about his lack of size to break tackles up the middle. Johnson would fit perfectly into the Cowboys' zone runs to the outside and offer a viable option to replicate the production in the passing game they lost from Murray.

Much like Darren Sproles, who measured in smaller and lighter at his combine than Johnson did, the Miami prospect is much stronger than his size would lead you to believe.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

On this play against Nebraska, Johnson doesn't get any opportunity to build momentum before he is confronted by a defender. The Miami right guard is beaten at the snap, so Johnson has to immediately adjust and run more laterally than he would have wanted to.

Despite this disadvantage, Johnson is able to break three arm tackles while picking his way through the defense for seven yards.

Breaking arm tackles in college is obviously different to breaking arm tackles against NFL athletes. However, Johnson hasn't had the opportunity to play against NFL competition yet, so we need to project forward. He was able to consistently gain forward momentum and break tackles in college.

That should take precedence over the numerical listing that represents the dimensions of his anatomy.

Johnson wasn't just a product of scheme at Miami. He didn't just rely on one or two great strengths to be effective. He proved himself to be an NFL-caliber back who should immediately translate into a successful contributor at least in the NFL.

He won't be able to replicate the physicality that Murray brought to the Cowboys' running game, but the Cowboys have the offensive line that could get the most out of Johnson.

His potential is significant, so if he comes close to that his production should be also.

While Johnson and Abdullah appear to represent the best value for the Cowboys, the team can go in many directions. Free agency has dried up to an extent, but options such as Stevan Ridley, Chris Johnson, Pierre Thomas, Ahmad Bradshaw, Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate are still available.

None of those options will represent heavy investments, while 26-year-olds Tate and Ridley in particular should still be considered young enough to offer long-term upside.

It's even feasible that the Cowboys avoid any kind of heavy investment and attempt to bring in one or two more low-risk options to bolster the depth chart. Players such as Javorius Allen, Mike Davis, T.J. Yeldon, Michael Dyer, Jeremy Langford and David Johnson will come into contention at that point.

Running backs have become devalued because it's typically easier to find reliable contributors at that spot than at others. Unearthing a player with DeMarco Murray's skill set late in the draft is unlikely, but finding an adequate replacement for his production is possible.

Because of the quality of the Cowboys offensive line, Dallas doesn't need a great back to have a great running game.

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