The departure of DeMarco Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles creates a Texas-sized hole in the most important component to the Dallas Cowboys’ success last season: their rushing attack.
But the Cowboys have options to fill that hole, and less than 24 hours after Murray officially made himself a former-Cowboy, it appears Dallas is committed to taking the committee approach to filling that void. The first step toward that end came on Thursday, when the Cowboys signed veteran Darren McFadden to an incentive-laden two-year deal.
The injury-prone McFadden played in all 16 games last season for the first time in his career, as part of a committee of running backs in Oakland. He finished the season with 534 yards rushing, but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry behind a porous Raiders offensive line. The move, which reportedly carries a maximum hit of two years and $5.85 million, but includes just a $200K signing bonus, isn’t designed to have McFadden fill the role previously held by Murray. Instead he’ll be among a group of running backs aiming to do so in Dallas.
The star in Dallas’ rushing attack in 2015 is going to be the offensive line, which touts three first round draft picks who were named All-Pro last season, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. Those three stand alongside two of the more under-appreciated linemen in the league, right tackle Doug Free and left guard Ronald Leary. But the Cowboys knew how crucial it was to keep that group intact, more crucial than retaining Murray, which is why they acted quickly to retain both players this offseason. By all measures the Dallas front five was the best in the league, and the reason while 850 of Murray’s 1.845 yards came before contact. Now the Cowboys will be looking to get that production from a variety of sources.
McFadden joins a backfield that already includes 2013 fifth round pick Joseph Randle, who showed impressive burst and vision in limited opportunities last season, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 51 attempts. The Cowboys also managed to retain practice squad running back Ryan Williams, a former second round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2011.
Williams was highly-touted out of Virginia Tech, but has struggled to get his career off the ground after he suffered a torn patella tendon during the second preseason game of his rookie season. Williams played in just five games his second season before a shoulder injury brought a premature end to his comeback campaign. He hasn’t played a NFL snap since, but looked good for the Cowboys last preseason and bided his time on Dallas’ practice squad last season, hoping to get a chance to run behind the Cowboys offensive line. In January, Williams, like McFadden, got a two-year deal from Dallas
The Cowboys are also looking to retain restricted free agent scatback Lance Dunbar. Before the offseason began, Dallas placed a one-year, $1.542 million tender on the undrafted back. Dunbar seemed primed to breakout in 2013, when he rushed for 82 yards on just 12 carries on Thanksgiving Day. But he suffered a knee injury late in that game that cost him the rest of the season, and he was used lightly during Murray’s breakout 2014 campaign.
As the Cowboys throttled up the use of their run-game, led by Murray, behind that dominant offensive line last season, the results had an effect on the entire team.
Quarterback Tony Romo’s confidence in the run game took some of the heat off the quarterback, and made it so Romo didn’t feel the need to carry the weight of the offense on his shoulders. No longer was Romo going to the line of scrimmage and checking out of run plays to pass, as he so often did in years past. That led to fewer mistakes from Romo and arguably his best season as a pro at age 34.
The Dallas running game also helped the receiving corps because teams were forced to choose between accounting for Murray by putting more defenders in the box, or accounting for a receiving group led by Dez Bryant and leaving more defenders back. It was a lose-lose proposition. Bryant continued to shine as one of the game’s elite talents at wide receiver, second year wideout Terrance Williams was a steady contributor and Cole Beasley had a good enough season as Dallas’ slot receiver that he was rewarded with a four-year $13.6 million contract extension.
But perhaps the biggest effect the Dallas running game had on the team’s success was that it kept their undermanned defense off the field. The Cowboys led the league in time of possession, spending on average nearly 34 minutes per game on offense. The Dallas defense was on the field an average of 28 minutes per game, third fewest in the league. This allowed the unit to stay fresh and they overachieved as a result, ranking in the top half of the league in fewest yards allowed per game. They also forced 31 total turnovers, second most in the league.
With those things in mind, the Cowboys still have work to do to make sure their running game can continue to perform at a high level in 2015. While Dallas’ current committee options to replace Murray are diverse, affordable and somewhat promising, the Cowboys still have a definitive need at the position, someone who can be relied upon to lead the group.
Rebuilding the trust of Romo and playcaller Scott Linehan in the running game, without Murray in the fold, will be vital if Dallas wants to sustain the success that came with running a balanced offense in 2014. And neither Romo nor Linehan can be expected to have that type of belief in a group of McFadden, Randle, Williams and Dunbar.
But the Cowboys still have a plethora of options to add to that group via free agency, trade, or the NFL draft. Here’s a list of options they could look at.
The trade market is probably the least likely path to fill the need in the Cowboys backfield, but options exist there if they feel like getting creative and/or making a splash.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: In the wake of Murray’s departure, popular opinion was that Dallas would swiftly engage Minnesota for a deal to acquire star the running back, but doing goes against the very logic the Cowboys used to let Murray walk. Peterson is unquestionably a more talented player, one of the league’s all-time greats at the position. But he’s also older (he turns 30 in a week), has more mileage on his legs and missed almost all of last season due to his legal troubles. AP is also due $15.4 million next season, $15 million in 2016 and $17 million in 2017. Perhaps he would restructure if traded to the Cowboys, but he’d still be expected to make more than $10 million annually and after Dallas balked at paying Murray more than $6 million per, its hard to see this as a fit.
Chris Polk, Philadelphia Eagles: This is a more intriguing option to me. Polk has shown legitimate talent in limited opportunities, and after the Eagles traded LeSean McCoy he was expected to finally get his chance. Then the Eagles signed not only Murray, but also former Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. Philadelphia will pay a total of more than $16 million to Murray, Mathews and Darren Sproles in 2015, leaving know room at the inn for Polk. The Cowboys could engage wheeling and dealing Eagles coach Chip Kelly and likely obtain Polk for a late round draft pick.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Martin broke out as a rookie in 2012 with a 319-carry, 1,454-yard campaign that had many rushing to anoint him as one of the league’s next great running backs. But due to a combination of injury and a lack of production in the two years since, Martin fell out of favor in Tampa Bay. He finished the 2014 season strong, and in Week 17 he produced his first 100-yard outing since September of 2013. However, the Bucs have plenty of other options in Charles Sims, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, and they’ve reportedly been linked to Murray and Peterson this offseason, so prying the 26-year-old Martin away probably wouldn’t be too difficult.
The Cowboys still have plenty of options here, even with McFadden in the fold. What free agent running back wouldn’t want to take a short-term deal for a chance to run behind that offensive line and produce the type of numbers that could earn them a larger contract down the road?
Knowshon Moreno: Moreno makes sense in the same way McFadden did, as a low-risk, high-reward signing of an injury-prone veteran. After breaking out with his first 1,000-yard campaign in his final season in Denver, Moreno sat on the free agent market longer than expected last offseason before signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Dolphins. But the slow market ended up being the right read, as Moreno struggled through injuries all season and played in just three games. Now Moreno hits the market again and can expect to get considerably less money, which could put him right in Dallas’ price range to add to their committee.
Stevan Ridley: Like Moreno, it wasn’t too long ago that Ridley was a major part of his team’s success at running back. In 2012, he ran for over 1,200 yards on nearly 300 carries as the leader of the Patriots’ committee. But Ridley saw his touches drop off in 2013 and then suffered a knee injury just six games into the 2014 campaign that cost him the rest of the season. Ridley is still just 26 years old, coming off a major injury, and it would make a lot of sense for both parties to unite on a short-term deal.
Steven Jackson: By all accounts, Jackson should have become a member of the Cowboys at the start of his career way back in 2004. Jackson was the top ranked running back in his class, projected as a Top 10 pick, but fell to RB-needy Dallas at No. 22. As Jackson chronicled in a video for his website, he expected the Cowboys — his father’s favorite team — to select him. Instead the Cowboys traded out of the first round and Jackson was picked two choices later by the St. Louis Rams. Dallas went on to take Notre Dame RB Julius Jones in the second round. Eleven years later, Jackson has shown the most longevity of any back in his era, and now ranks 16th all-time in rushing yards. After two years in Atlanta, running behind a porous offensive line, but still totaling 1,250 yards, Jackson was released and he’s once again a fit for Dallas as a veteran between-the-tackles runner to serve as part of their committee.
If there was ever a time for a team to be searching to replace a great running back, it’s the 2015 NFL Draft. There are up to a dozen options in the draft that the Cowboys could use to address their need at the position, but a few in particular stand out to lead the Dallas committee.
Todd Gurley, University of Georgia: Like Ridley, Gordon will enter the 2015 season coming off a severe injury and without that question mark, the UGA product would be the first running back off the board, gone well before the Cowboys pick at No. 27. Instead, Gurley is likely to be among the first two runners in — with Melvin Gordon the other — and with running being an actively devalued position, he could still be there at 27th overall. Gurley is a complete back who has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch for his mix of speed and power. Though he’ll need some experience in Dallas’ zone blocking scheme to meet his potential, and his durability is a bit of a concern, he’s the best bet to replace Murray’s production.
Tevin Coleman, University of Indiana: Coleman has many of the same characteristics as Gurley, without nearly as much hype. So is the curse of playing football at the University of Indiana. Still scouts love what they see from Coleman as a north-south runner with burst to get outside as well. He might just be the most complete back in the draft, as he’s already shown ability to help out in the passing game as a receiving threat and a pass blocker. The lone knock on Coleman seems to be just how much he loves contact, but that was a problem for Murray early on in his career as well, and the Cowboys were able to turn him into a more patient runner, which helped lead to his breakout season. If Gurley is off the board at No. 27, addressing their defense with their first round pick and pouncing on Coleman in the second might be an even better fit for Dallas.
Jay Ajayi, Boise State University: Ajayi is another strong and powerful back in the mold of Gurley, though he’s not the complete product that Coleman is. Still scouts see a great runner in the Boise State product. His strength and toughness are matched by his ability to move in the open field and accelerate, a great fit in Dallas’ zone scheme. He’s also an elite pass-catching talent out of the backfield and piled up 50 catches for 535 yards receiving, in addition to 347 carries for the Broncos as a junior last year. Ajayi will need a little more seasoning, making him more of a second or third round target, but the Cowboys could probably expect him to step in to lead their committee by midseason.
Regardless of what path they choose to take to replace Murray, the Cowboys have options, and that’s why they felt confident allowing the NFL’s leading rusher to escape to a divisional rival at a high price. But they can’t take for granted their need for production at the position. If they do, things in Dallas could quickly go back to the way they were before Murray broke out.
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