The Dallas Cowboys have plenty of players on the final year of their contracts, and the franchise’s improved cap balancing seems to be preparing for an influx of second-contract talent. The two biggest names, and contracts, that the Cowboys must prepare for are Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant. We will look into those situations in greater detail down the road, but both seem straight forward. They will be long-term, big-money deals for young Pro Bowlers. However, while DeMarco Murray certainly fits the bill for young Pro Bowler that the Cowboys would be smart to retain, the contract situation isn’t as clear. There are several factors, the greatest being the changing NFL landscape for running backs, that make the Murray contract negotiations trickier.
Murray is coming off a Pro Bowl year with an impressive rushing efficiency at over five yards a carry. He seems to be getting more comfortable reading the zone blocking scheme. Add to that the Cowboys young offensive-line finding themselves in the ’13 season and seemingly prepared for an even stronger showing in ‘14 with another first-round addition in Zack Martin. Include Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan preaching a balanced approach to their aggressive offense, not to mention Murray’s offseason work as a receiving threat…suddenly, the future services of the talented running back could tally up to a hefty bill.
The Cowboys would greatly benefit by extending his deal soon, before Murray’s ’14 performance creates unmanageable contract negotiations. The biggest hurdle, as with most negotiations, will be that each side will reference opposing reasoning in increasing or decreasing the negotiated price. Murray’s agent will sell Murray’s ability, recent performance(s), the lack of proven depth on the Cowboys roster, and cite the big money contracts of other Pro Bowl running backs. The Cowboys will be looking at Murray’s injury history and the current depressed market for RB contracts in the NFL. If the Cowboys allow (potentially) two consecutive banner years and a hardworking agent to set Murray’s expectations too high, the negotiations may be over before they begin and irrevocably lead to the free agent market setting the final price.
To his credit, Murray is saying all the right things, like when on PFT Live he was asked about contract negotiations:
"That’s not something that I’m concerned with," Murray said. "I’m going to continue to work hard and play the best I can play and let things take care of itself."
And when Todd Archer asked Murray how long he would like to play in Dallas:
"Forever," Murray said when he was asked how long he would like to be a Cowboy. "I love Dallas. I love playing football there. I love the fans. I love the organization. It's great. I want to stay there as long as they will allow me."
The problem is that the NFL market has spoken, but agents and running backs won’t be quick to listen. There have now been two drafts with no running backs taken in the first round. In the 2000 season, eight running backs recorded over 300 rushing attempts and a ninth (Eddie George) topped over 400 carries. In 2005, ten running backs surpassed 300 rushes (four above 350), and even in 2010, seven running backs managed 300+ carries. In 2013, only two, and only barely, surpassed the mark (301 & 314).
The concept of the running back by committee has taken hold in the league. It’s simply a smarter way to treat a grueling position in the NFL, allowing different backs’ skill sets to be utilized in more pass-oriented offenses while limiting the damage caused by injuries to the team's lead back. As coaches utilize RBs differently, and personnel departments look at RB depth charts differently, eventually the running backs and their agents will have to look at contracts differently. Clearly, the role of the lead RB in a committee is still vital to a team. However, a team’s willingness to spend resources on a position that will be part of a committee has started to adapt to the realities of football. It is a rare team, and player, that will be able to overcome this "depressed" market.
Consider this, in the 2014 free agent period, Rotoworld ranked their top free agents and have listed the contracts they earned this offseason. The top five offensive tackles received five-year contracts. There were four and five-year deals for a couple of the top five tight ends and wide-receivers. Defensive linemen, inside linebackers, corners and safeties, many managed to pen four and five-year contracts this offseason. But when you look at the running backs…there was only one four-year deal and it was at a modest cost ($10mil) for Rashad Jennings, who may not even lead the NY Giants RB committee. And while the running back FA list wasn't the strongest group, accomplished veterans like C2K and MJD were getting the same kind of two and three-year deals as the young veterans with more long-term promise, like Tate, Moreno, Gerhart, Brown, and Blount. There is a lot of funny money in NFL contracts, but most free agent running backs were averaging between three and four million dollars per contract year.
The age of the five-year, workhorse running back contracts are over. Even 23- and 24-year-olds that have solid accomplishments in a committee throughout their rookie contracts are not getting the type of deals you would expect promising second-contract players to get in the free-agent market. It’s not just how much money is offered, but perhaps more importantly, the length of the contracts. In tribute to coach Glanville’s inspiring words, "NFL stands for not for long…" when you are judging careers for most running backs.
DeMarco Murray, for better or for worse, will be a proving ground for the new type of RB contract in the NFL. A young veteran that deserves the starting role in a RB committee and seems to have the ability and talent of the workhorses of old, it will be interesting to see where this all ends up. While Murray may want to be a Cowboy forever, the team will certainly not be willing to create such a contract. And while Murray’s agent will want to maximize the money on the deal, he may be wise to use a smaller-term contract as the avenue to reach those goals. Like most NFL teams, the Cowboys may not be willing to tie up a lot of money on a four- or five-year deal for a RB knowing, firsthand with Marion Barber, how quickly bright flames can burn out at that position.
I think that instead of spreading out big signing bonuses over four or five years, the new RB contract will start guaranteeing base salaries on shorter deals. So, if Murray and his agent are hoping to surpass the FA average for RBs, they may find greater success by limiting the length of the contract. The Cowboys may not be willing to pay Murray $20 or $25 million over four or five years, but they may jump at the chance to sign him at $15 million for three years. In reality, NFL players often never earn the money at the tail end of their long contracts. So it seems only practical that teams will now avoid the dead money issue that seems a higher probability for running backs considering how quickly their abilities and health can deteriorate. It would seem wise for agents and running backs to adapt to their environment, and negotiate deals a little differently. Here's hoping this is understood by all parties involved and Murray's contract can be extended instead of becoming a dragged out process in free agency where a desperate team makes Murray's future with the Cowboys untenable.