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Cowboys bet on Murray’s durability, but will price be right?

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Running backs are becoming less and less valued in today’s NFL.

Most teams don’t count on the workhorse running back anymore, which is why none have been selected in the first round the past two years. They simply aren’t the valued commodity they once were.

“At the end of the day, there are very few guys who really distinguish themselves,” Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “Guys that come to my mind are Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson. … There’s a lot of good running backs, don’t get me wrong, but there’s very few I think that differentiate themselves.”

Therein lays one of the biggest decisions facing the Cowboys this off-season. What group does DeMarco Murray fall in?

On one hand, Murray “differentiated” himself as a rare workhorse back by leading the NFL and setting the Cowboys’ single-season rushing record with 1,845 yards. On the other, though, one has to wonder how much the offensive line factored into it and how he’ll respond after taking on a heavy workload.

Those are all discussions the Cowboys are having as they decide how to handle negotiations with Murray, who is set to become a free agent in March.

The Cowboys and Murray would like to get something done. Each side understands, however, the business aspect of the game. The Cowboys tried to lure Murray to stay in September by offering him a four-year deal worth approximately $16 million, which Murray turned down.

Murray bet on himself to have the kind of season he did, and it will surely pay off, even if it’s with a different organization. The Cowboys have yet to extend Murray an updated offer since September and are holding their negotiating strategy close to the vest.

But Jones is hoping for the best and sees no reason why Murray won’t continue to play at a high level despite a league-high 392 carries.

“I’d bet on DeMarco, I think he’s going to continue to thrive,” Jones said. “It’s kind of set in on him what it takes to be successful in this league. He’s certainly a big, strong physical back.

“He does everything the right way. He represents the Cowboys not only incredibly on the field, but he’s a great guy off the field. He’s the type of player who we want in this organization.”

But the money has to make sense for the Cowboys, as well as Murray. At 26 and with running backs having a relatively short shelf life in the NFL, this is Murray’s best time to cash in.

There’s no question Murray would be an attractive piece for several teams. He was the league’s leading rusher by a large margin — 484 yards — and tied for the league-high with 13 rushing touchdowns.

“That’s starting to differentiate yourself,” Jones said, grinning. “So I give him a lot of credit. He had an undeniably incredible year and certainly was a big reason we accomplished what we accomplished.”

The Cowboys, behind their stout offensive line, want to stay a run-heavy team with or without Murray. So they are certainly keeping an eye on running backs at this week’s Senior Bowl should they opt to draft a potential replacement for Murray.

Several of the top projected running backs, such as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, aren’t here, but Minnesota’s David Cobb is an intriguing back who could be available in the middle to late rounds.

Cobb is a physical runner coming off an impressive workhorse-type season. So is Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, a smaller back who rushed for more than 1,600 yards.

Each of them mentioned Murray as a running back whom they watched closely this past season.

“Most running backs don’t get as many touches, but you see the Murrays and the Le’Veon Bells, that’s what I want to be,” Cobb said.

Added Abdullah: “Murray just gets upfield, man. He doesn’t mess around, and that’s what the NFL is all about. You can’t mess around in the backfield, you just make one cut and get up the field. He does that very well.”

The question remains if he’ll be doing that for the Cowboys again.

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison

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