DeMarco Murray hits the open market with everyone, including him, curious about the price for a top running back in today’s game.
Murray, 27, played all 18 games for the Dallas Cowboys last season, led the league in rushing by 484 yards and won the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Yet, Murray likely won’t command the type of money his former Oklahoma teammate, Adrian Peterson, did in signing a six-year, $86 million deal in 2011.
Murray turned down a four-year, $16 million deal from the Cowboys in September, betting on himself to do better. How much better remains the question as a three-day negotiating window opens Saturday, setting up the start of free agency at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
In a pass-heavy NFL, feature running backs are in less demand.
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“It’s order of importance,” Hall of Fame coach John Madden said. “To me, running backs are important. I’m old-fashioned. I say they are very damn important. Just try to get along without them. Then you will find out how the hell important they are.”
The Cowboys understand better than most.
Running back Emmitt Smith held out in 1993 after what he considered a lowball offer from the Cowboys. After the defending Super Bowl champions lost their first two games, with rookie Derrick Lassic starting at running back, owner Jerry Jones caved.
The Cowboys upped their offer by $3.6 million, making Smith the league’s highest-paid running back with a four-year, $13.6 million deal. Smith led the league in rushing despite playing only 14 games, and the Cowboys won a second straight Super Bowl title.
Now, the Cowboys find themselves at another running back crossroads, trying to figure out Murray’s worth after he helped them to an NFC East title and a playoff win.
“The National Football League has started taking the running back position for granted,” Smith said. “They put more emphasis on the quarterback position, which is rightfully so. There is no more important position on the football field than being able to throw the football, but you have to be able to run the football, too. If you can run the ball effectively, you increase the probability of winning the game.
“The game itself was founded on the ground. Air attacks just came out. Don’t get it twisted. I think America just needs to understand how the game itself should be played and go from there.”
Nine running backs had salary-cap numbers of at least $4 million in 2001, according to research by Forbes. Although the salary cap has increased more than $75 million since then, only 10 running backs have cap numbers of $4 million or more for 2015.
The Philadelphia Eagles agreed to trade LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2013, to the Buffalo Bills for a linebacker, Kiko Alonso, coming off ACL surgery. But McCoy’s contract pays him $24.25 million over the next three years, apparently too rich for the Eagles.
The Minnesota Vikings might attempt to trade Peterson, but it seems doubtful they will recoup his worth to them. Despite his 10,190 career rushing yards, Peterson turns 30 later this month and has a $15.4 million cap hit in 2015.
“I know what our philosophy is, and you’ve seen it through the playoffs,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “You have to have a quarterback, but you also have to be able to run the ball, especially if you’re going to be playing in an outdoor climate, that running back is important. …That’s where we try to put our emphasis. We value running backs pretty significantly.”
Feature running backs lost their luster about the time colleges went to spread offenses. In the past five drafts, only seven running backs were first-rounders. None were drafted in the first round the past two years, with Bishop Sankey the top running back selected last year at No. 54 overall by the Tennessee Titans.
“There is that real need for a quarterback, a pass rusher and an offensive left tackle,” Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. “Those types of positions take precedent. Some of it is the league is predominantly a throwing league, but a lot of people also feel like you can get a good player later at the running back position. It’s been that way through the last several drafts. Those other positions take precedent. You can’t play without a left tackle; you can’t play without a quarterback; everyone needs pass rushers.”
This year’s running back class ranks as the best in several years. At least two prospects — Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley — expect to hear their names called in the first round. Six others have second-round potential.
Maybe, with so many young quarterbacks struggling in the NFL, the running back position regains its luster.
“If it is being devalued, it shouldn’t be,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said. “We had Matt Forte in Chicago. We had running back by committee this past year [in Tampa Bay], and in order for us to start winning football games, we need to get that position right for us. Look at the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray had a great year, and so did they.
“You still need a good running back [to win]. You look at the teams in the playoffs. They all had big, good running backs who could move the ball. That will always be an important part of our game.”
Staff writers Clarence E. Hill Jr. and Drew Davison contributed to this report.
Charean Williams, 817-390-7760
The top-five base salaries for running backs in 2015, along with the total value of their contract and the guaranteed money in the contract:
2015 base salary
Contract’s total value
*Contract numbers are from spotrac
If the Cowboys lose DeMarco Murray, they have to replace him. Here are five free-agent running backs who could show up on Dallas’ radar, along with the top-five rated draft prospects:
Career rushing yds
2014 cap hit
*Contract numbers are from spotrac
*Rankings are from CBS Sportsline