Huddle-Up: What's DeMarco's Cowboys Worth?

The Cowboys are getting great bang for their buck from DeMarco Murray. They've already decided to not invest now in his future. But when should they invest? And how much? Our study as part of a Monday Huddle-Up:

A few days ago, Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said that the Cowboys are not looking into extending DeMarco Murray during the season. As CowboysHQ/105.3 The Fan insider Mike Fisher noted, the Cowboys have a “contract extension pecking order” and left tackle Tyron Smith and wide receiver Dez Bryant are up at the top. The Cowboys are going to wait for season’s end to decide Murray’s future. (See that story here.)

Heading into 2014, DeMarco Murray isn’t in the top 10, top 25, or even top 50 in average salary for a running back. Coming in at 63 on Spotrac’s list of average salary, Murray’s average salary is $743,360. In 2014, since he’s in his final year of his contract, he does count nearly $1.6 million against the cap, which is 33rd-highest in the league.

However, his production isn’t in the ranking with guys like Chris Ivory, Darren McFadden, Pierre Thomas, Roy Helu and Bilal Powell, players who are in the neighborhood of Murray’s average salary. Out of the five of them, only Darren McFadden has a 1,000-yard season. All of these guys are specialty backs and none of them have made the Pro Bowl. For the amount of money paid to Murray, the Cowboys are getting a good return on investment.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt of the runner's importance here; you see that in Oxnard when the team does full-speed goal-line work and keeps DeMarco out of it, ala Emmitt two decades ago.

So, how much should Dallas invest in Murray’s future?

With stats such as the Cowboys’ record when Murray scores a rushing touchdown, gets 20 or more carries, and exceeding 100 yards in a game proving his pivotal role in team success, denying Murray’s significance is intellectually dishonest.

I can argue that DeMarco Murray is as vital to the Cowboys as Jamaal Charles is to the Kansas City Chiefs. Since Murray galloped onto the scene against the Rams in 2011, the Cowboys are 17-15 with him compared to 5-6 without him. In those 11 games he missed, the Cowboys only had one 100-yard rushing performance: Felix Jones on 12/17/11 against a hapless Buccaneers squad. No one can duplicate Murray’s rushing production.

Let’s continue with Jamaal Charles as an example.

The Chiefs running back recently signed a two-year extension, and his cap hit is over $7.5 million on average. If the Cowboys want to extend Murray, it could be argued that this is the top-of-the-frame price they will be asked (by DeMarco's agent) to in order to retain his services. It is the same set of numbers the Ravens pay for Ray Rice and the Bills pay for C.J. Spiller.

Ah, but wait. Look at this offseason. Did any free agent runner gets monster dollars? Nope. DeMarco next spring will be entering an up environment in which $3.5 mil is the top annual wage for a free agent back. So part of the deal in extending Murray is the Cowboys have to acknowledge he is a top 10 back and pay him accordingly. Or not.

One reason Cowboys fans are anxious about extending Murray is the Marion Barber situation in 2008. Barber was offered the highest tender as a restricted free agent and subsequently signed to a seven-year deal worth $45 million with $16 million guaranteed. Turning 25 by the start of the season and only having three years of experience as a backup, Jerry was hoping Barber could give three high quality seasons before suffering decline.

Instead, Leonard Davis stepped on Barber’s pinky toe in a 34-9 Thanksgiving win against Seattle in 2008. Barber missed the next week, and over the next two seasons, he only started 25 out of 32 games due to injury. The Cowboys parted ways with Barber in 2011.

Barber never missed a game up to the point of his contract extension. Murray has missed 11 out of 43 games in his career, and that is being generous by demarcating his career’s genesis as the Rams game in 2011 when he set the franchise record for most rushing yards in a single game. Taking a $7 million cap hit annually to retain a running back that misses four games a year on average is the type of decision-making that has filled the Cowboys’ cap space and curtailed the team’s success.

This is the conundrum of keeping Murray. His on-field production is certainly among the league’s best, but the problem is he doesn’t see the field enough to justify the type of contract and cap hit of a guy like Ray Rice or Jamaal Charles. As Fish has noted, the Cowboys actions predate their stated plans. The way to beat the cap is to "underpay" running backs, to replace that guy who wants (and maybe even deserves) the $7 mil with a guy who plays for one-tenth the wage.

If Murray misses four games or more this season, the decision to part ways will be viewed as easier. Things get more difficult for the front office if Murray plays a full season and makes another Pro Bowl. If that effort aids the team in a playoff berth, it will be a problem ... But a nice problem for Cowboys fans.

ONSIDE KICKS: Tyrone Crawford says the two biggest trash talkers on the Dallince offense are Witten and Escobar… Rolando McClain (hamstring) did work in the morning walkthrough… injured Cowboys D-lineman Amobi Okoye worked with a trainer on the sideline ... Dallas is reportedly bringing in guard Wayne Tribue and will waive/injured guard Brian Clarke ... Jakar will not work this afternoon. Mo will "do something," the coach said. Church (ankle) is TBD ... Dallas will practice late on Monday, with a scheduled 5:15 p.m. PAC time start. Fish will have a live report during the workout at 8:30 DFW time on 105.3 The Fan ... QB Tony Romo will likely participate in the evening session.

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