By Zach Walker
According to Spotrac, the Dallas Cowboys have just under $9 million in cap space and will be hard-pressed to re-sign key players, sign draft picks, and pick up quality depth in free agency. Welcome to Cap HELL, Dallas Cowboys edition.
The Cowboys front office has implemented a full-on “no sitting down” policy while trying to stretch the money to the point where they could give offers to their top priority unrestricted free agents, wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray.
The Cowboys have the offensive infrastructure to be a serious contender in the National Football Conference for the remainder of Tony Romo’s career, having improved the offensive line with three first-round draft picks, but also putting the Cowboys into smarter situations with better play-calling. But Romo isn’t throwing the ball to himself, nor is he rushing the ball from behind that beefy line. The offense goes through the two men prepping for a possible dip into the free agent pool.
The Running Back
DeMarco Murray had one hell of a season. If one were to take the ancient proverb of “what have you done for me lately?” into consideration when looking at Murray, there really is only one answer.
Murray led the National Football League in (deep breath) rushing attempts with 392, 80 more than Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy; attempts per game with 24.5, 4.5 more than Houston’s Arian Foster; yards with 1,845, leading Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell by 484; yards per game, by nearly a full 20 yards; tied for the rushing touchdown lead with Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch’s 13; and most rushing first downs, with 85.
Murray was a rushing mad man, but unlike Dez’s situation, the team can likely use teammates as the biggest reasons not to bring him back. The front office could, and likely will, use those dynamic, gigantic offensive linemen as the backbone of negotiation, claiming that just about anyone, given a serious amount of carries, could pick up the yards needed to keep this offense firing on all cylinders.
However, Murray isn’t just any running back, he’s the top-tier, true three-down back when healthy.
Murray’s game is as well-rounded as any running back in the league, and would be very difficult to replicate with even a first-round running back.
In addition to rushing the ball as many times as he did, Murray caught 57 passes, which is good enough for third on the team, for 416 yards.
He looked like a man restored, having played every game, even though he did suffer an injury that required surgery. I don’t know of many players, let alone running backs, who would have surgery on Monday then play on Sunday. That sort of toughness is nearly irreplaceable.
But, it’s really his pass protection skills where he becomes that coveted three-down back.
His confidence in his own ability, and Romo’s confidence in his ability, would be a serious endorsement for any team looking for a complete player.
Though running backs are thought to have the shortest shelf life, Murray will start next season at just 27-years-old and a four-year contract extension would take him to his age-31 season. This would give the Cowboys even more time to groom a replacement.
Murray showed all the traits that should inspire confidence in the Cowboys to want to bring him back. Traits that included great vision, great attitude, the hands and the blocking to keep him on the field every play and they should seriously think what the realistic drop off in production would be without him.
The Wide Receiver
Dez Bryant is in the same boat as DeMarco, but has a different view of the ocean.
Where Murray has made the decision tough by staying healthy during his contract year, and really racked up the stats, Bryant always has been there. Bryant isn’t just any wide receiver though, as he is among the league’s elite. He makes the awe-inspiring catches (interpretation aside), draws double-coverage on most plays, and is a threat to score any time the ball is in his grasp.
Bryant finished the season with an appropriate 88 catches, and 16 of those went for touchdowns. Over the span of the last three seasons, he has more receiving touchdowns than any pass catcher in the league with 41.
Similar to Murray, Bryant’s replacement does not appear to be on the roster right now, which gives him a decided advantage in negotiations. Unlike Murray, there are not age stigmas or degraded position excuses for the Cowboys to lean on when trying to get a deal done. They know, and he knows, that he is the commodity with the edge. And that edge isn’t just gained because the depth at receiver is very low right now, it’s from what he brings to the field.
The ‘X’ certainly does mark the spot for defenses to focus on.
Unlike many receivers in the game, Bryant has an almost exclusive physical skill set, where he outbodies defenders, instead of trying to blow by them with speed or moves. Dez’s inability to realize when a situation is un-winnable, even when surrounded by defenders with great shots lined up on him, seems to only make him better and leaves us all in awe when he does make that impossible play.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that what he does for the offense isn’t actually measurable, it’s all based on fear. Fear of what Bryant could, and often will do, to a defense is irreplaceable and something that comes from being one of the elite receivers.
Unfortunately, for the Cowboys, the team really doesn’t have any reason not to re-sign him, and they would be apocalyptically foolish to think that they could recover from letting him go. He’s too vital to the offense.
The Tough Choice
Which of your kids do you love more? Impossible to answer, right? Or, at least in front of them.
Well, there are serious possibilities that the Cowboys can stretch the money to fit one of these under the cap, but it will take major moves, and better negotiating, to get both men signed.
So who’s the best choice?
All signs point towards trying to retain Bryant and they won’t get an argument from me. Bryant is as dynamic as Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, as talented as Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, and sets the bar with his physical play. His presence on the field is something that the Cowboys just couldn’t replace, and it’s why that money must be created somehow to retain the star wideout’s services.
But Murray, like I said, isn’t just some run-of-the-mill back, he’s special. His production, his effort, his intensity is what really carried the Cowboys to the cusp of an NFC championship. While Murray’s skill set isn’t unique, and could be found and nurtured in a draft back, it should at least give the Cowboys pause when considering letting him walk.
With Romo still playing at a high level at age 35, the franchise quarterback may not like the backfield shake-up when it’s a second-down play-action pass and gets blasted because the replacement back can’t pick up a linebacker.
This is going to be a very interesting road leading to the NFL Draft set for April 30-May 2 in Chicago. The way the Cowboys manage this situation will be a sign of what’s to come in the future for a team that seems poised to make a deep playoff run in 2015.