IRVING, Texas - With the contracts of Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith nearing an end, it's easy to brush by another contract of a productive starter set to expire at the conclusion of the year.
The shelf lives of running backs in the league aren't exceptionally long, but DeMarco Murray's coming off the best season of his brief career and could earn an extension before or after his contract runs out at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
On the other hand, the Cowboys could decide to move on after this year, as some teams choose to do after their primary running back's first contract concludes.
Murray's implanted himself as a key cog of the offense since arriving as a third-round pick in 2011, but it's still difficult to know with certainty three years later what Murray is as a back. Is he as talented as a top-five back in the league? Is he more than a quality starting running back? Is he replaceable?
All of these questions are made tougher by the fact no one's seen a full healthy season from Murray and no one's certain of the durability or production to expect from the backs behind him.
Murray's the most talented all-around back on the roster, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last season by totaling 1,121 yards, nine rushing touchdowns and a 5.2 yard per carry average in just 14 games.
Those Pro Bowl numbers speak for themselves and have many clamoring for the lead back to get more carries. Conversely, though, Murray's missed 11 games during his career and at least two each season since arriving in the NFL. His yards per carry average remained at five or greater in two of his first three seasons in the league, but he hasn't demonstrated the durability many teams would expect from their lead back.
The catch-22 is that because he's so talented and versatile when he's on the field, the Cowboys have had trouble working in their complementary backs.
Here's a look at the numbers of the top three backs from last season, all of whom are back this year:
Murray's size, speed and receiving and blocking abilities make him an all-around talent who's difficult to take off the field. That understandably means fewer carries and snaps for the rest of the backs, and less of an idea of their potential.
Murray was off the field when he was hurt for two weeks in 2013, during which Randle took over as the primary back with varied success. The rookie averaged 3.4 yards on 19 carries in a win against the Eagles before averaging just 1.9 yards on 14 carries in a late loss to the Lions.
Injuries also halted Dunbar's season, but he never got much of an opportunity when he was healthy and many believe he's best in a complementary role. His breakout 12-carry, 82-yard game in Week 13 against the Raiders, which concluded in a season-ending injury for the shifty back, marked the first time Dunbar had more than five carries in a game that year.
The Cowboys value Murray tremendously. That's clear in the drop-off in carries from him to the rest of the group. That drop-off would've been dramatically greater had Murray not missed two games, during which Randle compiled 33 of his 54 carries for the year.
They wanted Murray on the field as much as possible, and understandably so. But their dilemma in trying to keep him as active as possible while ensuring he's as healthy as possible has proven tricky, and it makes the future of the position difficult to predict.
Running backs are becoming more replaceable and offensive philosophies are becoming more tailored to two-back systems. It's rare to find the Adrian Peterson workhorses of the world. Murray is certainly that in Dallas, but it's also meant injuries and missed games.
Many teams are turning to the draft to answer their [embedded_ad] running back needs, and they don't need to utilize a top pick to do so. No running backs were selected in the first round last year, and the same is expected this year. Yet the Bengals (Gio Bernard), the Steelers (Le'Veon Bell), the Packers (Eddie Lacy) and even the Rams and Cardinals, who found Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, all grabbed immediate contributors or starters in last year's draft.
The Cowboys hoped Randle could be a fifth-round gem last year, and maybe an NFL offseason can get him to the level they'd envisioned, but he hasn't yet made the immediate mark that some other backs have managed to do.
All of this leads to a tough decision for the Cowboys.
They could try to extend their star back now and hope the injuries dissipate while getting Murray at a cheaper deal; they could stay the course and pay Murray a lofty extension if he stays healthy and has a productive year; they could utilize their complementary backs more and see if a player like Randle could be a long-term starter; they could add another running back in free agency, or they could draft a running back this year with the hope of turning him into a starter after this season.
There are reasons to support any of the answers, but none of them come without potential drawbacks.