Through 12 games, it has been a magical season for Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who currently leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,606), thanks to a season-high 179 Thursday night against the Bears. He became the first player in NFL history to rush for over 100-yards in the first eight games of the season and has been arguably Dallas' MVP so far.
If he can get 394 yards in the final three games, he'd become just the eighth player in league history to eclipse 2,000 yards in a single-season and the first ever for the Cowboys.
But Murray, a 2011 third-round pick out of Oklahoma, is in a contract year and could test the free agent market this off-season, hoping to capitalize on his productive 2014 campaign. And as much as Cowboys' fans appreciate and love watching #29 run the ball, most are realistic to the complications of giving a running back a lucrative contract. The Dallas offensive line has consistently created run lanes and a rookie runner could potentially find similar success with a star on his helmet next year.
Below are five running back prospects at the college level worth keeping an eye on:
RB Melvin Gordon, redshirt junior, Wisconsin (6-1, 215)
Wisconsin ranks second in the FBS in rush offense this season and 117th in pass offense so it's no secret that the ground game is the Badgers' bread and butter, but defenses still have a tough time stopping Gordon. The Kenosha, Wisconsin native, who turns 22 years old later this month, set a new Big Ten single season rushing record in 2014, using his elite acceleration, balance and feet to hit holes and make defenders miss in space. Similar to Jamaal Charles, Gordon plays at a different speed than most backs, making quick decisions and instant reactions to keep defenders off balance. With 2,260 rushing yards so far in 2014, Gordon currently has the fourth-best single season rushing total in FBS history. And with two games left on the schedule (Big Ten Championship Game and a bowl game), he will have a chance to move up the list even more – he's 167 yards behind Marcus Allen for third place, 307 yards behind Kevin Smith for second and needs 369 yards to pass the legendary Barry Sanders for the top spot. With Todd Gurley's knee injury, Gordon might be the best chance for the 2015 NFL Draft to produce a first round running back.
RB Todd Gurley, junior, Georgia (6-1, 232)
When at full health, Gurley is one of the best all-around talents in the 2015 draft class at any position and would have snapped the active two year streak of zero running backs drafted in the first round. But a torn ACL clouds his draft projection as he comes off successful surgery on Nov. 25 that will likely keep him sidelined until the summer. On the field, Gurley squares his pads at the line of scrimmage and gets going downhill in a hurry, showing speed to win the corner and finish down the field. His uses brute power and dynamic athleticism to stress defenses, including a nasty jump cut, shifting his weight very easily for a 232-pounder. Gurley sees the field well there are very few holes to his game, which is why he might still hear his name called in the first round despite the injury. But the NFL Combine will be a significant step to his evaluation as the doctors and trainers examine how his injured knee is progressing.
RB Ameer Abdullah, senior, Nebraska (5-9, 195)
Growing up in SEC country, most schools wanted Abdullah to move to defensive back in college, but Nebraska pledged to keep him in the backfield. And he has rewarded the Huskers' program as the only player in school history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, also leaving Lincoln with the school record in all-purpose yardage (6,917). Abdullah lacks ideal size and build, but few run harder and more energetic with the determination to churn out yards after contact. He is an extremely smart runner and processes information very quickly on the move, always appearing two steps ahead of defenders as he strings together his moves. Abdullah needs work in pass protection and won't be a workhorse back in the NFL, but he has the balance, toughness and elite character to be productive as a runner and receiver.
RB Tevin Coleman, junior, Indiana (6-0, 210)
Arguably the running back prospect in this class that best resembles Murray, Coleman flies under the radar nationally because he plays for a below average Indiana team that finished 1-7 in the Big Ten. But his 2014 production was Heisman worthy. On the season, he rushed for 100+ yards in 11 games and finished with 2,036 rushing yards (7.5 average), becoming just the 22nd player in FBS history to reach the 2,000-yard rushing plateau. Coleman does a nice job reading his blocks and getting north-south in a hurry, eating up grass with long, powerful strides. He runs with a competitive temperament and deceiving power to shake off arm tacklers and tear through the second level of the defense, reminding some scouts of a blend of Darren McFadden and Murray. But Coleman's landing spot in the 2015 NFL Draft will likely be much closer to Murray's (71st overall in 2011) rather than McFadden's (4th overall in 2008).
RB David Cobb, senior, Minnesota (5-11, 229)
In the age of spread offenses in college football, it's refreshing to watch an "old school" runner like Cobb, who relies on no-nonsense power running in a pro-style system. He doesn't look to stretch everything outside and prefers to find room between the tackles, showing the vision, patience and body strength to make a living as an inside runner. Cobb, who will participate in the Senior Bowl, presses the hole and trusts his run instincts, reading his blocks without hesitation or slowing his momentum. Although he will struggle to create on his own and lacks home run speed, he is extremely smooth with his weight transfer in his cuts and is more nimble than expected. Cobb isn't anything special athletically as several runners have his size and athletic qualities, but he shows a natural and unique understanding of how to best use all his skills in unison to be an every-down back. And there's a great chance the Gophers' runner will prove to be a steal in the middle rounds.
Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) is the Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a property of The Sports Xchange distributed in partnership with CBSSports.com.