INDIANAPOLIS – DeMarco Murray's future in Dallas isn't going to be decided during the course of the NFL Combine, but it certainly sets the stage for speculation.
The talking points about Murray's contract negotiations have been beaten into the ground, and they don't need to be re-examined here. The scene at Lucas Oil Stadium creates an interesting juxtaposition, though. Because as the Cowboys work on deciding whether to reward Murray with a second contract, they are surrounded by the very best of this year's crop of younger, cheaper replacements.
"Every year you scout and evaluate, like every position, the runners that are out there, whether it's free agency or the draft," said Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who may also need to replace a Pro Bowl running back this spring. "I personally think this is a pretty good running back group this year."
Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Tevin Coleman and Jay Ajayi are just some of the headliners in what appears to be a loaded running back class. If the Cowboys do part ways with Murray, running back becomes a big position of need – a need they could decide to fill as early as No. 27 overall in the draft. "I think you'll probably find if you really look at it, that running the football is an important part of all championship-type teams," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett on Wednesday. But that raises another question about the value of running backs in the NFL. If the Cowboys aren't willing to reward Murray with a handsome contract, will they be willing to draft his replacement as early as the first round?
Since Trent Richardson was taken third overall in 2012, no running back has gone higher than No. 37 in the subsequent two drafts. Even other first-round backs in recent years, like Mark Ingram in 2011 and Doug Martin and David Wilson in 2012 have been late picks – Ingram went 28th, Martin went 31st and Wilson went 32nd.
"It's a passing league, but it's hard to say it's a devalued position," Gordon said. "I guess teams just go with the picks they actually need – I don't know. I don't know the thoughts going through their head. Maybe they didn't feel the running backs the last couple years were first-round talent."
Gordon, who racked up an absurd 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns in his final year with Wisconsin, is one of the poster boys for a potential first-round running back this year. He's a guy that plenty have pegged as a possible Day 1 replacement should Murray leave town – a guy that can simply be plugged into the system.
Garrett took issue with the concept of "plugging" someone in, however – he said he disliked the term. For all the skill of the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line, Garrett has gone out of his way to praise Murray's durability and physicality on the way to his 1,845-yard season.
"The runner does matter," he said. "I think we've all seen that running backs don't seem to be drafted quite as high as they used to. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the player. But I do think the value of the running back is really, really critical to having a great running football team." This past season helped prove Garrett's point. Murray and the Dallas ground game carried the Cowboys to an unexpected division title, while Seattle rode Marshawn Lynch's punishing running to a second-straight Super Bowl appearance. That isn't lost on this newest batch of running backs. Nearly to a man, this year's Combine invitees mentioned Murray and Lynch, and they spoke about being encouraged by the number of power run teams and workhorse backs around the league today.
"I think there's a resurgence of running backs," Ajayi said. "Just looking at this class of running backs that we have in this draft class, I think this is a very strong class and I think for the years to come that the NFL is going to see a rise in the new running back class."
It could start this year. Gordon and Gurley are often spoken of as first-round picks. Coleman and Ajayi are widely considered second-to-third round selections, depending on the run-up to the draft at the end of April. It's worth remembering that Murray, whose worth is being so hotly debated, was a third-round pick, going No. 71 overall to the Cowboys in 2011.
It's an interesting thought, considering Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones' comments about evaluating Murray just two days ago. On Tuesday, Jones said the Cowboys will leave no stone unturned in assessing what their offer will be for their All-Pro's services.
"There are a lot of things we have to evaluate before we make the ultimate decision as to what our number is going to be with DeMarco versus what some other's number may be," he said.
If the value of retaining Murray is too high, it will be interesting to see what type of value the Cowboys assign to his replacement.