(Editor's Note: This is the third of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2015 season. The series continues with the running backs.)
Pressing Matters:If you're not up to speed on this by now, you quite simply haven't been paying any attention. DeMarco Murray just finished the 2014 season with 1,845 rushing yards – most in the NFL by a wide margin and the highest single-season total in Cowboys history. He picked a great time to have the best season of his career, as he's now set to enter free agency as one of the NFL's hottest commodities. The Cowboys have some cap space this offseason, but Murray promises to be an expensive signing – and that's without factoring other expiring contracts like Dez Bryant, Doug Free, Rolando McClain and Justin Durant. If that weren't enough, Joseph Randle ran afoul of the law last week in Wichita, Kan., and his future is up in the air for the time being. Just for good measure, Lance Dunbar is a restricted free agents, so the Cowboys must decide if they want to extend him an offer. Just about every aspect of the Cowboys' running back spot is a pressing matter right now.
2014 Evaluation:What else is there to say that Murray's spectacular season can't say for itself? He rushed for 100 or more yards in 13 of 18 games, including eight in a row to open the season. He won NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He carried the ball more than 400 times and added another 57 catches. Just about the only knock on Murray was his fumbling problem, which saw him lose five balls in the first eight games – and then it of course reared its head in the playoff loss to Green Bay. Behind him, Randle received a mere 51 carries, but he made the most of those. He averaged 6.7 yards per touch, including three impressive touchdown scampers – against Jacksonville, Chicago and Washington. Dunbar had a disappointing season, given the high hopes for him upon returning from an injury in 2013. He carried the ball just 29 times on the year, with 11 of those coming in Week 2 against Tennessee. He did have 217 receiving yards, but on just 18 receptions. Perhaps most cruel of all: he finally broke through for an 80-yard touchdown in Week 17, but it was called back by a holding flag.
Need More From: It's pretty hard to say that until we know what's going to happen at the position. Murray would do well to work on his fumbling issues – but that's assuming he'll be on the roster in 2015. Randle has plenty of work to do if he's going to play a bigger role in an offense that doesn't feature Murray – but as of right now we don't know what, if any punishment is going to come out of his situation in Wichita. Given his limited role in 2014, the team might opt not to bring Dunbar back. On the off chance that all three were to return, you'd like to see the coaching staff spread the ball around a little more – but it's hard to predict those types of things in February. One thing is for sure: we should all have an opportunity to see more from Ryan Williams, who signed a two-year contract in January. He looks likely to have an opportunity to earn a spot on the 53-man roster this year, provided he's up to the challenge.
Upgrades Needed:It's not a satisfying answer, but these are questions there just aren't answers to as of yet. If Murray and Randle are both on this team in 2015, it's hard to argue for upgrades. If both Murray and Randle leave town, then it becomes an issue of free agency, the NFL draft or both? Names like Mark Ingram and Ryan Mathews have been floated as affordable free agents, and plenty of people are still holding out hope that the Cowboys can find a way to acquire Adrian Peterson from Minnesota. Rookie running backs like Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon also stand to play a factor where the Cowboys pick, at No. 27 overall. Everything is in play, and it all depends on where Murray signs his next contract – not to mention what happens to Randle.
By The Numbers:
- Including the two playoff games, Murray had 436 carries on the year. That's more than the combined total of carries for 19 teams.
- Murray had 16 runs of 20 or more yards in 18 games. Surprisingly, only one of those went for a touchdown.
- Randle had three runs of 20 or more yards, and two of them went for touchdowns.
- Murray passed Emmitt Smith's single-season franchise rushing record, but he fell well short of the touchdown mark. Smith scored 25 touchdowns in 1995, compared to Murray's 13 in 2014.
- Until Murray did it this season, Smith was the last Cowboy to lead the league in rushing – during that 1995 season.
- Randle actually had fewer carries in 2014 than he did as a rookie. That's due to the fact that he started two games in 2013 while Murray was out with an injured knee.
Position Series: Running Backs