Spagnola: How Much Risk Awaits Cowboys On This RB Business Decision

IRVING, Texas – And now is the time for Risky Business.

The impending start to NFL free agency, just 32 days away from commencing on March 10.

In fact, the lead-up is closer than that. Beginning Feb. 16, teams will have a two-week period to designate players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2015 for franchise or transition tenders, and no more than one of each.

Right, a dicey period of time, because at 3 p.m. on March 10, the NFL's league year begins, meaning teams will know exactly what the salary cap will be; the salaries of the top 51 player on the roster will count toward the cap maximum – projected at this time to be around $143 million; and, if that is not enough getting started, the trading period also opens.

Why, you can argue the decisions teams make this time of year on how to spend cap dollars, who to sign and who not to sign, are as important, or even more so, than deciding whether to run or pass on second-and-goal from the 1 when trailing by four in the final minute of the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys will not be exceptions during this period of major decision. They will have 15 unrestricted free agents to consider. They will have four more restricted free agents and of lesser concern three exclusive rights players in need of contract tenders.

And this doesn't even take into account their Feb. 15 deadline to either pick up veteran Henry Melton's three-year, $24 million option, of which $9 million will be guaranteed in 2015; work to renegotiate a deal with the defensive tackle; or simply allow him to become a free agent. This also is the day offensive tackle Doug Free's contract officially voids, casting $3.98 million of dead money toward the Cowboys cap.

In fact, just to highlight the headaches circling around the league, Ndamukong Suh's contract is scheduled to void Friday, costing the Detroit Lions, no matter what happens, $9.737 million against the cap. And on Saturday the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks will have the 2015 base salaries of eight players if still on the roster guaranteed, from Richard Sherman's $10 million all the way down to their not-so-clever pantomiming receiver Doug Baldwin's $2.3 million, all totaling right at $40 million worth, or 30 percent of the projected $143 million salary cap.

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

The Cowboys' biggest center on two: What to do with impending unrestricted free agents Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray? Those will greatly impact everything else.

With Bryant, the decision is easy: Either re-sign him to a long-term deal with a hefty guarantee by March 2 or protect his rights by slapping him with the franchise tag, which is projected to be a one-year, guaranteed $12.8 million, and then continue to negotiate a long-term deal for the next several months. One of those two will occur, guaranteed.

The Murray Decision, though, as we all know, is much more complicated. If Dez is franchised, then Murray can't be. You only get one of those tags. And even if the Cowboys bat out a long-term deal with Dez prior to March 2, then the Cowboys must decide if guaranteeing Murray a one-year, $10.93 million contract – the going rate to franchise a running back this year – is a wise choice for spending those precious cap dollars.

Now, they could easily tag him, but at what further expense? Not being able to re-sign, maybe Rolando McClain? Having no shot at re-signing Free? Having to let Bruce Carter and/or Justin Durant walk into no-man's land? Same with Dwayne Harris? And what about Nick Hayden, maybe the most consistent player along that defensive line this season?

The biggest problem facing the Cowboys is determining what market value is for Murray, the NFL's 2014 rushing champ who set the Cowboys franchise single-season rushing record at 1,845 yards, 72 yards more than Emmitt smith ever rushed for in a single season. And it's not just the yards, but also what he means to a team that in reality was more physical than the Seahawks that day the two met in Week 6 during the regular season.

But to properly determine market value, they first must project what the rest of the league thinks Murray's value is.

Look, at a $10.93 million franchise tag Murray would become the third-highest paid running back in the league, although there is a chance the No. 1 guy, Adrian Peterson, won't see his $15.4 million charge against the Vikings cap this year. And there's a good chance Philadelphia will attempt to negotiate down LeSean McCoy's $11.95 million cap hit. If both take place, the franchise tag would make Murray the league's most expensive running back against the 2015 cap.

Dollars well spent?

Check this out: Currently there are only three running backs among the NFL's top 100 paid players (average per year). They would be Peterson ($14.38 million) and McCoy ($9 million) of course, along with Houston's Arian Foster ($8.7 million a year). That's it.

But again, the tag, if available, would buy the Cowboys more time to negotiate a long-term deal while Murray can investigate just what his value on the open market is, which any good agent already is doing so. Plus, the tag, hovering over the head of Bryant or Murray, is certainly a negotiating hammer since players would rather get guaranteed money up front on a long-term deal instead of playing with the zero security of a one-year contract paid out in 17 installments.

Ask Anthony Spencer the downside of betting on yourself.

And by retaining the right of first refusal on another team's tender, both sides would discover what the rest of the league thinks of Murray's dollar value.

The thought occurred the other day of hitting Murray with the transition tag, a one-year deal paid at the average of the top-10 players at the position, but that designation only reserves a right of first refusal for the Cowboys – no draft-pick compensation for failing to match an offer sheet of another team. That, though, also would allow both sides to research Murray's value on the open market.

One problem there for the Cowboys: The projected franchise tag ($10.93) isn't much more than the projected transition tag ($9.02 million).

And on a long-term deal, well, look at it this way: It's just hard for your quarterback to take a $17 million hit against the cap, your wide receiver upwards of $10-$15 million and your running back another $10 million.

So what's Murray's worth, and for how long? Turning 27 this year, what, three to five years? Anywhere from $4 million to $8 million a year?

One way to entice a shorter term, lesser total value is with up-front, guaranteed money. Maybe like 50 percent or more.

Interesting thought. Houston guaranteed Foster 47.7 percent of his five-year, $43.5 million deal. Among those top-100 paid players, only 14 had more guaranteed than that, with Matthew Stafford's new deal tops, guaranteeing him 78.3 percent. Four of the top 14 were quarterbacks, and included in that group of 14 were DeMarcus Ware on his recent three-year contract in Denver (55 percent) and Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (50 percent), though we probably can project what's going to happen this year with that one.

So maybe the Cowboys entice Murray to sign for less or fewer years, but guarantee the majority of the deal, allowing him to bank his money immediately or within, say, three years.

But again, what's market value? Are you paying based on one great season or what's being projected to come?

Also to be taken into consideration is, what's your alternatives?

Signing another free agent running back? Mark Ingram's name keeps coming up, but do you want to pay more than the Saints are willing to pay to retain him?

Peterson could be released, but again, he's not coming cheap, and are you ready to face those 200 people outside your facility entrance protesting his presence at The Ranch the day after he's signed?

Drafting a guy? But then how high, though no matter how high, the cap charge will be far less than that of Murray's on either a tag or longer-term deal, even if using the 27th pick in the first round.

Rely on your own? Well, first up, Say It Ain't So Joe (Randle) continues to provide evidence that he's not the most dependable alternative, what with his latest knucklehead ordeal and domestic mess in Wichita, Kan., this week. Like, what's next with this guy? It's not good business to be asking that question every morning you wake up with your starting running back.

Can't imagine the Cowboys project Lance Dunbar as an every-down back, and with Ryan Williams, while they did extend themselves a little to re-sign the practice squad back by paying him a $240,000 signing bonus on his two-year deal, with his cap charges over the two years now $705,000 and $795,000, he still has very little history in the league to rely on for a third-year player, not having an NFL regular-season carry since his 14 with the Cardinals on Oct. 4, 2012.

Want to take that chance, put your job, not just your opinion, on the line with that decision? Or the decision to roll the Randle dice? Or count on your ability to draft a guy capable of rushing for, say, 1,400 yards as a rookie? Or that your offensive line is so good that just who the running back is doesn't matter?

Or, for that matter, making the tough decision whether to franchise or transition Murray if you have the chance? Or sign him to the long-term deal with the guarantees he so desires with running back longevity in the league declining?

All while taking into account none of this is a slam-dunk sure thing, regrets – or a dry well – lurking around every corner.

Man, enough to give you an ulcer just thinking about …

This Risky Business.

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