Frankly, the question shouldn’t be Dez Bryant or Demarco Murray? Rather it should be Dez and/or Murray? Ideally, the Cowboys would sign both players to long term deals as cornerstone pieces of the franchise but that is unrealistic if Jerry and Stephen Jones hope to improve an anemic pass rush and sketchy secondary play.
Another unlikely, but more realistic scenario would result in Bryant receiving the franchise tag and Murray signing a long-term deal. A tagged Dez would cost roughly $13 million in 2015 and on the heels of a record breaking rushing effort Murray at 27 will be looking for Top 5 running back money, that’s $9-$12 million annually. However, this too puts an enormous strain on Dallas’ salary cap situation rendering the team cash strapped and scraping the bottom of the barrel for defensive upgrades via free agency. Yes, Dallas could focus on improving the defense via the draft but the offense is poised to make a championship run now and with an aging quarterback with chronic back problems Dallas can’t afford to field a defense with an inordinate amount of inexperience and dearth of talent.
I don’t see Bryant landing a long-term deal and Murray receiving the franchise tag (roughly $10 million). With the likes of Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, and Vincent Jackson making $11-$12 million annually I anticipate Dez and his representatives are looking for a long-term deal that pays $15-$16 million annually. That would put him in the Top 3 in terms of wide-out earnings on the heels of Larry Fitzgerald’s re-structured contract that drops his cap figure from $23 million to $11 million. But, that may actually be a conservative estimate regarding Bryant. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility coming off of a 16 TD campaign and entrenched in the prime of his career that Bryant won’t seek $18 million per year leaving him just shy of Calvin Johnson’s $20 million annual figure. Is Dez worth $15-$16 million a year? I say yes. He’s an elite receiver second only to Megatron in my opinion and has become the emotional leader for a team compiled of over-paid apathetic underachievers for most of the 2000s. But Dallas can’t or rather they shouldn’t tie up $25-$30 million dollars in Bryant and Murray, not with their personnel on defense.
I firmly believe the Joneses should franchise tag Dez Bryant and continue to hammer out the details of a long term extension with him. In the mean-time let Demarco Murray walk. Some might argue that Murray was the most significant player in terms of Dallas’ success this past season. Breaking Emmitt Smith’s single season team record for rushing yards is a remarkable feat and while I have always questioned his durability and instincts as a ball-carrier, over the past two seasons Murray has remained fairly healthy and has blossomed into an upper-tier running back. Improved vision and elusiveness has made his power/speed combination that much more effective. However, I would disagree with those who believe Murray was Dallas’ offensive MVP. I believe that honor should be shared by the members of Dallas’ outstanding offensive line. Oh, and let’s not forget Dez Bryant’s 16 TDs (a single season team record).
When most teams struggle to stop the opposition’s running game they commit an additional defender to “the box” to slow down the opponent’s rushing attack by overwhelming the offense with numbers. Dez Bryant is one of a handful of receivers in the NFL that simply does NOT give you that option. Unless they have a Darelle Revis or Richard Sherman at your disposal teams typically play two-deep coverage or bracket Bryant with multiple defenders which makes it easier to run the football. Regardless, Bryant gets his to a tune of 41 touchdown receptions over the last three seasons. In other words, Dez Bryant’s presence on the field bolsters Murray’s effectiveness. That isn’t to say Bryant and Dallas’ passing game doesn’t benefit from Murray (29 TDs in 4-year career) but it is apparent to me that Bryant presents a more dynamic threat to opposing defenses.
The next question you have to ask yourself is, “Which commodity is less difficult to replace?” In this case, it’s the running back. I’m not one of those individuals who believe running backs are a dime a dozen. I think the best teams can run the football effectively and despite how much the game has changed special running backs like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch deserve top dollar. BUT, neither the Vikings nor Seahawks have a playmaker at receiver in the same stratosphere as Dez Bryant. This year’s draft features and impressive collection of receivers but I don’t think any of the top guys are Dez Bryant good and if/when they get to that point Demarco Murray may very well be on his last legs. On the other hand, this class of running backs is the most impressive group in several years. In fact there are two elite options in this draft in Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley and a slew of other talented ball carriers that can be had on Day 2 and 3. Keep in mind that teams don’t value running backs like they once did so those running backs can be had later in the draft for great value. Not to mention, you typically find young running backs having an impact sooner than young receivers when making the transition from college football to the pro game.
Next we consider which player will be more effective for a longer period of time. Bryant at 26, plays a less demanding position (physically) than Murray and his style of play isn’t overly dependent on speed which diminishes over time but rather body control and his exceptional ball skills. Murray’s running style doesn’t do much to preserve his body and considering his history of injuries (played 16 games 1 out of 4 years in NFL) I worry that he may not have more than 2-3 years of high level production left. Again, I would prefer to have a workhorse stud of a featured back but many teams in recent years have had a great deal of success deploying a running back-by-committee approach.
I think it is safe to assume that Dez Bryant isn’t going anywhere and I personally would be very disappointed if he didn’t retire a Cowboy. Not for sentimental reasons but #88 reminds me of The Playmaker, Michael Irvin. Irvin was the emotional leader of the Cowboys’ dynasty during the 90s as well as their leading receiver and over the past three seasons it has become clear that Dez now holds that torch. Have you seen Jason Witten on the sideline recently? He appears to be more demonstrative and emotionally invested than ever which I attribute to Bryant’s intoxicating fervor. That may sound trite but Bryant’s competitiveness, passion and blue-collar approach to a position that often is associated with the term “Diva” has had a noticeable impact on the demeanor and confidence of his teammates. An effective running game can have the same type of impact on a team but it simply isn’t Murray’s personality to lead both vocally and on the field.
Dez it is! Don’t feel bad for Murray though he’s about to get $$$ and while I don’t think it is fiscally responsible I wouldn’t be shocked if Jerry Jones found a way to keep both players.