Tough Call for Cowboys

Bryant or Murray? That answer will define Dallas Cowboys' success for years

Bryant or Murray? That answer will define Cowboys' success for years

Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys
In the last three seasons, Dez Bryant has performed like a top five wide receiver, as his 41 touchdown receptions is the most in the NFL Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray of Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray had an incredible 2014 season, as he rushed for 1,845 yards, scored 13 rushing touchdowns and earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray of Dallas Cowboys

Do you have $20 million to $25 million or so lying around the house? Because that’s what it will probably take for the Dallas Cowboys to re-sign both wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray. And that’s per year, so it would be best if you had, you know, a couple hundred million or so at the ready.

It’s the defining debate of this offseason for the Cowboys, and the clock started ticking on Monday, the first day of a two-week period in which the Cowboys can designate a franchise player. The use of that tag plays directly into this debate.

First, which player is more important to keep? And second, can the Cowboys somehow keep both in a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario? The answer to those questions will define their success for the next half-dozen years.

 When I look at Bryant, I see a player who will perform at his elite level longer than Murray.

As to the first question, I’m not sure there is much to debate. Murray had an incredible 2014 season, as he rushed for 1,845 yards, scored 13 rushing touchdowns and earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. He and that incredible offensive line — the one with the three Pro Bowlers and the two All-Pro selections — can move the pile for the foreseeable future.

But that’s the problem — just how far is the foreseeable future? With 449 touches in 2014 (including 57 pass receptions) and 1,141 touches in four NFL seasons, there are legitimate concerns about just how long Murray can play at a high level. Even though he just turned 27, and there’s evidence to suggest that he has some mileage left, history also suggests that backs that assume the workload he assumed in 2014 have a tendency to break down the next year.

Need evidence? Recently NFL.com’s Michael Fabiano compiled the other backs that have rushed at least 390 times in a season. (Murray had 392 carries in 2014.) Fabiano profiled 18 different occurrences. Just twice did players improve their overall statistics the year after assuming that many rushing attempts. Nine of them failed to approach 70 percent of the previous year’s production.

When I look at Bryant, I see a player who will perform at his elite level longer than Murray, and wear and tear plays into that assessment. Bryant has just 428 touches in five NFL seasons. Plus, Bryant has a better track record.

In the last three seasons Bryant has performed like a top five wide receiver, as his 41 touchdown receptions is the most in the NFL. Compare Bryant’s overall numbers during that span to the five highest-paid receivers in the game right now and only Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has better numbers.

Bryant wants to be paid like one of the top receivers in the game, and that makes sense. Much has been made about the NFL.com story from November about the half-dozen police calls to a property Bryant owns in DeSoto, but reporting since then indicates that most of these didn’t involve Bryant. Since his well-reported altercation with his mother in 2012, Bryant has kept his nose clean.

If the Cowboys have to choose, the choice is Bryant. But must they really choose?

The Cowboys are under the salary cap for 2015, but not by much. It wouldn’t take much to clear $20 million or so. The Cowboys cleared about $8 million by not picking up defensive tackle Henry Melton’s extension last weekend. The Cowboys also have the franchise tag, which they could use on either player and only be committed to a one-year deal worth the average of the top five contract at that position.

To me it makes more sense to pursue the long-term deal with Bryant because you’re going to have to pay him big money whether you franchise him or not. Bryant should expect to see a contract somewhere between $12 million to $16 million per year, which are the contract averages for the top three receivers in the game right now — Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Wallace.

If owner and general manager Jerry Jones can get that done in the next couple of weeks then the Cowboys are free to use the franchise tag on Murray, which will cost $9.5 million.

Everyone’s preference would be to not use the franchise tag at all. Players hate it, and owners are loathe to do things players hate. But if the Cowboys get to March 2 and don’t have a new contract with either player, the choice is clear: The Cowboys must franchise Bryant and take their chances with Murray.

Life without Murray is feasible. Life without Bryant? No so much.