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Calling For Backup: Cowboys Must Find A No. 2 For Murray

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DeMarco Murray stands alone on the Dallas Cowboys running back depth chart. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.
DeMarco Murray stands alone on the Dallas Cowboys running back depth chart. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

In July 2011, when Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray inked a four-year contract for a shade under $3 million, he agreed in principle to an uphill depth chart battle.

Murray’s playing time mushroomed after an injury to current free agent and then-starter Felix Jones. Last year, he boasted the second-highest success rate – an advanced statistic that measures successful plays (as determined by down and distance) in relation to total number of plays the rusher was involved in – among NFL running backs. In a mere 23 games, he’s proven himself as an all-around back who anchors the offense -- a compact, shifty runner with an incendiary first step who is equally adept as a receiver and gung-ho as a pass blocker – and he’ll get a big deal before Dallas lets him walk.

But he’s had bad luck with injuries. What Dallas needs right now is a durable, bruising rusher who makes the necessity of an every-down back like Murray an obsolete notion. The Cowboys need someone strong enough to deter a defensive back and to pound the ball in short yardage situations when the box is crowded. They need someone seasoned.

Some free agent running backs who fit the bill  – Cedric Benson, Michael Turner, Peyton Hillis – are still available. But at the moment, bringing one to Dallas would be tough. The Cowboys have about $4.5 million to cap space to work with. Ostensibly, the team would be seeking a short contract (two years max), with a low base and high volume of incentives. The aforementioned rushers are all around 30 years old. Their injury risk is higher – even with their snaps reduced – and it’d be tough to endorse any sort of lucrative contract for them.

The Cowboys could find the next DeMarco Murray in a late-round draft pick. But for now, it looks like the depth chart is the best place to start. Currently backing Murray are Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar: third- and second-year men from Middle Tennessee North Texas University, respectively.

Tanner seems a better fit on paper. A particularly good scouting report describes him as built for speed and power, with good acceleration, cutting ability, and a low center of gravity to move the pile in those crucial short-yardage situations. Dunbar, a former quarterback and receiver, is an athletic runner with 4.47, 40-yard dash speed that makes him more of a lateral threat.

Even if Dallas manages to sign a veteran rusher, Tanner should get more reps this year. He’s 25 and equipped with the backfield skills the Cowboys are hurting for – mainly the ability to alleviate the pressure on Murray to embody the entire rushing attack. The Cowboys’ offense needs balance. Without a suitable backup for Murray, they have little chance of obtaining it.