Through the first third of the fantasy season, I can’t think of a single player who has elicited a wider variety of opinions from fantasy owners than DeMarco Murray. On one end, he’s viewed as an injury prone, flash-in-the-pan with little long term value – think Felix Jones v2.0. On the other end, he’s portrayed as a young stud with a perfect opportunity to thrive and enjoy a long, productive career – think Emmitt Smith v2.0. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle (isn’t it always), but arguing the middle isn’t a very compelling read. For your sake, here are ten reasons why Murray’s got all the makings of a cornerstone fantasy running back:
1.) He is already a stallion
I was going to use the term “bell cow,” but given the team we’re talking about, a horse metaphor seemed more appropriate. “Workhorse” was the next option, but that just sounds so much less exciting than “stallion,” right? Maybe I’m overthinking this already. Anyway, through the first four games of his second NFL season, Murray has accounted for 61 of the 65 (93.8%) rushing attempts from Cowboys running backs. The only player in the NFL who currently has more of a stranglehold on his team’s carries is Trent Richardson (97.6%). That’s right – players like Arian Foster (76.7%), Marshawn Lynch (79.6%), LeSean McCoy (83.6%), Adrian Peterson (76.2%), Maurice Jones-Drew (84.8%) and Ray Rice (75.7%) don’t really even come that close. Listen, I understand there are valid counterarguments to that point, but all I’m really trying to establish here is that Murray is being given a golden opportunity that just can’t be ignored by fantasy owners, so don’t. He proved he was capable of sustaining and excelling in this role at the University of Oklahoma, so there’s plenty of reason to believe he can do the same in the NFL.
2.) He has produced at every level
I touched on this above very briefly, but just to expound upon this point, I want to stress that expecting Murray to have success in the NFL isn’t exactly a shot in the dark and completely sans merit. He’s not some workout warrior without any semblance of a track record who got drafted way too high. He’s not a guy with both great measureables and collegiate success who was drafted early and expected to be the face of the franchise from Day 1. The fact of the matter is that he has lived up to and/or exceeded expectations at every stop along the way. That should be worth at least a little bit of reassurance on his behalf.
3.) He is progressing quite well, actually
Is it just me or has the average fantasy owner become exponentially more impatient over the past few years? Perhaps it’s the unbelievable amount of instant access to fantasy news and stats that is available at our fingertips nowadays. Perhaps it’s the steady rise in popularity of fantasy football combined with the ever-growing sense of impatience from society as a whole. I’m not quite sure, but regardless, if you analyze Murray’s stats from his first twelve full games as a starter in the NFL below in Table 1, you would notice that he stacks up quite well against fantasy studs like Rice, McCoy and Foster:
As you can see, Murray is actually right on pace to join those guys in their “Elite Superstud Running Back Club.” Heck, I’ll bet they’ve already ordered his special tailor-fitted club jacket and started planning his secret initiation ceremony because it’s only a matter of time, my friends – you’re just going to need to show a little patience.
4.) His recent “struggles” are a mirage
Well, not so much a mirage as totally justifiable and entirely out of his control. After posting some excellent numbers in week one against the New York Giants, Murray’s detractors have really had a field day with his past three games, shown here in table two:
Firstly, it has been well documented by just about everyone who documents anything ever that the Cowboys offensive line has been a total mess so far this season. This is especially true on runs up the gut and from the right side according to Football Outsiders. The Dallas offensive line is ranked #30, #27 and #26 in the NFL on runs that are directed over the center, right guard and right tackle, respectively. The good news is that starting center Phil Costa is expected to return from injury this week and that should provide some much needed stability to get the running game back on track. Even though head coach Jason Garrett is playing coy about the situation by saying he’ll have to earn his spot back, I think it’s pretty obvious from the statistics provided above that it won’t take long.
The second reason that you can’t trust Murray’s past three performances is that those opponents (the Seahawks, Buccaneers, and Bears) are currently ranked fourth, first and third, respectively, in the NFL for rushing defense. Yes, just to reiterate that point in order to capture its full effect, those are three of the top four run defenses in the NFL. And if you think those rankings are merely a byproduct of playing against weak competition, think again. In addition to Murray, Tampa Bay’s defense has shut down the likes Cam Newton (four yards), Ahmad Bradshaw (16 yards) and Robert Griffin III (36 yards). Chicago has corralled Steven Jackson (29 yards) and Maurice Jones-Drew (56 yards). And Seattle has shut down Cedric Benson (18 yards), Jackson (55 yards) and Newton (42 yards) as well. That’s pretty much murderer’s row if you’re a running back. With a banged up line that can’t keep defenders out of his face as soon as Tony Romo hands him the ball, you can’t possibly hold those results (or lack thereof) against him in good conscience.
5.) His team needs him. They need him badly
Since Murray took over the starting running back duties full time in week five of 2011, the Cowboys are 6-0 when he gets 20 or more carries. Their record is 1-6 when he gets fewer than 20 carries. If you include the first four games of 2011 when they tinkered with Felix Jones as their starter and the last few games of that season when Murray was out with injury, the Cowboys are 4-12 without him on the field getting ample touches. Four. And. Twelve. Versus. Six. And. Zero. That shouldn’t need any further explanation. Even the Great Jerr-ah Jones knows that Murray is the key to their success.
6.) He doesn’t even have competition right now
Felix Jones didn’t do much with his opportunity to be the starter and has been used almost exclusively on special teams this season (although those days appear to be over as well). I’d make a hefty wager that you won’t be seeing much of backup running backs Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar anytime soon, either. I bring this up just to reinforce the idea that not only to the Cowboys need Murray to produce as previously established, they also don’t appear to even have another legitimate option right now. He’s essentially operating carte blanche to develop into an NFL Supermegastar. Fantasy owners should be renouncing naming rights to their next-born child to get a piece of that action.
7.) He plays hard
Some of you were probably scrolling down trying to find the part his reputation as being “injury prone” would be addressed, but that assertion simply isn’t true, at least not contextually. The label “injury prone” gets tossed around far too haphazardly and has developed a connotation that is way, way too broad to be useful anymore. Every football player, especially the ones who play running back, get dinged up and sustains an injury here and there. “Injury prone” should be saved exclusively for guys who sustain multiple non-contact injuries (think Bill Gramatica) or guys who suffer from recurring injuries that keep them off the field (think Austin Collie).
If you look at Murray’s injury history in college – a dislocated kneecap sustained during his freshman season on an onside kick recovery attempt that cost him three games, a partially torn hamstring sustained during his sophomore season on a kickoff return that cost him two games, a mild ankle sprain sustained during his junior season during game played in sloppy conditions that cost him just one game for precautionary reasons – you’ll probably be surprised to learn that he only missed six (SIX!) games during his entire four-year college career. In fact, in his senior year when he was used exclusively as a workhorse-type back, Murray didn’t miss a single game!
Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett aren’t stupid enough to risk putting him on special teams duty so that will reduce his exposure to the type of injuries with which he’s previously dealt. Consider the fractured ankle he suffered during Murray’s rookie season in the NFL when a 300 pound lineman fell on him awkwardly and you’ll notice that none of these injuries are recurring either. DeMarco Murray just plays hard and when he gets banged up, as all football players do, he recovers and comes back just as strong as before. That’s not “injury prone,” that’s playing hard and being gritty.
Simply for the sake of comparison, Adrian Peterson missed eight games in just three years at Oklahoma due to a variety of injuries including a high ankle sprain and a fractured clavicle. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed three games in his Sophomore season at Arizona due to mononucleosis and then missed his entire junior year of college due to a degenerative back issue. Has anyone ever referred to Peterson or Gronkowski as “injury prone?” I highly doubt it and even if they did, they’re probably not alive to tell about it.
8.) He is versatile
Fantasy owners can’t ignore Murray’s ability to catch the ball. You can see in table one (above) that his production in the passing game is comparable with that trio of PPR monsters who are fairly unanimously considered the top three fantasy running backs. During his rookie season, the Cowboys didn’t utilize him much in that way but that changed pretty quickly once they realized what kind of capabilities he possesses. At Oklahoma, he was second on his team in receptions during both his junior and senior years, trailing a name you might recognize (wide receiver Ryan Broyles) in both cases. And as table two (above) illustrates, even when he’s getting shut down on the ground, he still chips in with his hands. As disappointing as the rushing results were, that extra 27.4 points (standard PPR) he achieved should be very reassuring that he’s going to produce for your fantasy team in any way possible.
9.) He is surrounded by offensive weapons
It isn’t a secret that being surrounded by talented players is actually a good thing. Talented, Pro Bowl caliber wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant along with tight end Jason Witten only serve to help keep defenses honest. With a veteran and mostly-capable quarterback like Tony Romo distributing the ball, a fantasy owner couldn’t ask for a much better environment for their stallion to grow into a champion show horse. Guys like Adrian Peterson who are able to produce under any circumstances and seem to be impervious to the amount of talent surrounding them are definitely the exception, not the rule.
10.) He has the “law of averages” on his side
The Cowboys are currently #29 in the NFL in total rushing yards per game. Last year they finished the season #18. In 2010, they were #16. In 2009, they were seventh. Do you see where I’m going with this? The point here is that things will turn around for their running game and Murray’s numbers, because he’s obviously the primary beneficiary in this case, will get a nice bump accordingly. Yes, I realize that using the “law of averages” as justification for predicting future success is a weak argument at best and a complete logical fallacy at worst, but take comfort in the fact that the team hasn’t finished in the bottom third of the league in total rushing since 1990.
Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989 and since then, the Cowboys have finished amongst the top ten rushing teams almost a dozen times. Coincidence? Perhaps. However, read what Jones recently had to say to KRLD-FM about his team’s biggest weakness: “So, I’d like to see us just being able to get in there and have movement when we want it in the offensive line. I’d like to see us block better up there on some of our running plays both early and on short yardage during the game.” Mr. Jones, Murray’s fantasy owners certainly concur.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got.
My ode to DeMarco Murray is complete and now I wish you all the best of luck in prying him away from the coach who owns him in your league while you still might be able to. Stop worrying about a few injuries because the truth is that all great players will miss games here and there and every stud fantasy player comes with a legitimate amount of risk due simply to the nature of the sport they play. If you put too much emphasis on stocking your team with guys who have never been injured, you’re not going to have a very talented team. In my opinion, if you’re not in love with a guy like Murray because of a little “risk,” why are you playing dynasty league football at all? He’s got the talent and the opportunity to be a truly elite running back. You can’t ask for much more than that.