On Friday, the Tennessee Titans made official what had been reported all week: they were cutting Chris Johnson, or CJ2K, because of his oversized salary.
It doesn’t matter what his production has been lately—at 3.4 yards per carry last season, it hasn’t been good. Any running back who has put up a 2,000-yard season is going to turn some heads in free agency.
But despite national media repeatedly linking the Dallas Cowboys to CJ2K, local reports have firmly stated that the Dallas front office has no interest in signing him. They may have been part of his trade conversation, but now that he’s been cut they obviously believe that their free agent dollars can be better spent somewhere else.
With DeMarco Murray entering his contract year, however, it might be prudent for the ‘Boys to start looking for a Plan B. Lance Dunbar may or may not make this team’s 2014 roster, but his NFL usefulness appears limited either way. Joseph Randle, then, becomes the de facto change-of-pace back and, potentially, Murray’s successor.
Randle has some serious upside, with good speed and developing pass-catching skills, but do the Cowboys like him so much as to make him the No. 1 back heading forward?
All of this depends, of course, on their evaluation of Murray. And that’s where things get tricky. Murray has been a lot of things for this team—a Pro-Bowler, a 1,100-yard rusher, a record-breaker, but also an oft-injured, inconsistent option.
When it comes time to pay him like a No. 1 back, will the Cowboys do so?
This is partially dependent on the kind of season he has, but my guess is that they won’t. Today’s NFL is cruel to its running backs—just ask Chris Johnson. Just a few years ago he was one of the league’s elite rushers and one of only seven ever to hit the 2,000-yard plateau. Now he’s not valuable enough for his team to hang onto.
Such is the life for a modern league running back. Their bodies sustain such punishment that their production generally deteriorates as they age, Adrian Peterson notwithstanding.
Murray is still young for a league player—he’s 26, with most NFLers hitting their prime around this time. But the best season for most running backs comes only one or two years in, and Murray is already past that point.
The Cowboys need not worry for Murray. Some other team will pick him up, maybe even start him. But their best bet is to move forward with Randle and whoever they can pick up in the draft, either this year or next.
I’m not convinced Dallas needs to draft its next running back this year, though there are solid mid-round options to be had. Heisman finalists Tre Mason and Andre Williams come to mind immediately—they probably won’t be taken very quickly.
Whenever the Cowboys decide to act, chances are there will be plenty of running backs to choose from, and chances are they won’t be in Dallas for more than a few years. The position itself is changing. The league is becoming increasingly pass-happy while its best running backs are constantly hurt.
It doesn’t look like the Cowboys will be signing Chris Johnson. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be signing DeMarco Murray next offseason, either.
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