NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the 2016 NFL offseason, first year general manager Jon Robinson’s actions made three things blatantly clear to all of us watching: that he and then-coach Mike Mularkey were philosophically and strategically aligned, that they would be remaking the Tennessee Titans in their image and that anyone who was not on board could politely see themselves out. Among the moves that let Robinson’s intentions be known was one of two trades with the Philadelphia Eagles that sent Tennessee’s 2016 fourth round pick to Philly in exchange for a fourth-rounder in that same year’s draft and disgruntled, misused two-time Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray.
Now, barring a restructure of Murray’s contract, the time has come for the Titans and the 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year to go their separate ways.
Make no mistake, Murray, 30, has been crucial to the franchise’s turnaround from the worst team in professional football in 2015 to back-to-back winning seasons, the franchises first postseason appearance since 2008 and a return to national relevance. Murray, among others, was a part of the movement started by the Mularkey-Robinson regime that gave apathetic football fans in Nashville a reason to get excited. The Oklahoma product led the AFC in rushing, ranking third overall in the League (1,287) in his first season with Tennessee. His 1,664 total yards from scrimmage was fourth-best in the NFL in 2016 and his 12 total touchdowns led his team; not to mention that Murray is a man of great character and has never been anything but amicable in his dealings with fans or the much-reviled media.
Titans fans will be and should be forever indebted to DeMarco Murray for the role he played in helping to get their team back on its feet and trending in the right direction.
But, unfortunately for Murray, he plays a position that has arguably the shortest shelf life in all of sports and the brutality of seven years as a professional running back, coupled with the downhill, physical style with which he does his job, contributed to the accumulation of various injuries that sandbagged his 2017. Mularkey and former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie’s scheme did not appear to help his cause, nor did diminished play of Tennessee’s offensive line after establishing themselves as one of the best in the sport a year prior.
Murray’s third Pro Bowl season (2016) saw him average 4.4 yards per carry and start all 16 games of the regular season. One year later, Murray started all but one contest in the regular season but managed only 659 yards on the ground for an average of 3.6 and missed the Week 17 win-and-in finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars and both postseason games after suffering a knee injury the week prior against the Los Angeles Rams.
Despite all that adversity, though, it should not go unnoticed that the former Dallas Cowboy still lead the Titans in rushing touchdowns (6).
While Murray’s presence was indeed missed by his team in those three games, both in pass-catching and pass protection, his Heisman-winning back-up Derrick Henry performed well enough in his stead (and is on a much team-friendlier contract) that a cap-casualty case could easily be made against him.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 6, 2018
The Titans have the 10th most salary cap space in the League in 2018, with $45,745,931 available to them and, as of today, Murray will have the fourth-highest salary cap hit at $6.5M among active running backs heading into the third year of his four-year deal. More damning for Murray, however, is that it will cost the team nothing to cut him. The front-loaded nature of the contract essentially makes Murray’s worth $13.05M over the first two years with $12.5M in total guaranteed money, allowing the team an out this offseason with $0 counting against the cap if he is released, according to spotrac.
Can Tennessee and Murray restructure his deal to prolong his time in Nashville? Of course they can, but that does not mean it makes a great deal of sense to do so.
Linebacker Avery Williamson and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones should be priorities as pending free agents and they will not come cheap. The Titans also gave kicker Ryan Succop a $20M extension earlier this week and have bank-breaking deals looming on the horizon with left tackle Taylor Lewan and quarterback Marcus Mariota approaching the end of their rookie contracts. The reality is that running backs can almost always be found on the cheap and Tennessee has the financial wiggle room to keep Murray, but not for much longer.
The art of winning championships in the NFL is most obviously evidenced by the New England Patriots.
“Duh,” you might say. “Thank you for all of your valuable insight, Buck.”
First of all, you are quite welcome. Secondly, the method with which New England goes about dominating a sport built entirely for parity is not quite as obvious as you might think. Aside from having the greatest coach and quarterback to ever grace professional football, you never see that organization pay a player more than they believe him to be worth. The aforementioned coach-quarterback combination allows them the liberty to take chances and, occasionally, they do miss on personnel. The unwillingness to ever overpay for name-brand talent in favor of players at value, however, is what keeps the Patriots atop the heap time and time again.
DeMarco Murray’s situation is a difficult one because of the revival he helped to spur on but the NFL is a cut-throat business that treats its employees as horrifically expendable. And, If Jon Robinson is truly building New England – South at St. Thomas Sports Park, he must adopt this Belicickian mantra and cut bait with players whose contracts exceed their value to the team.
DeMarco Murray most certainly still has value but it is largely dependent on his availability. And at his current price tag, Murray makes for an easy target as this offseason’s first cap casualty.