Five Thoughts on the DeMarco Murray Signing

DeMarco Murray. Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY

DeMarco Murray. Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY

Once again, Chip Kelly delivered a curveball this week when the Eagles signed both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews after unloading LeSean McCoy earlier in the offseason.

What to make of the moves in the backfield? Below are five thoughts.

1. I think the bottom line, and it might be an obvious one, is that Kelly prefers Murray to McCoy.

When the Eagles first traded McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso, the thought here (and in other places) was that Kelly felt like he could do more with less at the running back spot. In other words, why invest serious dollars there if he could scheme production with inexpensive options?

On Thursday, Kelly tried to sell the Murray and Mathews signings as a two-for-one deal. In other words, the Eagles were getting two running backs for the same price they would have spent on McCoy. But that’s not really the case.

As Joe Banner pointed out, the total money spent over three years in McCoy’s Eagles contract and Murray’s new contract is almost identical. The difference? Murray is getting a reported $18 million in guaranteed money, and McCoy’s deal was not guaranteed.

It’s true that McCoy had a big cap hit in 2015, but that number was scheduled to go down in 2016 and 2017. The Eagles could have pretty easily guaranteed him some money, restructured and lowered the 2015 cap hit. But they chose not to go that route.

In other words, for roughly the same cost over the next three years, Kelly thought Murray was a better bet for his offense than McCoy.

2. So the question is: Why does Kelly like Murray more?

His comment yesterday seemed telling.

“A physical, downhill runner,” he said, describing Murray. “Zone scheme, what we’re looking for, downhill, one-cut runner. Both him and Ryan I think possess those qualities.”

Kelly has described his philosophy in the past: line get me 2, back get me 2. That was not McCoy. He would sometimes dance and look for the home run. Oftentimes, he was successful. Sometimes, he was not. According to STATS, Inc., McCoy was stuffed for zero yards or fewer 41 times last season, tops in the NFL. That equated to 13.1 percent of his carries.

Murray was stuffed 37 times (second overall). When you take carries into account, that equates to 9.4 percent of the time. Avoiding negative plays wasn’t a strength of Murray’s. Twenty running backs had a lower stuff percentage than him.

Many are quick to criticize McCoy, but he totaled 2,926 yards and averaged 4.7 YPC under Kelly. He’s also missed just six games in six seasons.

Still, we’ve seen with Kelly in the past that just because a player is productive in his scheme doesn’t mean he thinks the player is necessarily an ideal scheme fit. With McCoy, Kelly felt he could do better. Time will tell if Murray is what he’s looking for.

3. My biggest issue with the decision is committing valuable financial resources to a player that carries this much risk. Murray had 497 touches last year and has stayed healthy for an entire season just once in four NFL seasons. It feels like the Eagles could be paying for past performance rather than projecting forward, which is how teams get into trouble in free agency.

In the past 15 years, four running backs have carried the ball 390 times or more in a single season. Eddie George did it at the age of 27 in 2000. He averaged 3.0 YPC the following season and 3.2 YPC average the rest of his career.

Larry Johnson did it in 2006. He averaged 3.5 YPC the following season and missed 16 games in the next three years.

Ricky Williams was a strange case because he did it in 2003 and retired briefly the following year, before eventually resurrecting his career.

It’s a small sample size, and maybe Murray will be the exception. But if early contract details hold up ($18M guaranteed), the Eagles are counting on him to buck the trend.

You can make the argument (as Kelly did) that Murray won’t carry nearly as heavy a load here, but if that’s the case and the Eagles are going to go with a rotation, then why pony up that kind of money?

From Bill Barnwell of Grantland:

In all, Kelly is committing a lot of money to his running backs. Let’s assume that Mathews’s deal eats up about $4 million in cap space this year. Assuming that it has a roster bonus, Murray should come in at about $9 million. The Eagles already have Sproles on their cap at $4.1 million. Even if they cut Chris Polk, that means about $17 million in cap space is committed to running backs.

The only team that even comes close to the Eagles on running back spending would be the Vikings, who have $18 million committed to backs this season, but $15.4 million of that money belongs to Peterson, who is likely to be released or traded. Otherwise, nobody else is spending more than $10.9 million on running backs, which leaves the Eagles as an enormous outlier in terms of how they’re choosing to use their cap space.

Many teams around the league don’t believe in investing such heavy financial resources into the running back spot. Kelly appears to hold the opposite view. There’s nothing wrong with thinking differently, but the approach just seems strange, given his reputation as a run-game guru.

The Murray/Ryan Mathews combination could end up being great. The question is, given what we know at the current time, is it worth the financial commitment/risk? And will it limit what the Eagles can do elsewhere?

4. In case you feel like I’m bogging you down with negativity, let me say this: When healthy, Murray is one of the most productive backs in the league.

The notion that he was a product of the Cowboys’ offensive line is silly. Since 1970, among running backs with at least 900 attempts, only four have a better YPC average than Murray (4.85): Jamaal Charles (5.49), Barry Sanders (4.99), Adrian Peterson (4.96) and Napoleon Kaufman (4.90).

Last year, Murray finished first in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric. And he was second in 2013.

When he’s healthy, Murray’s a powerful back, capable of running through tackles and making big plays. He is adept as a receiver too, with 110 catches in the past two seasons.

There are concerns (as voiced above), but this is no stiff. There’s plenty to like with Murray from a talent/production standpoint.

5. I’m intrigued to see how the overall plan on offense will play out for the Eagles.

The investment in Murray and Mathews would seem to indicate a heavy ground attack in 2015. The Eagles have been a run-first spread for two years now. But we’ve discussed at length how teams have loaded up against their ground game in the past with varying degrees of success.

If the season started today, the Eagles would field a receiving corps that no defensive coordinator in the NFL would be scared of. Kelly and company have talked about how defenses always play them with single-high safety looks. He might end up begging for that next year. Opponents might as well play Cover 0 with no safeties deep against Riley Cooper and company.

Meanwhile, if the Eagles trade Evan Mathis, they’ll be looking for help at both guard spots. Some on Twitter have tried to talk me into Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin. Sorry. Those are giant question marks. If the Eagles are going to pound the ball, they need better talent with their interior linemen.

The season doesn’t start next week, and Kelly pointed out as much yesterday. We’ll see in the coming weeks what the Eagles do at offensive line and wide receiver. Who knows? In a month, our view of the offensive plan could be drastically different.

Kelly is going against the grain by investing heavily at the running back spot. Perhaps Murray and Mathews will prove to be a lethal 1-2 combination, but like with Sam Bradford, the Eagles are again counting on being the exception.