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Upcoming DeMarco Murray debate could come down to juice

IRVING, Texas -- The most interesting debate the Dallas Cowboys will have this offseason will be what to do with DeMarco Murray.

There is no doubt the Cowboys want to keep him, but the decision will come down to price, and that's where there could be a struggle between what Jason Garrett wants and what the front office wants.

I hesitate to call this a fight waiting to happen, but the discussion will be interesting.

Garrett passionately praised Murray on Tuesday. Murray led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards. He set a team record for rushing yards in a season and 100-yard games in a season. He set career highs in receptions and receiving yards, as well. He was named to the Pro Bowl. He was named All-Pro. He was named the Offensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.

But in reverentially speaking about Murray, Garrett didn't focus on the stats and accolades.

"I think that idea of his mindset, his mentality, his demeanor, his toughness, I think that really, really helped the identity of our football team," Garrett said. "In many ways, he established the identity of our football team. The offensive line was a big part of it, to be able to hand the ball to a guy again and again and again and for him to be consistently performing at the level he performed, I thought it was really, really impressive. And again, I think it pervaded our offensive unit, pervaded our whole football team and made us all better."

Murray turns 27 on Feb. 12. He had 656 offensive touches in his first three years, missing 11 games with ankle, foot and knee injuries. In the 2014 regular season, he had 449 offensive touches (392 carries, 57 catches). He added 48 more touches in the two playoff games.

Garrett does not dismiss talk about the position being de-valued in the draft and concerns about when runners start to wear out, but he believes the intangibles Murray brings to the roster carry weight.

"A lot of people since DeMarco came out of college talked about he's injury-prone, he's this, he's that," Garrett said. "That's the nature of the National Football League. It's hard for all these guys who go through the pounding week in and week out to stay healthy. And there was never anything about me that felt he was fragile. In fact, it was the exact opposite. He was tough, he was downhill, he finishes, that's the kind of player he is. He demonstrated that all year long. And what he did for our football team after he broke his hand, I thought was really significant.

"You've heard me say this before but after that ballgame, he looked me in the eye and said, 'I'm playing.' I had a conversation with him on the plane that night, 'I'm playing.' The next day, 'I'm playing.' After his surgery, 'I'm playing.' He went out two days later and practiced and then three days later and played. We went into that game against Indianapolis saying we've got to protect this guy, we can only be involved in these runs, we've got to make sure he's not in protection too much because he's going to use that hand. Six plays into the game and he's got to block the free safety and locks him up. The impact that he has on our football team because of that is significant and we were very quick to point that out to the rest of our team."

But how does that factor into the cost?

The Cowboys will be in solid shape in regard to the salary cap compared to past years. It won't be about the lack of cap room with Murray. It will be whether they want to allocate the cap space to a running back.

The largest free-agent deal for a running back last year came in with a $3.5 million annual average to Ben Tate, Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart. No offense to Tate, Brown and Gerhart, but they are not the same running backs as Murray.

Not even close.

The Cowboys were at about a $4 million average at the start of the season on a contract extension for Murray. Given the success he had in 2014, that number has to increase some. Or it should.

The Cowboys like Joseph Randle, who showed flashes of ability in short stints as Murray's backup. But he also showed some immaturity with his arrest for allegedly shoplifting underwear and a tester bottle of cologne and his comments caught on film at the police station after the arrest that were not flattering of teammates caught in the law in the past.

The Cowboys could also look to the draft for Murray's replacement. There could be a number of backs that could come in and have success right away, especially behind an offensive line that has three Pro Bowl performers.

With the 27th pick, the Cowboys could be in position to pick the best -- or one of the best -- considering how far the position has fallen in terms of draft-day value.

Despite all the talk, Adrian Peterson remains a member of the Minnesota Vikings. And would he come cheaper than Murray if he becomes a free agent? He has more wear on his tires than Murray.

But if you're Garrett, would you trust Randle and/or a rookie trying to figure out his way in the NFL world? Would you trust even a free-agent pickup of slightly better than OK ability but not named Peterson over Murray?

Of course not.

Garrett will have some juice thanks to the upcoming five-year contract he will receive here shortly.

What the Cowboys do with Murray will be a big indicator in how much juice he really has.