DeMarco Murray was fantasy football's MVP in 2014, but the Dallas Cowboys didn't meet his asking price, so he's moving to the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles. That sounded pretty good -- right until the Eagles also signed Ryan Mathews from the San Diego Chargers.
Chip Kelly will spend an awful lot on his backfield in '15, bucking current conventional wisdom and creating unreadable circumstances for fantasy players. With Murray, Mathews and (for now) Darren Sproles, the Eagles will have three weapons capable of winning you a week, but also capable of taking a back seat at any given moment.
Murray is coming off a season with 392 carries and 57 receptions, which amounts to the most total touches in a single season since Larry Johnson in 2006. You might recall that was LJ's final good campaign, at age 27. (Murray just turned 27 in February.) Before he became an ironman last season, Murray spent three years in Dallas getting hurt and missing games. And Mathews is even more injury-prone; he's played 16 games in only one of his five pro seasons, and missed 10 contests in 2014. The idea of teaming two potentially breakable power backs (behind Sam Bradford, who's coming off two ACL tears) makes a degree of sense.
Make no mistake, the upside for any running back in the Eagles' offense is manifest: LeSean McCoy was phenomenal in 2013, and as a team Philly generated 16 rushing touchdowns in 2014 despite carnage along the offensive line. If and when either of the main guys get injured, the other man will shoot up the RB ranks. But we heard that story for years with the Carolina Panthers, when both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart toiled. That worked out well for fantasy owners in '08 and '09, but not so well in the five seasons since. Sproles simply adds to the confusion. He averaged 6.5 touches per game last season, not enough to be a trustworthy fantasy starter but definitely enough to steal the limelight on occasion. At least this should spell the end of Chris Polk as a TD vulture.
How do Murray and Mathews fit Kelly's system? Well, they're remarkably similar players: big guys with good-but-not-great acceleration and one-cut ability, but nothing close to the laser-quick cut-meister McCoy. Power backs never go out of style, but I wouldn't put either of these guys on a list of the best outside runners in the game. Kelly already traded some of his outside-zone plays for inside-zone runs in '14. That process will continue this season.
Of course, the million-dollar fantasy question is: What do we do with these guys? Well, Murray is a better player than Mathews, but it seems to me he's no longer a candidate to go first overall. Heck, I'd argue he probably isn't a first-round pick anymore. Mathews might stay healthy with a reduced workload, and he can definitely steal TDs. Plus, Murray's '14 workload presents risk of a breakdown, too. At the moment, I put Murray at No. 9 on my pre-rookie RB list and Mathews at No. 27. In the meantime, Sproles drops out of the top 50, but this is a fluid situation, and my mind might change a dozen times before September.
As for what's left behind in Dallas, let's face it: It's a golden opportunity for somebody. I deem it unlikely that the key components of the Cowboys' great offensive lline will enjoy a run of good health like it did in '14, but there should be ample room to roam even if the line takes a step or two back. The in-house candidates to replace Murray are Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams, who are lead-RB sized, and Lance Dunbar, who's a restricted free agent and probably more of a third-down back. Randle made a few big plays in an understudy role last season, but has some questionable off-field behavior in his recent past. Williams has a great collegiate pedigree and was a second-round NFL draft pick, but has suffered a litany of knee and shoulder injuries in his brief pro career. It stands to reason that the Cowboys will seek alternatives, including the possibility of signing another bigger-name free agent, drafting a running back from a class that has great depth, or even trading for Adrian Peterson. If a single player winds up taking most of the RB snaps in Big D, he's going to be a major fantasy factor, probably more major than Murray or Mathews.