Should You Trust DeMarco Murray to Be Your Top Fantasy Running Back?

Is DeMarco Murray really worth your first-round selection, or should you go for a safer option?

Injury risk. New offense. Romo's back injury. Linehan is pass-happy.

Those may be a few of the reasons why you're not comfortable with taking Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray with your first-round selection this year. But are these concerns really valid?

With 270 offensive touches in 14 games during the 2013 season, I think we need to move past the "injury risk" label on Murray. Romo's off-season back surgery may actually lend itself toward more rushing attempts for the Cowboys lead runner. And while Linehan does like to air it out, he's proven to heavily involve the running back in the passing game over his career as an offensive coach.

And actually, if you want to read more about how Linehan will guide the Cowboys offense, our own Daniel Lindsey took an in-depth look at the impact Linehan will make as the Dallas offensive coordinator, and let me tell you, it's an exciting read for fantasy owners.

So, are you still nervous to take Murray in the first round? Let's take a deeper look.

Murray's Metrics

To put into perspective of just how good of a season Murray had last year, we can look at the Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Among all NFL running backs with at least 50 carries, only Eagles' running back LeSean McCoy (37.12) had a higher Rushing NEP than Murray's 21.42 score.

In 2013, Murray helped guide the Cowboys to a top-10 finish in our Adjusted (adjusted for strength of schedule) Rushing NEP metric. The passing game wasn't great, but the offense finished with a 41.96 total in the Adjusted Passing NEP metric, good enough for 15th in the league.

Since Murray has entered the NFL in 2011, his metrics have been fairly impressive, especially in the Rushing NEP category. His receiving metrics leave something to be desired, although Murray is known for having excellent receiving skills as a running back.

The table below shows Murray's numbers over the first three years of his career. For reference, the sample size for both of the following tables include running backs with 50-plus rushes per season in the Rushing NEP metric, and running backs with 25-plus receptions in the Reception NEP metric.

YearRushing NEPRankReception NEPRank
201115.966th of 736.5426th of 28
2012-7.7046th of 7110.9118th of 24
201321.422nd of 6818.0316th of 34

Murray's performance over the past three seasons has been impressive. While you may be turned off by the 2012 season, keep in mind that he didn't play the full year and that negative Rushing NEP scores can occur with high-volume runners. In 2011 and 2013, he ranked in the top six running backs in our most important rushing metric.

Looking at the data from Linehan's running backs during his past two coaching stops in St. Louis and Detroit, we can see an interesting trend. Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush, Bell and Best all performed significantly better in Reception NEP than they did in Rushing NEP. That makes sense, because it's easier to gain yardage and be a difference maker through the air and on the ground. But Murray, thus far throughout his career, has been the exact opposite. Take a look at the metrics for Linehan's running backs since 2006.

YearPlayerRush NEPRankReception NEPRank
2006Steven Jackson10.0515th of 5942.692nd of 25
2007Steven Jackson-15.0056th of 6813.4016th of 32
2008Steven Jackson-17.4363rd of 7024.058th of 33
2009Reggie Bush7.6516th of 7326.007th of 32
2010Javhid Best-30.0666th of 6825.0811th of 31
2011Reggie Bush2.5721st of 7312.4016th of 28
2012Reggie Bush-9.4750th of 7134.598th of 24
2012Joique Bell3.0520th of 7121.822nd of 24
2013Reggie Bush-15.3657th of 6837.386th of 34
2013Joique Bell-3.1229th of 6833.727th of 34

Linehan's running back finished inside the top 10 according to the Reception NEP metric in seven of the 10 years sampled. Only once (Steven Jackson in 2006) was one of his running backs even in the top 15 according to the Rushing NEP metric.

So what does that add up to for Murray in 2014? Will it be more of the same for a Linehan-coached running back? Or could Murray's solid rushing performance blend with Linehan's impressive track record in the passing game? That may be more probable. Murray has the talent to be a top-five back in the NFL year in and year out. If he plays all 16 games this season, he could post a monster season for fantasy owners. The question is, Will Linehan give Murray enough touches in the running game to produce elite numbers?

Head coach Jason Garrett has referenced finding more balance in the Dallas offense, but the hiring of pass-happy Linehan says otherwise. During Linehan's five seasons in Detroit, the Lions never ran the ball more than 40.4 percent of the time. In fact, his highest run ratio came back in 2003 while offensive coordinator with the Vikings, when they ran 46.7% of the time. Expect to see continued heavy passing percentages from the Cowboys offense.

Murray's Value in 2014

All of the stats and metrics from Linehan's previous offenses can give us some insight into how the Dallas offense is going to look this season. That being said, Murray could become extremely valuable, particularly in PPR leagues, if he sees an uptick in usage in the passing game.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, DeMarco Murray is being selected as the eighth running back off the board at pick 2.02. Our projections here at numberFire project Murray as the ninth-ranked running back for the 2014 season. Our projections have Murray finishing with career best numbers in rushing and receiving.

Not only does Murray deserve to be a first-round pick, he deserves to be trusted as your RB1 this season. Invest in him with confidence.