Hours after Minnesota signed Kirk Cousins on the second day of free agency in 2018, Vikings brass restructured Murray’s contract before $5.15 million of his 2018 salary would have become guaranteed on March 16. If they didn’t get a deal worked out before then, Murray was expected to become a cap casualty.
The efforts made to keep the veteran running back in Minnesota for a second season provided the Vikings with much-needed stability in the backfield as Dalvin Cook rehabbed from the ACL injury he sustained during his 2017 rookie season. That foresight paid off when a hamstring injury kept Cook sidelined for all but one half of action from Weeks 3-8 last season.
In that time, Murray once again carried the load in the backfield -- a role he anticipated would be his when he signed with Minnesota as a free agent in 2017. After the Vikings used their second-round pick on Cook that same year, the Florida State product quickly emerged as the heir apparent to franchise rusher Adrian Peterson over Murray.
Now, with just over two weeks until he is set to become a free agent for the second time in his six-year career, Murray’s future and the type of role he’ll get to play on the Vikings, or elsewhere, is in question. While the running back has expressed a desire to return to Minnesota, he is not ready to give up on a starting job.
“I want everybody to know -- make no mistake about it, I want to play,” Murray said this offseason. “I want to start. I’m not content with being in a backup role, but I want to compete, and Dalvin knows that. We push each other. That’s what it’s about. But I would love to be back here for that opportunity to compete with and against them. That’s the only way you get better.”
Murray played the third-highest amount of snaps in his career in 2018 (43.9 percent) and compiled 578 yards and six touchdowns on 140 carries last season. Despite his position as a between-the-tackles rusher, Murray was sparingly used in the passing game, where he totaled 141 yards on 22 receptions in 2018.
With the Vikings’ finances tight for the 2019 offseason (currently listed with $7,175,517 in cap space, according to ESPN’s roster management system) and the investment the team made to keep two undrafted free-agent running backs in Mike Boone and Roc Thomas, Murray’s chance at earning more financially and in this role could come elsewhere. According to Sportrac, Murray’s calculated market value would put him at an average salary of $1.6 million per year.
Though there aren’t many lead running back roles up for grabs across the NFL, a few teams have fairly obvious needs in the backfield that could allow Murray to earn more money and playing time.
A highly inconsistent run game forces the Philadelphia Eagles to address their free-agent situation with Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles, both of whom dealt with injuries in 2018. Like the Vikings, Philadelphia is in a bind with its cap situation but needs to bolster its backfield. Murray might not be the piece the Eagles decide to build around for the long term, but bringing in a veteran to play a key role in an offense that relied on a committee of rushers to win a Super Bowl two years ago might not be a bad place to start.
There’s also the Kansas City Chiefs, who are looking to fill a void in the run game after the release of Kareem Hunt in December; the Buffalo Bills, who are spending a whole ton on two running backs (LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory) who are trending upward in age and downward in production; and even the Baltimore Ravens, who have expressed a desire to build heavily in the run game in 2019.
Murray, 29, has proved his worth as a solid contributor in a backfield. While his best rushing season statistically came in 2015 as the Oakland Raiders' featured back -- the year he was selected to the Pro Bowl -- when he crossed the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time in his career, it’s fair to argue that his biggest impact came as a role player the following year. In 2016, Murray was every bit the red zone threat that Oakland needed him to be in a committee of backs, tallying 11 of his 12 touchdowns inside the 20-yard line, with nine of those coming from inside the 5-yard line. Six of Murray’s eight touchdowns in 2017 with the Vikings also came inside the 5-yard line.
While Cook has earned the right to be an every-down back with his dynamic playmaking abilities in both the run game and the pass game, the way Murray wears defenses down best is by being fed the football constantly.
“He’s a guy that needs carries and the physicality of things,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said in October 2018. “I’ve said it a million times, I like Latavius and the way he approaches the game. Typically, he’s not a one-carry-every-quarter guy; he’s a guy that needs to get the football some.”
With a healthy Cook ready for Year 3, it makes sense for the Vikings to move on from Murray and give him the chance to carve out a bigger role elsewhere. Still, the value in keeping around a veteran rusher who has proved he can provide at every opportunity can’t be ignored.
“I think we've both mutually expressed our feelings about me returning,” Murray said. “Then I think we also understand the business side of it. So right now, time will tell. They know how I feel about this organization. They know how I feel about the players in this locker room and the coaches. That's what matters to me, as long as they know that.”