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New year, same running back need for Cowboys

INDIANAPOLIS -- A year ago at the NFL scouting combine, DeMarco Murray dominated talk about the Dallas Cowboys' offseason plans.

Wherever Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones or Jason Garrett went, questions about Murray, who led the NFL in rushing in 2014 with 1,845 yards, followed. Murray’s agents were constantly being asked for updates.

The Cowboys eventually drew a line on how much they would offer Murray, and the Philadelphia Eagles jumped over it by a wide margin.

This week at the NFL combine, quarterback possibilities dominate the Cowboys talk, but running back remains a big question.

Darren McFadden ran for 1,089 yards last season, becoming the every-down back in the sixth game of the season, but can he repeat the performance in 2016? Even if he can, the Cowboys are thin at the position.

Rod Smith, who played sparingly and did not have a carry for the Cowboys as a rookie, is the only other tailback on the roster. Lance Dunbar will be a free agent and is coming back from a torn ACL. Robert Turbin, who was signed later in the season, will also be a free agent.

“Of course we do feel like we need another back to go with McFadden,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “Where we get that, whether it’s in the draft or whether we do it in free agency, a lot of different ways you can go there.”

After losing Murray and signing McFadden to a modest two-year deal, the Cowboys surprisingly did not select a running back in last year's draft when there were plenty of prospects available. They thought they were close to a deal with undrafted running back Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 435 yards in his final four games of the 2015 season and had four 100-yard games filling in for Marshawn Lynch with the Seattle Seahawks.

The running back crop might not be as deep in 2016 as it was a year ago, but there will be talent, starting with Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. Some draftniks are linking Derrick Henry to the Cowboys. But there are also some under-the-radar-type backs, like Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon.

If the Cowboys were willing to go only so far on Murray, a player they knew and loved, will they be willing to spend significant money in free agency? There will be options, potentially like Lamar Miller of the Miami Dolphins. He turns 25 in April and does not have a lot of wear, like, say, Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins, who will also become a free agent.

The Chicago Bears recently cut Matt Forte, who has rushed for at least 898 yards in each of his first eight seasons, with five 1,000-yard seasons. He has missed only eight games in his career.

But he turns 31 in December and has 2,035 career carries.

“When you get into an older back, then you’re talking about what’s the commitment?” Jones said. “You know he’s probably nearing the end unless he’s freaky like Emmitt Smith, who can go many, many years. But you don’t ever say never, and sometimes a one-year deal with a guy who’s 30 years old might be the right fit for us. We’ll just have to see.”