Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones addresses the media outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building and Courthouse after testifying in the 2011 Super Bowl seating trial, Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Dallas. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Smiley N. Pool)
The Dallas Morning News, Smiley N. Pool
March 12, 2015

IRVING, Texas (AP) NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray is gone to NFC East rival Philadelphia, two starting linebackers have moved on as well, and the Dallas Cowboys will have to find a new kick returner.

The only hint of activity in free agency from owner Jerry Jones and company? The signing of fullback Jed Collins on Thursday, not long after word spread that Murray had agreed to a big contract with the Eagles.

The loss of Murray was far from a surprise. The Cowboys have said for weeks they wanted to keep the 27-year-old running back, but made no secret that the price had to be right.

Philadelphia's offer of five years and $42 million with $21 million guaranteed was more than the Cowboys were willing to pay, even after Murray broke NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith's franchise record with 1,845 yards last season.

''We have great appreciation for his skills, and if there was no salary cap in place, DeMarco would be a Cowboy,'' Jones said in a statement released by the team. ''Obviously, there is emotion involved in these decisions, but it is critical that there be must be discipline involved as well.''

Jones had the backing of quarterback Tony Romo, who became the first Dallas player to sign a contract worth more than $100 million two years ago.

''You have to trust in the process and people making the decisions,'' Romo said from the spring training home of the Texas Rangers, where he spent part of the day. ''Salary cap implications, that plays a role in that stuff. The Eagles thought as highly of him as we did. They are getting a great player.''

The volume of losses might be as much of an issue, starting with linebackers Justin Durant (Atlanta) and Bruce Carter (Tampa Bay). Kick returner and backup receiver Dwayne Harris signed with the New York Giants, and news of Murray's departure came the same day defensive tackle Henry Melton joined Carter in Tampa.

The Cowboys put a $12.8 million franchise tag on receiver Dez Bryant to keep him off the market, and Jones is just a year removed from the franchise's second $100 million contract for left tackle Tyron Smith, although it's more cap-friendly than Romo's deal.

Smith is the cornerstone of a standout offensive line that got plenty of credit for Murray's big season.

''We have recently made significant commitments to top players,'' Jones said. ''And we were comfortable with the offer that we made to DeMarco to include him in that structure.''

Now Romo must move on without one piece of a trio that had just started to resemble the Super Bowl-winning set of Troy Aikman, Smith and Michael Irvin. They led the Cowboys out of a three-year rut of 8-8 finishes that fell just short of the playoffs and won the NFC East at 12-4.

''I've got to process everything,'' Romo said. ''Obviously, losing DeMarco Murray is not something you envision happening just because he's such a great player.''

Even with Dallas' significant needs on defense, most of the attention leading to the draft April 30 will be at running back. Several prospects are projected as late first-round picks, with the Cowboys selecting 27th.

The free agent market could end up with an interesting name after Indianapolis waived Trent Richardson on Thursday.

Richardson and Dallas linebacker Rolando McClain, another free agent the Cowboys hope to re-sign, both played at Alabama and were top 10 picks who turned into NFL disappointments.

McClain resurrected his career last season after Dallas traded for him while desperate for help at linebacker. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett got a strong recommendation from Alabama's Nick Saban, who was Garrett's first boss as an NFL assistant in Miami 10 years ago.

The Cowboys started the offseason with 23 free agents, and the most significant ones still without new deals are McClain and defensive linemen Nick Hayden, Anthony Spencer and George Selvie. All four could be considered starters.

''At the end of the day,'' Jones said, ''this is about finding the best way to collectively fit all of the individual pieces together, in terms of talent, offensive players, defensive players and dollars - under the salary cap structure - that gives you the best chance to have a championship team.''

If the Cowboys build a championship team, it will have to be without Murray.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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