Sturm: Why Cowboys’ scheme and support could set DeMarcus Lawrence up for big 2020


One-armed Knife Sharpener
Staff member
Apr 7, 2013

By Bob Sturm 1h ago

Here’s an undeniable fact: DeMarcus Lawrence currently owns the largest contract in Dallas Cowboys history. There will come a time when that will be surpassed, as we are certain Dak Prescott has already turned down a bigger deal altogether and Amari Cooper just signed one that came very close to Lawrence’s number. But for now, and for the last 18 months, D-Law’s five-year, $105 million deal running from 2019 through 2023 holds the title.

The reality was not that difficult to understand. When the 2019 season fizzled so badly and heads were being called for, it didn’t take long for people to start calling Lawrence’s contract a waste of money and as a target for obvious unrest and dissatisfaction. It makes sense.

It definitely makes sense in a salary-capped world to expect great production out of your greatest investments. It is the argument against paying a running back and an average QB. Overpaying them doesn’t make a better player, just a richer one. We have learned this a million times: Overpaying for average is not a smart play.

But DeMarcus Lawrence is not average. He hasn’t been in ages. Admittedly, his career took a while to get going, but if you follow me here, you know my feelings about Lawrence. He is certainly a hot button with many fans. Some didn’t appreciate how injury-prone and suspension-prone he seemed to be early in his career. Coming from Boise State, he also didn’t have much of a college football fan support net in place like so many do upon arriving in the NFL.

(Trust me, if you want to live forever on the positive feedback side of the streets, go to a school with a fervent fanbase and win something special. Heck, there are still legions of people unwilling to admit Vince Young and Sam Bradford were not good pros, and it was probably nobody else’s fault).

Lawrence was not a first-rounder, he arrived with some red flags and he immediately got hurt, which lost much of his rookie season. But he took over in 2014 and pretty much has dominated since aside from the partially lost season of 2016. That may only be semi-obvious to those who have decided sacks mean everything and nothing else means nothing of substance. Sorry, I do not subscribe to that premise at all.

Now, this is certainly the time of year when new people will need to learn about the overall premise of the splash plays and to see what they mean and if they are as important as I believe they are. So, if you would like that primer, please read this and maybe even read it before you carry on here.

Now that we all agree splash plays are significant moments for a defensive player, here are the Cowboys’ annual leaders since I started doing this in 2011. The Splash Rate number is how many snaps it takes to get a splash.

As you can see, if the Cowboys’ leader each year is the same guy, it is possible that you have paid the right guy the right contract.

With only five official sacks in 2019, we can see that his “splash plays” lacked the splash of the other years that got him his deal. However, we cannot be so biased as to only see the failures and the timing therein. Lawrence has been exceptional for three straight years as a veteran player:
  • 2017 was the contract year of his rookie deal. If ever he was going to have a contract year, this would be the one, and he was nothing short of outstanding, with 14.5 sacks and 14 TFLs.
  • 2018 was his franchise tag year, in which the Cowboys slapped him with the “prove it” deal when he needed shoulder surgery. He responded with 10 sacks and 15 TFLs. Still very dominant.
  • 2019 was the year he got his big deal. Among the issues here would certainly be that he was recovering from his shoulder surgery all summer and into camp, and he tried to cut his rehab as short as possible to get out onto the field. Dropping down to five sacks and 10 TFLs made the concerns about what happened to him apparent.
Now, was he exactly the same player? He had a hard time trying to get up to speed and then the Cowboys definitely appeared to have a different pass rush-partner with him. Tyrone Crawford was no longer inside to his right; instead, it was Maliek Collins, and then Michael Bennett. I am a bit lost on why he fell off like he did in terms of pass rushing, but as you can see, he still disrupted quite a few plays and earned his splashes at an impressive rate.

But he wasn’t the same. At age 27, he demonstrated a decline that took him from 79 Pass Rush occasions in 2017 (15 sacks – 12 QB hits – 52 hurries) to 63 in 2018 (13-11-39) and down to 56 in 2019 (6-11-39), according to my friends at PFF.

That decline took him from the third-most dominant pass rusher in 2017 to the 15th in 2018 to the 21st in 2019. Robert Quinn’s huge year actually only put him at 20th, while Everson Griffen was 13th in the league in 2019. So if we are saying Lawrence had a poor year, we can say that relative to his other two years that got him paid. But compared to the 64 starting edges in the NFL, he is — at his very worst — still on the edge of the top 20 as he enters 2020.

I have been meaning to write this for a while now, but the injury to Gerald McCoy this week has definitely triggered a thing or two in our belief that the Cowboys were trying to get Lawrence some help. At one point, it looked like he might be the only returning starter to a spot on the defensive line after Dallas appeared to add three formidable veterans to join him. Now, with McCoy out for the year and perhaps fated to never actually play a snap with the Cowboys, they may be scrambling again. I would like to think this will provide opportunities for others, but that is blindly guessing without the benefit of much practice observation and zero preseason games.
I will say this again, as I said it last week: Everson Griffen is a legitimate difference-maker and a better all-around player than Robert Quinn. Quinn had a very nice year, and I am happy for the second chapter of his career that seems to line up for another massive contract, but there is no doubt that whether it’s through run plays or pass plays, Griffen and Lawrence are the types of edge players that you try to avoid at all costs.

Pairing them means opponents cannot slide protection to one side anymore. Nor can they run away from the baddest edge on the team if they are on each side. If Griffen and Lawrence are lined up across from each other, we should have something quite impressive on this defensive line. I don’t subscribe a whole lot to the chatter of “standing them up” as 3-4 outside linebackers, as has been floated by press and coach so far, but I do think the new staff is looking for all opportunities to keep their opponents guessing. I don’t blame them at all.

But when it comes to Lawrence, in particular, I do think any analysis begins with a simple question of whether or not the Cowboys made a big mistake paying him the rate he had earned as a premier edge in this league.

I’m sticking with “no.”

Let’s go with the hard numbers first. Below, please find the three-year rolling numbers for TFL’s and sacks for defensive players in the NFL. I have listed the top 30:
2017-2019 NFL Sacks and TFL Leaders

1Aaron Donald6044262446
2Chandler Jones5249306548
3Cameron Jordan5040.5273548
4Danielle Hunter4836252148
5tJadeveon Clowney4421.5239344
5tCalais Campbell4431.5242748
7Michael Bennett4324219947
8tMatt Judon4124.5224148
8tVon Miller4132.5252047
10tDemarcus Lawrence3930209848
10tBrandon Graham3922218447
12tJustin Houston3729.5233143
12tCameron Heyward3729248947
14tYannick Ngakoue3629.5231747
14tJoey Bosa3629.5199239
14tJason Pierre-Paul3629.5252242
14tMelvin Ingram3624.5246145
14tBud Dupree3623263947
19tGrady Jarrett3517.5229946
19tDemario Davis3514296548
19tT.J. Watt3534.5258147
22tTerrell Suggs3324.5227347
22tKhalil Mack3331.5259746
22tCarlos Dunlap3324.5244946
25tShaquil Barrett3226.5182145
25tMyles Garrett3230.5206837
25tFrank Clark3230218246
25tChris Jones3231207645
25tRyan Kerrigan3231.5226944

Once we subtract the inside players like Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, Michael Bennett (retired), Chris Jones and even Cam Heyward, we quickly see that even with Lawrence’s “down year” after his surgery, we are looking at a guy who is top-eight in TFLs and top-10 in sacks.

Right now, the contract Lawrence has is running about fifth for edge rushers with new deals for Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett just hitting the market. Von Miller and Khalil Mack are above, of course. Frank Clark and JJ Watt are right with Lawrence at about $100 million, and then Trey Flowers, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead run eighth through 10th.

Many others will need deals very soon, of course, and the wheel will keep spinning. But I don’t think Lawrence has done anything other than show us that he is a strong-to-very-strong edge and one who is squarely in his prime. His injury set him back, and the vanilla Cowboys defense gave almost no pressure help at all. We have certainly documented that during those three seasons, the Cowboys were 29th in blitzing. Only Joey Bosa was similarly productive on a more vanilla defense.

Would I trade Lawrence for Bosa? Sure. Maybe his brother, too. But the list of guys in this league who Lawrence must concede his dominance to is a short one, for sure. And I think we can assume that losing McCoy should not have a large material effect on things as much as a scheme that can assist its players to get home with some level of offensive confusion — the sort of scheme Rod Marinelli, Kris Richard and Jason Garrett refused to employ.

I suggest that Jaylon Smith’s move to Will LB, adding a safety like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and potentially using more of Jourdan Lewis could offer three different options to send pressure from places we have not seen enough of it. Even rare attempts to cross up the opponent’s pass protection from those spots would only serve to make sure protection is not sliding towards Tank Lawrence. And the more Lawrence can isolate against some of the sub-standard right tackles in this league, the better his odds of creeping back to double-digit sacks. I am highly dubious about the desire to flip him into an outside LB at this stage of things, aside from the odd look, but there’s nothing wrong with planting a seed in the head of your opponents for once.

I believe his tape indicates 2019 was not up to his normal standard of play. But the high work rate was still there, as was the honest approach to the run game as opposed to poaching for pass rushes and let someone else play the run. He has never done that, and you could argue he was compensating for others. Nevertheless, those sound like excuses, and at $21 million a season, people don’t want anything but production.

That said, Lawrence is 28, and he is very good. His motor runs hot at all times, and when you combine his ability with his motor, you will get results. He has always received criticism around here because either the team would fall short or his stats would. But when we talk about a top edge in this league, give me the one who makes splash plays in all situations and never takes a play off. That is DeMarcus Lawrence. He is a “lead by example” guy, and when his effort is the standard on the team, then I think we owe him a mulligan while looking forward to seeing how Lawrence and Griffen could be the centerpieces of a scheme that employs multiple fronts and some pressure packages that may serve as a real ambush at just the right times. And when it is just “load up with four,” I would dial up those two with Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford, then let those fellas pin their ears back and go get the QB.

Place your bets now, but I would be more than happy to forecast Lawrence gets back where he was in 2017 and 2018. He is too good to decline now that he appears fully fit again and with a scheme that should help him find spots. He is also too credible in his production, in leading the team in so many defensive categories in each of the last four seasons (save 2016) and therefore deserves the benefit of the doubt. Even in a down year, he was still up in the top 20. In a great year, he is up in the top five. And 2020 would be a perfect time to get back into that spot.
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