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Four scenarios where the Cowboys let DeMarcus Lawrence walk in free agency next year

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The Cowboys have yet to lock DeMarcus Lawrence up in a long-term deal. Is it possible that day never comes?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What do the Dallas Cowboys have in DeMarcus Lawrence? That is a question that will be debated over extensively by the time the front office makes a final decision on how much they want to invest in him. As of now, they are set to pay him $17.1 million for one more year of service as that is the franchise tag price for a defensive end.

The team has until July 16th to renegotiate a long-term deal. If no agreement is reached, Lawrence will play under the tag price and we’ll go through all of this again next offseason. The only difference then is that the team will have another season of performance to help decide his worth to the team. Lawrence is coming off a breakout season where he recorded 14.5 sacks on route to his first All-Pro selection. Just like that, Tank has been placed on the map as one of the league’s top edge rushers. But can he stay there? Is Lawrence a product of growth and development or was 2017 just an anomaly? What would it take for the Cowboys to balk at signing him to a long-term deal after the end of the new season?

MORE BACK PROBLEMS

When Lawrence is healthy, he has been a very good player in the trenches for the defense. A quick little career recap goes as follows:

2014: Rookie year, missed first half of the season with a foot injury - 0 sacks

2015: Healthy, played in all 16 games - 8 sacks

2016: Suspended four games, played while dealing with back issues - 1 sack

2017: Healthy, played in all 16 games - 14.5 sacks

The broken foot he suffered his rookie season (missed nine games) or his suspension for violating the league’s drug policy (missed four games) are not that alarming. Those types of freak injuries happen and Lawrence has demonstrated great maturity to where he doesn’t strike one as a potential drug risk going forward. Clearly, if he were to be suspended again - all bets are off and he could kiss that big paycheck goodbye.

What is cause for concern is those three additional games he missed in 2016 as he was dealing with a nagging back injury. Prior to the 2016 season, Lawrence had back surgery in the offseason, but clearly it didn’t do the trick as he played while hurt and went under the knife again the following offseason. The great news is Lawrence appeared to be fully recovered last season and was an absolute beast, but the not-so-great news is that’s two back surgeries already in his young career. Those types of injuries can be tricky. We just witnessed one of our favorite quarterbacks have to cut his career short because Tony Romo’s back just couldn’t hold up from the day-to-day contact of NFL football.

If the Cowboys decide to use 2018 as another “evaluation” year for Lawrence and he has any type of back injury again, there is absolutely no way they can justify investing top pass rusher money in him long term.

DECLINE IN PRODUCTION

Lawrence got off to a hot start last year, recording at least one sack in seven straight games. But his last seven games were far less impressive as he only recorded sacks in two of them. Did opponents start figuring him out? Did he receive more double-teams or get chipped more often? After such an amazing start to the season, the word was out on Lawrence and adjustments were made. Suddenly the amazing play of Lawrence was neutralized. What if the 2018 season resembles more of the second half of last year vs. the first half? Lawrence is a great player, but if he is to be paid like a star defensive end, then has to be able to produce at a high level consistently. The best ones like Von Miller can wreak havoc again and again, even when the offense knows it’s coming.

Lawrence isn’t going to be able to sneak up on anyone this season. If he’s met with a strong counterattack and doesn’t produce sacks, it’s going to create a lot of doubt about whether he’s the real deal on the edge.

THE RISE OF THE YOUNGSTERS

One of the disappointing things about Lawrence’s breakout season is that it accentuated how unproductive the previous three years were. Sure, 2015 was a good year and he was injured the other two, but regardless of the circumstances, the Cowboys didn’t get full value out of a four-year rookie deal. As soon as he flashes signs of greatness, it’s time to ante up again and pay him a big sum of money.

Dallas gave up a third-round draft pick in order to move up to select Lawrence in 2014. It was a smart move. While they believed in Lawrence, this team wasn’t content by any means with their pass rushing situation. Since Tank was drafted, the Cowboys have followed that up by taking another defensive end in each of the last four drafts. Randy Gregory (2015), Charles Tapper (2016), Taco Charlton (2017), and Dorance Armstrong (2018) are all still on the Cowboys roster. Health and drug suspensions have created a dark cloud over a couple of these players, but the jury is still out on how the career of these young pass rushers is going to end up. While no one is holding their breath for any one player, the Cowboys have a handful of different players who still have promise. What happens if a youngster or two start making plays?

Gregory could get reinstated. What if he’s on the field and playing well? Charlton is in year two. If this team was right in sniffing out the talent that is Lawrence, then who’s to say they can’t be right about Taco? And we have no idea what they have in Armstrong, but we know the scouts/coaches love him as the war room jumped with jubilation when he was selected as if they just had the steal of the draft. If any one of these players play anywhere near the level of Tank this upcoming season, how does that shake up the position group? Are they going to hand Lawrence a bunch of cash when they have an emerging youngster on a cheap rookie deal?

NEED THE MONEY FOR SOMETHING ELSE

The Cowboys have been careful with their second contracts recently. They pay their All-Pro’s big money to keep them. No complaints there. What becomes trickier is the other guys who aren’t quite at that level. Players like Ron Leary and Anthony Hitchens aren’t retained as they’ll let some other NFL team dump a bunch of money on them. The Cowboys then collect compensatory picks, draft well, and recycle quality talent with cheaper rookie deals. It’s good business.

The big question with Lawrence is simply - is he one of these precious All-Pro star players? That is what the Cowboys have to figure out. It’s so important to have good pass rushers in this league and if he’s one of them, then they need to pay out the cash to keep him. But if they guess wrong, it will hurt them. With both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott demanding a big chunk of change soon, the team cannot afford to make a costly mistake by handing out a lucrative deal to a player that doesn’t warrant it.

And what if a certain All-Pro free safety (who will remain nameless) hits free agency next season and the team wants to use its cap space for him?

Any one of these factors could play a role in the Lawrence decision, but chances are - it’s going to be a combination of several things. If the team is going to pay him north of $15 million per season, he’s going to have to demonstrate that his back issues are behind him, he’s consistently producing at a high level, and that he’s hands-down the most dominant pass rusher on this team. And if the 2018 season can answer these questions, a $17 million, one-year rental may end up being chump change in the grand scheme of things.