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Encouraging stat predicts DeMarcus Lawrence will have another great season

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The Tank should roll again in 2018.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It was one of the big questions the Cowboys had to face this offseason. What to do about DeMarcus Lawrence? Tank had just come off a splendid season where he racked up 14.5 sacks and was an absolute terror. He wasn’t just sacking quarterbacks, he was also playing the run extremely well and was generally disrupting the opponent’s backfield.

Since he was hitting free agency, the Cowboys had a decision to make. Given that Lawrence’s previous seasons had see-sawed from poor to okay, there was trepidation about handing him a long-term contract. The talent was there, but suspensions and injuries had stood in the way of Lawrence reaching his potential. Now that he has reached that potential, could he repeat it? The Cowboys decided to franchise tag Lawrence and take a bit of a wait-and-see attitude toward 2018.

It’s a legitimate question. When a player breaks out like Lawrence, you never know if that is an outlier or is it his new normal. Over at ESPN, Bill Barnwell tried to answer that question for a bunch of 2017’s breakout players.

Naturally, Tank was among them, and the news is good.

In the past, I’ve found that one useful measure in predicting sack totals is to use a defensive lineman’s quarterback knockdowns (or hits) from the previous season. Typically, a pass-rusher will turn about 45 percent of their hits into sacks in a given year. Players who post a high sack total with few hits tend to decline, as was the case with Vic Beasley Jr. a year ago. Beasley had 15.5 sacks on 16 hits; last season, while he still managed to somehow turn 100 percent of his knockdowns into sacks, he took down the quarterback only five times.

The good news for Lawrence is that his sack total is in line with his hits, given that the Cowboys star racked up 26 hits last season. Using the 45 percent measure, we would estimate that Lawrence should have racked up about 11.7 sacks last season. It’s not quite 14.5 sacks, but it’s close enough that Lawrence’s double-digit sack production seems legitimate. It would not be a surprise to see him top 10 sacks again in 2018.

Reaching 14.5 sacks again is a tough proposition, but if Lawrence can produce another double-digit sack total, it should be a sign that he’s reached a new normal as long as he stays healthy. The Cowboys should then be cleared to sign him to a long-term deal.

Of course, other things could intervene, like some of the other Cowboys defensive ends stealing some of Lawrence’s sacks. The Cowboys rotation at the position is looking as good as it has in a long while, and sharing the load could take a hit on Lawrence’s individual statistics. If that happens, though, it’s certainly a good problem to have.

There is one area where Lawrence is likely to have a drop-off in production.

One way he should drop off, though, is in sack yardage. Lawrence’s 14.5 sacks generated 160 lost yards, the highest total in the league since Jason Taylor made it to 162.5 yards in 2002. There were 16 sacks in the NFL of 15 yards or more last season, and Lawrence had three of them, including the longest takedown of 2017, when Lawrence sacked Russell Wilson for 22 yards. Lawrence should be productive, but he won’t hit 160 yards again.

Wow, Tank had the most sack yards in the NFL in 15 years. That’s pretty impressive.