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Why franchise-tagging DeMarcus Lawrence (again) is the right move for the Dallas Cowboys

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The Cowboys aren’t letting their star pass rusher get away.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are careful these days when it comes to handing out second contracts, but if you’ve been following the team a while, you know that hasn’t always been the case. Too many times in the past, the Cowboys would jump the gun and prematurely sign what appeared to be rising stars to long-term deals worth a substantial amount of money. For example...

Miles Austin didn’t start a single game for the Cowboys his first three years in the league. But then after a Pro Bowl season in 2009, the team signed him to a six-year, $54 million deal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t sustain that type of success. By 2013, he only started eight games and had 24 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns. The Cowboys released him the following year, eating $8 million in dead money.

Marion Barber broke out in 2007 with 1,257 total yards and 12 touchdowns despite not starting a single game. It was good enough for Jerry Jones to give him a seven-year, $45 million contact extension to be the team’s new featured running back. That was a mistake as Barber was released three years later after only putting up 374 rushing yards in 2010.

In 2011, 30-year-old Jay Ratliff received a five-year, $40 million deal after three straight Pro Bowl seasons. He only played six games in 2012 and was released in 2013 without playing a single game for Dallas. It cost the team $7 million in dead money.

These bad contracts have gotten them in trouble in the past. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Cowboys are careful in the way they do business. The team dodged a huge bullet when they decided to be cautious with Anthony Spencer. Rather than signing him to a long-term deal, the team slapped the franchise tag on him twice. After dealing with knee injuries, Spencer was never the same. He signed a one-year $2 million “prove it” deal with the Cowboys the following season, but never started a single game and only recorded half a sack. His time in Dallas was over.

Spencer was never able to prove he was worth a big contract, but that is not the case with Lawrence. Tank is worth every penny.

While playing it safe saved the Cowboys some money with Spencer, this cautious approach with Lawrence may ultimately cost them near $10 million throughout the terms of his new contract because of the rising market value of edge rushers. That’s unfortunate for the Cowboys, but Lawrence still had a lot of question marks heading into last season and the team wanted to see him stack another strong year on top of his breakout season of 2017. Sure, it will cost them more now, but it’s better to spend a little extra and get a great player than get trapped in a bad lucrative deal. Huge dead money hits can put the organization in a hole. In fact, all the house-cleaning the Cowboys have done in recent years has put them at a big disadvantage. They have been one of the worst teams in terms of wasted cap resources over the the last five years.

The good news here is that the team still scratches and claws and has won three division titles in that span despite being so handicapped by large dead money hits. The better news is all that retribution is over. The team doesn’t have any costly dead money constraints on the books this season and are one of the top teams in terms of salary cap space over the next two years. And their cautious approach will keep it that way.

But why play games and tag DeMarcus Lawrence a second time? Hasn’t he proven that he’s worth the money? Absolutely. And this second tag is merely a place holder. By tagging him, it prevents a cap-heavy team like the Indianapolis Colts from swooping in and offering Lawrence a ridiculous amount of money. I’m sure Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus would love to get his mitts on Lawrence. Instead, the Cowboys will ensure they’re the only team negotiating with Tank this offseason. While the initial reaction of getting tagged a second straight year may not seem to go over well with Lawrence, don’t sweat it. A long-term deal is coming. Lawrence is one of the most ferocious, soul-stealing defense ends in the game and the Cowboys are going to want to see him rushing the quarterback for years to come.