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Tank battle: Antonio Brown trade, Frank Clark plans point to long, hard struggle for Cowboys in re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence

The negotiations for DeMarcus Lawrence and the Cowboys will be anything but pretty.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins
He knows he’s going to get paid.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

While the Dallas Cowboys have made some fairly minor moves this offseason, the big news for them is the deal that didn’t happen: No new contract with DeMarcus Lawrence, who now is looking askance at the franchise tag that has been placed on him. He wants more money, the team wants to hold his cost down, and they failed to find any middle ground. It has been shaping up all along as a long, hard road to any long-term contract.

And it just got a lot harder. Recent developments have given Lawrence more reason to hold out as long as he can for every dollar he can get.

The big NFL news the past couple of days has been the Antonio Brown trade. It belies the conventional wisdom that the teams hold almost all the cards in contract disputes. What Brown achieved in getting the Pittsburgh Steelers to trade him for a song while eating a bunch of dead money was something the owners did not want to see.

While a wide receiver and an edge rusher seem like very different things, the important thing is that Brown decided he was worth more, especially in guaranteed money, and he got it by basically making himself a royal pain in the backside for the Steelers. That GIF above is probably a very good illustration of what the owners think of all this. They are a naturally conservative lot, who like most extremely rich old people reserve the right to misbehave for themselves.

The dysfunction plaguing the Pittsburgh organization was a key part of all this, but now Brown and former teammate Le’Veon Bell have shown that if a player is willing to risk missing paychecks and be disruptive enough, they can get what they want. Bell may lose out in the long run, but that may be as much a function of being a running back as anything. It is just not as valued a position as wide receiver in the pass-happy NFL. Brown had the advantage of being in one of the “money” positions. He certainly managed to cash in.

And in the pecking order of NFL jobs, EDGE rusher is above wide receiver. Truly good ones are a bit more rare, and where WRs are rather dependent on their quarterback’s performance (good luck with David Carr, AB), a pass rusher is the thing that makes an NFL defense go more than any other position. Only the guy that throws the ball has more impact on a team’s success than the guy trying to bring him down behind the line.

That gives Lawrence, and other top pass rushers, more leverage than Brown ever had. Need evidence to back that up? The top four free agent pass rushers going into this offseason were Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney (Houston Texans), Frank Clark (Seattle Seahawks), and Dee Ford (Kansas City Chiefs).

All four have been franchise tagged. And Clark has already fired his first shot in the fight for more money.

Now those four teams are in a distasteful situation. None want to be the first to pay and set the market. But all face the same deadline of 4 pm eastern time on July 15th to get a long-term deal done with their tagged player.

Something has to give. It gives Lawrence a lot more leverage than many might think. And on the first day of legal tampering in free agency, he picked up some more as the Detroit Lions opened up the checkbook for Trey Flowers.

The Cowboys missed a golden opportunity to avoid all this and get a much more favorable deal last year when they eschewed doing a long-term deal and put the original tag on Lawrence. No matter how the team spun it, it really was saying they weren’t completely convinced he could come back with another strong year. He did just that, and now the Cowboys have already wound up on the short side of that miscalculation.

Once DLaw put 2018’s performance in the books, the chances of the team getting him signed early went out the window. His agent, David Canter, understands how things work, and with the other quality free agent pass rushers in the mix, he knew that waiting was just going to add dollars to whatever deal he eventually gets for his client. While Lawrence is reportedly feeling disrespected, Canter probably would have advised that he wait no matter what was on the table. The Cowboys are just as aware of things and were obviously not willing to put an offer out that was big enough to overcome that.

Now the Brown trade and Clark’s intentions just shift the balance of power more in Lawrence’s favor. It probably means that nothing can happen with him until either the deadline is imminent, or one of the other teams trying to work out a deal with their EDGE rushers makes a move.

There is a doomsday scenario here where no deal can be reached, and Lawrence goes the Bell route and refuses to play on the tag. That would be a real mess, and while it would free up the $20.5 million and change he would have collected to find someone to replace him, the pickings would obviously be slim at that point. Unfortunately Brown’s success in getting the Steelers to submit and the Oakland Raiders to pay him probably emboldens Lawrence and Canter to at least keep the threat alive.

This is shaping up to be a long and bitter struggle, with lots of negative press. It is part of the bigger struggle between the league and the NFLPA. The latter feels it got jobbed in the last CBA, because it did. Now they are gearing up for a big fight. Meanwhile, top players in key positions are finding ways to force more money out of the owners. Lawrence is looking to get as much as he can out of the Jones family. Given the risks and costs of playing pro football, he has every right to do so.

It is probably going to get even uglier.