If you polled random Dallas Cowboys fans, there would be votes for DeMarcus Lawrence as the player who underachieved the most on the team in 2019. Lawrence was coming off an outstanding 2018 season, where he recorded a team-leading 10.5 sacks, and was named to his second straight Pro Bowl. That followed his 14.5 sack 2017 season.
Dallas rewarded Lawrence’s outstanding play with a five-year, $105 million-dollar contract in April of 2019. Jerry Jones had often referred to the Cowboys’ defense as missing their “War Daddy”, and Lawrence had became that guy the defense had so desperately missed since DeMarcus Ware’s departure.
Everything was set up for Lawrence to register his third double-digit sack season in a row, and cement his case as one of the best all-around defensive players in football. If you just take a look at his stats from this past season, that surely didn’t happen.
The former Boise State Bronco recorded his lowest sack total while playing in 13 or more games in his six-year NFL career. His 5.5 sacks tied for 73rd in the entire NFL. Lawrence’s total tackles and tackles for loss both took considerable dips in 2019 as well.
It’s easy to look at this and say Dallas made a bad decision to give Lawrence so much money. Judging defensive ends solely on their sack total would back that up. Should Lawrence have recorded more than five sacks after getting a $100 million dollar deal? Of course he should. If you are making that kind of money it’s your job to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, but a lot of what Lawrence did so well in 2019 went unseen on the stat sheet.
Despite his down year stat-wise, Lawrence still finished with the 15th highest overall defensive grade of all edge players according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a higher score than Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones, and Von Miller. Out of players that played in all 16 games, Lawrence had the 12th best overall run defense grade at 83.3.
In 10 of the Cowboys 16 games, Lawrence finished with an overall defensive grade of 70 or higher. His overall pass-rush grade was 65 or higher in all but five games during the season. He recorded three or more QB pressures in 11 of their 16 games, and actually played some of his best football when the defense was really struggling, from late October to early December.
Still, it’s those sack numbers that keep last year from being a total success for many observers. Lawrence may not have gotten the sacks, but he did affect the game in different ways. Take a look at this play as an example. The mere threat of Lawrence rushing off the edge forces former Rams’ running back Todd Gurley to chip him, leaving no back in to block and allowing Michael Bennett to get pressure and force a bad throw.
Another 3rd and long.— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) December 18, 2019
Gurley has to focus on chipping DeMarcus Lawrence out of the backfield, which throws off the timing with Bennett getting pressure because there isn't a RB to help pass protect.
Tank blows this up, without even getting into the pocket.#WatchTheGame pic.twitter.com/OBnF6pY9dI
Here’s another example. On the stat sheet this play goes down as just a simple tackle, but Lawrence’s effort and relentlessness to burst across the field prevents the Vikings from picking up a big gain.
Lots of things stand out about #Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence but his hustle is something that took me by surprise. Starts on the right over the TE. Comes all the way across to end this screen pass. pic.twitter.com/vFFspuPMpJ— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 21, 2019
Just another example of Lawrence’s great effort play in and play out.
Saying DeMarcus Lawrence doesn't play hard because he got paid is the worst take in football. Every week he shows his motor runs harder than anyone in the sport. He is a pleasure to watch and does not take a play off. pic.twitter.com/c4EQsGs6ku— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) November 7, 2019
One final example here. The Eagles are forced to double-team Lawrence because of his pass-rush threat, creating an open rush for Jourdan Lewis to record an easy sack.
I REALLY like this blitz design— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) October 22, 2019
Showing pressure off the left side, bait Wentz/O-Line to shading protection to that side. LBs drop into coverage, bring Lewis off the right.
DeMarcus Lawrence takes up the RT & RG and you've got a #FreeJourdan for the sack pic.twitter.com/hWe4jRdY8T
There is no debate Robert Quinn was the Cowboys best pure pass-rusher last season, but there’s a reason he recorded 11.5 sacks. Having the threat of number 90 on the other side clearly helped him out. In fact, Lawrence scored a higher overall defensive grade than Quinn in all but four games during the season. It just shows, despite a low sack total, how much Lawrence still helped the Dallas defense.
Next season Demarcus Lawrence needs to record more sacks. He knows that, the world knows that. Lawrence himself has been open about saying he believes his sack numbers will go back up in 2020. But even without high sack totals, you can’t overvalue what he means to the Cowboys defense. Lawrence is clearly the team’s best overall defender. Despite a down statistical year in 2019, he’s still an All-Pro level player, whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not.