Ever since DeMarcus Lawrence signed his five year, $105 million contract following consecutive double-digit sack seasons, expectations have been sky high for the edge defender. And with just 11.5 sacks in his two seasons since said contract extension, there are those who now believe that Lawrence is now overpaid, even though nine other edge defenders will earn more total cash in 2021 than Lawrence, three of which had less sacks than him in 2020.
But sacks hardly tell the full story about pass rushing talent, let alone skill as an overall edge defender. Like interceptions, sacks can often be a distracting statistic when evaluating performance, and is largely an unreliable statistic. That’s why the advanced metric pass-rush win rate has quickly emerged as a way to get a better sense of when pass rushers are actually generating pressure in a timely manner, as opposed to getting what is often referred to as a coverage sack or benefiting from playing opposite another great pass rusher.
When it comes to pass-rush win rate, Lawrence has been downright elite. In fact, he is one of just two edge defenders to finish in the top ten each of the last three years, with the other being former first overall pick Myles Garrett. Notably, Lawrence was in the top five and ahead of Garrett in both 2018 and 2019, even as he routinely finished near the top of the league in double-team rates.
The 2020 season was the first in which Lawrence finished below Garrett, as well as finishing tenth in pass-rush win rate. That’s the lowest Lawrence has placed in the metric since ESPN started publishing it, and it coincided with a year that the entire Cowboys defense was historically bad, as well as a year in which Lawrence played out of a two-point stance much more than he ever had before in his career. Even with those challenges, Lawrence was one of the most efficient edge rushers in the NFL.
But Lawrence is more than just a great edge rusher, he’s an elite edge defender. What’s the difference? Think of former Cowboy Robert Quinn, who actually led the league in pass-rush win rate for an edge defender in both 2018 and 2019. Quinn, as many fans will remember, was an excellent edge rusher but struggled against the run. As such, he hasn’t seen more than 60% of the defensive snaps in a season for the last six years, frequently rotating out on early downs in favor of better run defenders.
By contrast, the last time Lawrence played less than 60% of defensive snaps was the 2016 season, in which he was suspended for the first four games of the year and struggled when he did return; that was also the final year Lawrence played at right defensive end before switching back to his natural position on the left end.
Lawrence is a complete edge defender, and plays more than Quinn does, because of how excellent he is in run support. That was apparent in 2020 in the fact that Lawrence finished fourth among all edge defenders in run-stop win rate. That made Lawrence one of just three edge defenders to finish 2020 in the top ten in both pass-rush win rate and run-stop win rate. The other two were future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. Good company for Tank.
Yet the general discourse around Lawrence doesn’t seem to reflect that. The advanced metrics reflect an incredible all-around edge defender that few others in the league can match, but it’s easier to look at Lawrence’s sacks and conclude he hasn’t been the same since he signed his contract extension.
A big part of it, though, has to do with the defense around Lawrence. It’s partially on a secondary that declined from 2018 to 2019 before falling off a cliff in 2020, After all, it’s hard to get sacks when the opposing quarterback is able to sling it all over the field with little pushback. But Lawrence has also struggled with a poor supporting cast on the defensive line, which has allowed offensive lines to focus more of the attention on him.
In 2019, for example, both Lawrence and Quinn were double-teamed on at least 22% of all dropbacks, which made one wonder what exactly the Cowboys’ interior defensive linemen were doing. In 2020, it was worse. The interior play declined, which has led to a huge influx of players this offseason, while a combination of a late-season decline from Aldon Smith, a slow start from Randy Gregory, and a big nothingburger from Everson Griffen left Lawrence alone on an island in the pass rushing department.
The hope is that this will change in 2021. Gregory is expected to be the starting LEO in Dan Quinn’s scheme after a strong finish to last year, in which he finished third on the team in pressures despite playing in just nine games. In addition to Gregory, Dallas added Tarell Basham, who led the Jets in pressures last year and also finished tenth among all edge defenders in run-stop win rate. Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins were also brought in to shore up the run defense, while young players such as Bradlee Anae, Chauncey Golston, Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, and Osa Odighizuwa are expected to contribute to a pass rushing rotation as well.
Whether or not all those reinforcements turn into a good all-around defensive line remains to be seen, but if they are able to provide legitimate snaps and supplement Lawrence’s consistently great play, it would go a long way towards restoring the image of Tank and giving him the recognition he deserves as a top five edge defender.