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Cowboys cap breakdown: Understanding the options with star edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence

Just how financially committed are the Cowboys to Lawrence?

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Overrated. Overpaid. If you can’t get the sacks, you shouldn’t get the stacks!

Those are just some of the things said about Cowboys’ defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Okay, maybe I made up the last one, but it captures the sentiment many Cowboys fans have when it comes to Lawrence’s contract compared to his sack numbers. Plus, it rhymes, so let’s go with it.

The Cowboys' investment in Lawrence has always been scrutinized. Starting when they traded away their third-round draft pick to Washington to move up to 34th overall to select him. Some thought the price was too steep, and after missing extensive time in two of his first three seasons, that level of regret was in full force.

But all that changed after the 2017 season as Lawrence had a monster year. He recorded 14.5 sacks, finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and earned second-team All-Pro honors. The Cowboys loved what they saw in him, but it was just one big year of production over the course of his rookie deal. The front office took a cautious approach and slapped the franchise tag on him the following season for the one-year price of $17 million. After another strong performance where he finished with 10.5 sacks, the Cowboys finally opened up their wallet signing him to a five-year, $105 million deal.

Lawrence is three years into his deal and with it comes a lot of different opinions about what the Cowboys have in their veteran edge rusher.

Stephen Jones spoke to the media last week and he didn’t hold back his feelings regarding high-priced players and the expectations placed upon them.

“If you’re a pass rusher, you want to be getting pressure and making plays, all those things relate to how a guy’s paid. And once you pay that player a lot of money, then with that comes high expectations. And they know that these players know that, they compete at the highest levels.”

There’s been some chatter about Lawrence and possibly Amari Cooper being potential cap casualties this offseason. Last week, we looked closely at the Cooper cap situation and today we’ll do the same for Tank.

To begin with, let’s look at how committed the Cowboys are to Lawrence over his final two years of the deal (cap numbers courtesy of spotrac):

Lawrence undoubtedly has a couple of huge cap hits over the next two seasons with $27 million on the books in 2022 and $29 million in 2023. The team still has a total of $40 million in base salary over the next two seasons that is not guaranteed. That’s the true savings for Dallas if they parted ways with him before the upcoming season. That’s a lot of money.

But before we are so quick to cash in on such huge savings, we need to ask ourselves, what are we prepared to live without? My colleague Aidan Davis recently put together a great article showcasing the true value of both Cooper and Lawrence that I highly recommend checking out. In particular, there are some really undervalued things about them that are important to understand. Here’s what he had to say about Lawrence.

He finished as the best defensive lineman against the run by PFF grading

His run stuffing rate of 11.6% was the fourth-best in the NFL among edge defenders

He was one of two edge defenders that forced two fumbles in 2021, despite playing twelve fewer games than the other defender (Michael Danna)

Lawrence’s average depth of tackle of 1.9 yards past the line of scrimmage against the run was the best on Dallas’ roster last season

Micah Parsons is a big reason for the Cowboys’ defensive improvement against the run in 2021. However, this was still a relatively weak aspect of the Dallas team last season, and getting rid of Demarcus Lawrence would only be a massive step back. If Jerry and Stephen Jones part ways with Lawrence through a trade or cutting the contract, we might see a rushing defense closer to 2020 in the upcoming season.

Lawrence is not only a producer on the field, he’s a leader in the clubhouse. Players and coaches respect him a great deal. With what he offers as a complete defensive end, the Cowboys would be treading in dangerous waters to try to field a defense that didn’t include Lawrence. Edge rushers are hard to find and the Cowboys have been fighting that battle for several years now. So why when they already have a great player would they just cut him loose? Then what? How are they going to find a replacement-type talent, and at what cost? John Owning said it best when it comes to the thought process of moving on from Lawrence.