It wouldn't be a week with the Dallas Cowboys if not for a bit of drama. In this week’s edition, rumors started swirling that either Demarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper, or both players could play elsewhere in 2022. The reasoning seems to be that their on-field production doesn't justify the salary cap hit the Cowboys will have to absorb.
If the Cowboys cut Cooper they would save $16 million in cap space, and Lawrence's savings could be upwards of $19 million. With a combined savings of potentially $35 million, it is a fair question to ask; are these two players worth it?
Is Amari Cooper worth the cap hit?
If there were an award for the most talented-yet-underutilized wide receiver in football Amari Cooper would be in the running. Despite the injury, he had one of the most efficient seasons of his career, but he didn't get the opportunities he normally gets.
To illustrate, four wide receivers in the NFL had a 120+ passer rating when targeted (minimum 100 targets); Mike Evans, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, and Amari Cooper. While Cooper isn't as flashy as a Tyreek Hill or Justin Jefferson, he is a reliable option for Dak Prescott to move the chains when given the chance.
We discussed the idea of moving on from Lawrence and Cooper on the latest edition of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you get access to all of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
And Cooper is an elite deep-ball receiver. While he won't high point the ball and make a jaw-dropping catch, his route running ability allows him to be frequently open 20+ yards downfield. That is why his 139.2 passer rating when targeted was the best in the league on 20+ yard passes, beating out Cooper Kupp and A.J. Brown, the second- and third-place finishers.
It doesn't matter how you try and defend him either because he will find a way to get open. Once again by passer rating when targeted, there were only three wide receivers to finish top-ten against both man and zone coverage; Amari Cooper was one of them.
On top of all of that, here are some other facts about Cooper’s most recent season:
- He only dropped four passes this year, half as much as his Dallas teammate CeeDee Lamb
- His contested catch percentage of 58.3% was the eleventh best in the NFL this year
- Brandon Aiyuk and Cooper were the only wide receivers with more than 80 targets on the season without an interception when targeted
- This was the first time since 2016 that Cooper reached double-digit missed tackles forced (despite it being his lowest reception total since 2017)
This leads us to our final point - Cooper is a great player when targeted. However, in 2021 Cooper finished as the 32nd ranked wide receiver by targets. These 109 pass attempts were less than Darnell Mooney, Jakobi Meyers, Marvin Jones Jr., and Cole Beasley.
This is a combination of Dak Prescott not wanting to force the ball and Kellen Moore not scheming up a plan to get his best players the opportunities they deserve. The offense needs to change, but it is evident that Cooper was not the problem in 2021.
Verdict: Amari Cooper is worth the cap hit
Is Demarcus Lawrence worth the cap hit?
Demarcus Lawrence is a much more interesting question if you assume that Micah Parsons would be made a full-time edge rusher if Lawrence were to leave. However, this is incredibly unlikely given how the Cowboys like to use Parsons. Thus, if Lawrence left, it would be a combination of Parsons, Chauncey Golston, and possibly Dorrance Armstrong (if they bring him back) coming off the edge.
First, let's review Lawrence's comparatively "weaker" skill, his pass-rushing ability. 231 defensive linemen saw more than 130 pass-rush snaps last season. Of those 231, here is Lawrence's ranking in various categories:
- Pass rush win rate: 18th
- Pressures per pash rush: 23rd
- PFF pass-rushing grade: 23rd
The eight games played mean we have to use efficiency metrics to measure his production over raw numbers (sacks, pressures, hurries, etc.). However, despite only playing seven games, Lawrence was extremely productive in the pass-rush.
But getting to the quarterback isn't even where Lawrence is at his best, because what Demarcus Lawrence does against the run is frequently overlooked. If we want to avoid the rushing defense of 2020, retaining Lawrence is the best way to do so because this was his résumé in 2021:
- 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.
Also, Lawrence is one of the most consistent players the Cowboys have at staying on the field. He only played eight games this past season, but that was after a four-year run of playing every game. He is durable, and there are four seasons of evidence as proof.
Verdict: Demarcus Lawrence is worth the cap hit
Stathead Football has developed a metric similar to "wins above replacement" for the NFL known as "Approximate Value." The goal is to measure a players' worth to the team, and while it doesn't calculate the number in terms of wins, it is thought to be a good measure of value.
Here are the top five Cowboys players by Approximate Value since Amari Cooper was traded to Dallas:
- Dak Prescott
- Zack Martin
- Ezekiel Elliott (primarily due to him playing nearly every game over this stretch)
- Amari Cooper
- Demarcus Lawrence
So given recent speculation, the Cowboys are said to be considering moving on from two of the most productive Dallas players over the last three and a half years for a bit of cap space wiggle room. If this is a team that genuinely wants to be competitive next season, the idea of moving on from Lawrence or Cooper would ultimately be a horrible option.
These rumors might be unsubstantiated, and both players may be back on the team in 2022. But the fact that we are even having this discussion is an indictment on the Jones family for not quashing this ridiculous notion.