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Demarcus Lawrence has quietly been a reliable, elite defensive end for years

Since 2014, Lawrence has arguably been the best player on the defense, but he remains an unsung hero.

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

There is beauty in simplicity. From Occam’s Razor to the K.I.S.S. method of writing, there are signs all around us that the most elementary answers are often the best. And this has worked its way into the NFL. We tend to judge defensive backs by interceptions, linebackers by total tackles, running backs by yards per attempt, receivers by total yardage, and defensive ends by sacks. It is simple to judge one position group by one metric, and one metric only.

While this can be beneficial to gain a quick glimpse into the talent pool of players at a given position, it rarely tells the whole story. Problems arise when a player is labeled as “bad” or “mediocre” simply because they don't meet a specific criterion for the one stat they are commonly judged by. Remember when Byron Jones wasn't getting interceptions and how some reacted?

Well, unfortunately, Lawrence has received an unfair label due to the one metric he is commonly measured against.

Demarcus Lawrence has quietly been a reliable, elite defensive end for years

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

At the most basic level, a defensive end is supposed to fulfill two roles: stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback when they drop back to pass. This demonstrates one of the downsides of using sacks to measure DEs because sacks don't come close to highlighting run-stopping ability. So, instead of using one metric to evaluate Lawrence, let’s divide his two roles and look into each one separately.

Critics point out the fact that he cannot get sacks, so let’s start with that.

Demarcus Lawrence in the pass rush

In an effort for full transparency, let's address sacks. If you are in an argument about whether Demarcus Lawrence is good or not, you can bring up the fact that his sack total of 9.5 over the last two years ranks 45th in the NFL among edge defenders. There you go. There is the number that everyone is quick to bring up, and if that is all you are looking for, dinner has been served early.

But let’s just dive a little deeper.

We discussed this idea on the latest episode of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

There is not much of an argument to be made that Demarcus Lawrence is excellent at bringing opposing quarterbacks to the ground. But once again, that is only one part (albeit a major part) of pass-rushing. Factors such as disrupting the pass, flushing the quarterback out of the pocket, putting pressure on the quarterback while he is throwing, and drawing a double-team are other helpful aspects.

And Lawrence is amazing at those other facets of pass-rushing. So much so, that he consistently finishes top twenty by PFF grading in pass rush. Here is his PFF rank among all edge defenders in the pass rush by year with his sack total in parenthesis:

  • 2021: 15th (3.0)
  • 2020: 8th (6.5)
  • 2019: 16th (5.0)
  • 2018: 9th (10.5)
  • 2017: 1st (14.5)
  • 2015: 28th (8.0)

He wasn't a full-time starter in 2014 and 2016 with a combined three games started in those seasons, so we have excluded them.

This includes all edge defenders, meaning outside linebackers and defensive ends, which equates to about 121 players per season. Lawrence hasn't finished outside the top 15% of edge defenders by pass rush grading since his first full season starting.

And in 2015 he ended the season with eight sacks, more than he has had in an individual season since 2018. But in 2015 he finished 28th by PFF grading, why is that? It is because Lawrence has polished the other aspects of pass-rushing. Sacking the quarterback isn't the only contribution he is making when the opposition passes, and PFF grading recognizes that.

But maybe you don't believe in PFF grading. That is fine because every rating system has its flaws and maybe Lawrence is just cheating the metric somehow. Well, let's look back to 2020, because the former Boise State DE only played in seven games last year. In the 15 games he played in 2020, among the 121 qualifying edge defenders, Lawrence finished:

  • 17th by pass-rush win rate
  • 15th by quarterback hurries
  • 17th by batted passes
  • BUT, he finished 30th by total sacks

And thus 2020 was deemed another disappointing pass rushing year for Lawrence despite the fact that he continues to impact the passing game in other ways. Keep in mind that, since 2016, Lawrence has the tenth most quarterback hits in the league among defensive ends.

No one will argue that Lawrence is on the tier of Myles Garrett or T.J. Watt in his pass-rushing ability. But to discard everything he does to disrupt opposing quarterbacks simply because he doesn’t bring the QB to the ground is a closed view.

Keep in mind that, when a team is on their own side of the field, a sack is just as good as forcing an incomplete pass on third down (maybe it is worth 5-10 yards in the punting game). The difference is that, when Lawrence forces an incomplete pass because he is in the QBs face, he doesn't get to do a sack dance. He just walks to the sideline, probably knowing he will not get recognition for his pass-rushing prowess.

Demarcus Lawrence in the run game

You likely don't need the same convincing for his defense against the run as his pass-rushing ability. But in case you are not aware that Lawrence might be one of the best run-stuffing DEs in the NFL, let's make the case.

To start, here is his ranking against the run since 2015, according to PFF:

  • 2021: 1st
  • 2020: 8th
  • 2019: 7th
  • 2018: 10th
  • 2017: 11th
  • 2015: 35th

Since 2017, he has not finished the year outside the top ten by PFF grading in stopping the run. That is four straight finishes as a top 9% run defender. The players that have finished ranked inside the top ten by this metric more than once since 2017: Khalil Mack, Carlos Dunlap, T.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Jadeveon Clowney, Arik Armstead, Von Miller, Chase Young. Not a bad group of edge defenders.

But here is the kicker, Cameron Jordan is the only one out of that group to make three appearances. The remainder only did it twice. Demarcus Lawrence has done it in four straight years.

Among defensive ends, he has the seventh most tackle for losses in the NFL since 2016. Since 2019, he is still at the seventh most tackle for losses in the league despite only playing seven games last season.

In the 2020 season he finished:

  • 3rd among edge defenders by tackles in the run game
  • 3rd by “stops” against the run (when his tackle constitute a failure for the offense)
  • 2nd by “stop” percentage against the run
  • 1st by forced fumbles against the run
  • The ninth-lowest average depth of tackle (where his tackle occurred with respect to the line of scrimmage)

And if you think 2020 is just cherry-picking a good season, 2021 was even better. His PFF run-defense grade of 93.2 was the second-highest grade in this metric since PFF started tracking in 2006. But maybe the sample size was too small, maybe he is just getting better. Only 2022 will tell.

If you are still opposed to Demarcus Lawrence’s play because he isn't racking up sacks, that is understandable. Fans get excited about sacks. They allow the defensive linemen to strut around the opposing team’s quarterback, and relish in the fact that they have temporarily changed the outlook of a game.

Sacks are important. But if that is the only way that we are evaluating our defensive ends and outside linebackers, you are looking through a keyhole when the real picture is exponentially larger. Especially for players such as Lawrence, who change the game in a myriad of ways, you might arrive at the incorrect conclusion that they aren’t making an impact.

Because the truth is that, a defensive end who can punish a running back in their own backfield and then turn around and still put enough pressure on the opposing quarterback to make him throw it into the dirt on the very next play is valuable. Lawrence has been the reliable, hyper-talented, unsung hero for the Dallas Cowboys for a few years now. But using sacks as a yardstick for performance has become a veil that hides his true identity.