Players with expiring contracts are always a point of interest. For 2017 Cowboys in contract years, none is a bigger name than defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. What will Lawrence need to do to earn a new deal in Dallas?
Expectations have always been high for Lawrence. Dallas gave up a third-round pick in 2014 to move up and take him with the 34th overall pick. If that wasn't enough, the Cowboys franchise sack leader had been released just a few months earlier and they had the same first name.
Indeed, the transition from “D-Ware” to “D-Law” perhaps set the bar unfairly for Lawrence. Ware wasn't just the Cowboys' sack leader but is eighth all-time in NFL history and should be a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee. You can keep drafting guys in the top five of the draft and not find another DeMarcus Ware.
That said, Lawrence was still a borderline first-round talent and that comes with its own expectations. His first three years in Dallas have seen flashes of potential but ultimate disappointment, with injuries and a suspension playing a part.
At his best, DeMarcus has proven to be a game-changer. This was never more evident than in the Cowboys' 2014 playoff game against the Detroit Lions. Lawrence notoriously scooped up a fumble forced by Anthony Spencer and then got stripped himself, giving the ball back to the Lions. In one of the great redemption moments of recent memory, he was able to sack Matthew Stafford to force another fumble and recovered it himself to seal the victory.
Other than that playoff performance, Lawrence's rookie year wasn't very inspiring. He missed nine games with injuries and didn't record any sacks in the regular season. However, it's important to remember that he'd missed most of training camp and all of the preseason, plus nine weeks of practice, with a foot injury.
In 2015, Lawrence began to look like consistent playmaker. He has seven sacks in Dallas' final eight games and had you thinking he'd really arrived. Unfortunately, a four-game suspension to start the year and back issues throughout the season limited DeMarcus to just nine total games. He never looked right even when on the field and had just one sack in 2016.
Dallas used their 2017 first-round pick on DE Taco Charlton, who is ideally suited to play the same strong-side end position that Lawrence is also built for. Some have taken this as a sign that the Cowboys have no plans to re-sign DeMarcus after his contract expires this year.
Lawrence also be challenged by the returning Benson Mayowa and David Irving for playing time, plus Charles Tapper after his redshirt season. It also begs the question: how much will the Cowboys want to invest snaps in DeMarcus if he's not part of their future plans?
Granted, we have no idea where Dallas is right now on re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence. There's no question that he has the talent to be the best defense end on this roster. If Lawrence can put together a great year, he may force his way into a new contract even if he's not in the team's current plans.
Still, even if DeMarcus goes off in 2017, there will be cause for concern. Plenty of players have duped teams into giving them big money because they gave extra effort in a contract year. Dallas went through some of this a few years back with the aforementioned Anthony Spencer, who even admitted that he didn't give the same effort in younger years as he did when his contract was running out.
The best scenario for the Cowboys is if the younger guys like Charlton, Irving, and Tapper can emerge this year. They can either let Lawrence walk or, at least, have the leverage if they decide they want to negotiate a new contract.
That scenario would also mean that DeMarcus had a good year, which only helps Dallas now in 2017. Whether it earns him a new deal with the Cowboys or some other team next season, Dallas is trying to win a championship right now and an improved pass rush is vital to that goal.
Will DeMarcus Lawrence contribute to the Cowboys' success in 2017? Will his contribution be enough to earn a new contract? Like everything else, we'll have to wait and see.