The upcoming 2021 season is critical for many Dallas Cowboys when it comes to their long-term futures with the team. We could see another offseason with major roster turnover depending on this year's results, and one player who could be part of it is Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence.
We've already talked extensively about players like Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Tyron Smith and why 2021 may be their least season in Dallas. Lawrence has not received the same attention but, based on his contract, he really should be in the conversation.
It's no secret that DeMarcus' sack production has declined since his breakout 2017 season. After posting 14.5 sacks that year and earning his first Pro Bowl trip, he only had 10.5 sacks in 2018 and then just five and 6.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons.
Sacks aren't the only measure of a defensive end, and especially one who plays as many snaps as Tank. He's still one of the league's top run defenders and generates plenty of pressure at times on opposing quarterbacks, even if they don't translate to sacks.
That said, all players are measured against their contracts and salary cap hits in the modern NFL. For Lawrence, this could be problematic in 2022 as he's scheduled to count $27 million against Dallas' cap.
2021 isn't much better; $25 million against this year's salary cap. But the big difference is that Lawrence's deal still has too much dead money on it this year ($44 million) to provide any benefit to his being released.
Assuming Dallas doesn't do another restructure on Tank's deal next offseason, that dead money drops to just $19 million in 2022. That means the Cowboys could save $8 million in cap space by releasing DeMarcus outright or $19 million if they make him a June-1st cut.
Several factors could compound the dilemma for Lawrence. One is Dallas' overall salary cap situation; currently projected to be one of the league's worst next season. The Cowboys may be forced to make some tough decisions next year depending on their offseason needs.
One of those decisions could involve Dallas' other starting DE in 2021, Randy Gregory. If Randy has the breakout season this season that many expect, the Cowboys may be forced to choose between them as Gregory is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
It also doesn't help Tank that the Cowboys have been loading up on young DE prospects the last few years. It'd be a huge leap right now to project that someone like Chauncey Golston or Bradlee Anae will be ready to step into a major role in 2022, but who knows how we'll feel by the end of this season?
This is by no means a prediction that DeMarcus Lawrence will be a cap casualty in 2022. He's been Dallas' best defensive player the last few years, even with the declining sack numbers, and can still make himself more valuable than the cap savings with his level of play. Improvements in other parts of the defense will only help Tank's impact to be more tangible.
But clearly, based on those cap figures and potential for relief, Lawrence can't afford to go into next offseason with any doubts about his value. That makes 2021 a critical year for DeMarcus, like many other Cowboys, to prove their worth.