With 3.5 sacks in just his first two games of 2017, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is on his way to a breakout season. With his rookie contract expiring this year, what does this mean for his financial future and his potential to remain with the Dallas Cowboys?
Big things have always been expected for Lawrence, who Dallas who with the 34th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Dallas surrendered their third-round pick that year to Washington to move up 13 spots and draft DeMarcus. While he didn't have to be Reggie White or even DeMarcus Ware to live up that investment, the Cowboys certainly expected him to become a key part of their defense.
It's been a rough three years to start Lawrence's career. A foot injury in the 2014 training camp took half of his rookie season and kept him as a limited rotation player once he returned. He did make a grand showing the playoffs that year, though, with the memorable sack and fumble plays against the Lions that helped seal victory.
In 2015 Lawrence again had a slow start but then came on in the second half of the season, getting seven sacks in the final eight games. That flourish had everyone excited for the breakout season to come in 2016, but a four-game suspension for PED use and ongoing back problems held Lawrence to just nine games played, only three as a starter, and zero sacks.
Going into 2017 unfettered by any off-field drama and as healthy as he's been, Lawrence seems ready to finally live up to the hype. The results are obvious over two weeks; he's already more than halfway to matching last year's team-high of six sacks posted by Benson Mayowa.
Even if his production drops to more normal levels, he still looks ready to have double-digit sacks on the year. Lawrence would be the first Cowboy to accomplish that since Jason Hatcher (11 sacks) in 2013. In case you're wondering, DeMarcus Ware has the all-time high with 20 sacks in 2008.
If this proves to be a breakout season for DeMarcus Lawrence then it shouldn't be all that surprising. He has the magic elixir that is an expiring contract, which consistently seems to push athletes to new heights regardless of the sport they play.
As a second-round pick, DeMarcus is not subject to the fifth-year team option that can be used on players taken in the first round. Unless the Cowboys work out a contract extension beforehand, Lawrence will be an unrestricted free agent when the 2018 market opens.
A 26-year-old pass rusher (Lawrence turns 26 in April) is about as attractive as it gets in NFL free agency. Only a franchise quarterback is clearly more desirable. If the DeMarcus Lawrence we're seeing right now is the same guy come December and January, he stands to get about as lucrative a contract as a defensive player can get.
Last year, 27-year-old Chandler Jones signed a five-year, $83 million deal to stay with the Arizona Cardinals. Jason Pierre-Paul, despite his nubs, got $62 million over four years from the Giants. Melvin Ingram got the same contract from the Chargers.
Lawrence will be a year or two younger than these guys and has all ten fingers. He should be able to command at least what Chandler Jones did. He won't make Von Miller money (six years, $115 million), but he could easily land somewhere in the middle.
Would the Cowboys, who have moved to a much more fiscally conservative business model over the last few years, be willing to pay market value for DeMarcus Lawrence? Even if they can afford it against the salary cap, would other assets at defensive end give them motivation to allow Lawrence to walk?
Dallas just spent a first-round pick on Taco Charlton. They would still have two more years on Charles Tapper's contract, who may have his own breakout before 2017 is over. There's also still David Irving to consider, who will be a Restricted Free Agent next season and give Dallas more leverage to retain him.
As we've already outlined, Lawrence could be one of the most attractive free agent pass rushers to hit free agency in a while. That attraction applies just as much to the Cowboys, though, as anyone. Give his young age, they may be more willing to pay top dollar than they have recently with other veterans who were closer to their 30s.
These are obviously questions to be answered down the road, but every step along that road can change the equation. At the very least, a breakout season for DeMarcus Lawrence is a tremendous boon for the 2017 Dallas Cowboys and their quest to get past the second round of the playoffs. If he becomes too expensive for the Cowboys to keep, Lawrence must have had a pretty fantastic season. We can only hope.