After 10 weeks of the 2017 NFL season, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is the current sack leader for the entire league. His breakout is a welcome sight for sack-deprived Cowboys fans, but it may have a bittersweet ending. If Lawrence stays on his current pace, he may become far too expensive for Dallas to re-sign.
DeMarcus' 11.5 sacks are not only best in the NFL but mean he could potentially threaten the single-season record of 22.5 sacks, set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Even if he doesn't top Strahan, Lawrence could easily get to the Cowboys team record of 20 sacks. No surprise; DeMarcus Ware has that distinction with 20 sacks in 2008.
Barring an injury setback, Lawrence should hit 2018 free agency as one of top players at any position. Let's take a look at what that translated to in dollars last year.
The biggest contract given for a pass rusher last year went to Chandler Jones, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals for $83 million over five years. That's $16.6 million per season, which is a daunting figure when you consider that the cost of the DE franchise tag was $16.9 million.
Generally, the idea of signing elite guys to long-term deals is to get some cap relief from what the franchise tag would cost you. For the Cardinals, Chandlers Jones only had a $10 million cap hit in 2017 and will count $15.5 million next year. That's good relief now and a little in 2018, but then the contract jumps to $19 million cap hits over the final three years.
A major difference between Chandler Jones and DeMarcus Lawrence is their track record. Jones had 47 career sacks from four seasons in New England and one year with Arizona. Including this season, Lawrence has just 20.5 and more than half of that's come in a contract year.
The contract year is one of the scariest factors for any team trying to make a free agent decision. There is a well-documented history of players giving max effort to get a big contract extension, or a new deal in free agency, and then seeing a major drop in performance.
For DeMarcus Lawrence, the lack of production in his first three years can be attributed to health issues more than lack of effort. He had a slow start as a rookie but then looked ready to breakout in 2015, getting seven sacks in the final eight weeks. Last year he had a four-game PED suspension and then was set back by injuries.
There's no denying that there are red flags with Lawrence, but he will also be a year younger than Chandler Jones was as a free agent. If his sack production keeps up, he could be coming off one of the best seasons any pass rusher has ever had. He's had lower lows than Chandler Jones did, but is about to have a much higher high.
Therefore, assuming Lawrence will be this highly attractive free agent commodity, what can the Cowboys do to keep him? Do they have the salary cap space to do it, or at least moves to clear the space needed?
It's hard to estimate all of this now, but right now OverTheCap says Dallas has about $10 million in cap space. This is important as any unused cap space rolls over into the following season. OTC also assigns us with about $24.3 million in dead money counting against the 2017 cap and only $13.7 million next year, so that's about $10.6 million becoming available.
Sound great, right? Just one problem; DeMarcus Lawrence isn't the only player on the team.
The Cowboys have to re-sign Zack Martin. While he is secured for 2018 by the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, that would cost Dallas $9.3 million in cap space for just one season. They want to get a long-term deal done with Martin similar to what they have Travis Frederick before 2016.
The good news there is that even if Martin gets a big contract, Dallas can immediately restructure that first year to bring the cap hit low. Like with Frederick, the Cowboys are rightfully confident in Martin's long-term value and that he'll be a starting guard for them for at least the next 5-7 years. They don't pushing guaranteed money into later years because there's no foreseeable scenario where they would part ways with Martin or Frederick.
David Irving is another player Dallas has to make a move on. Closely behind DeMarcus Lawrence in terms of breakout defensive linemen, Irving will thankfully be only a restricted free agent in 2018. Dallas will likely give him the first-round RFA tender, which should pay about $4 million. The big decision on Irving will be in 2019, but a $3.5 million raise is still a solid chunk of space Dallas had to account for.
There are other impending free agents to consider. Guard Jonathan Cooper has earned his way into the starting lineup and they may want to keep him. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens is a solid, versatile player that they may not want to part with. If they don't keep these guys, money may need to be spent on replacements. However, none of these moves should break the bank.
Because they are no longer burdened by the full force of Tony Romo's massive cap hit, Dallas has more flexibility than they used to. They can certainly keep DeMarcus Lawrence, Zack Martin, and anyone else they want to this season. They will even be able to look at acquiring some new talent.
The Cowboys have moved to a much wiser cap-management model over the last few years. They don't want to reward players for past performance with big contracts without some certainty of continued results. DeMarcus Lawrence is going to put present them with an interesting decision; a guy who broke out in his contract year but is still young enough to have several more seasons in his prime.
Dallas can afford to keep him, but will they want to risk? DeMarcus Lawrence is going to put their new philosophy to the test.
Kicker Matt Bryant Should Be the Final Piece of Cowboys 2019 Offseason
The draft is done, DeMarcus Lawrence is re-signed, and the bulk of free agency activity has passed. The 2019 Dallas Cowboys have more than enough talent to compete this season, but there is still one last move I'd wish they'd make. Veteran kicker Matt Bryant, still one of the NFL's best even at almost 44 years old, could be the final piece to this offseason puzzle.
The Atlanta Falcons' longtime kicker, and franchise scoring leader, was not retained this year despite another standout season. He made 20-of-21 field goals, with a long of 57, in 2018.
Why Atlanta didn't keep Bryant hasn't been confirmed, but perhaps the team was just looking to avoid hanging on one year to late. But Matt, who ranks eight all-time in FG accuracy (86.2%), doesn't think he's done. He tweeted the following from his personal account in February:
"Over this past year I’ve been asked numerous times about retirement and how I feel. Well, I’m not retiring and I feel fine and plan on feeling even better with some changes to my offseason program!
As of now Matt Bryant remains a free agent, and I think the Dallas Cowboys should be very interested.
If you go up and down this Dallas roster, kicker is arguably its biggest liability. Brett Maher had some highlight moments in 2018, and won two Player of the Week awards, but he also was one of the league's worst kickers in overall FG accuracy.
The problem with Maher is that you can't teach his best skill; the accuracy from the high 50s and even low 60s is incredible. It's a true weapon that you have a hard time letting go of, which was evident last year when Dallas dumped Dan Bailey for Maher at final cuts.
But Matt Bryant might be the best of both worlds. He's been a 91% FG kicker overall this last three years and has made 18-of-22 attempts from 50 yards out or more.
Maher only made 80.6% of his kicks in 2018. He went from 6/7 from long range, but that tells you how shaky he was from closer in.
Those closer kicks are worth the same three points that the longer ones are, and how'd you like it if Dallas lost a critical game because their kicker couldn't make a 35-yarder?
I get the fear factor with an older guy like Matt Bryant. Heck, the Cowboys let Dan Bailey go when he was still just 30. But Bryant hasn't shown the red flags that Bailey did; he's still kicking as well as he ever has.
If nothing else, Dallas has the cap space and circumstances to bring in Bryant for a true competition with Maher. If Brett has improved his game and keeps his job, then that's awesome. But why not add some pressure now, though a position battle with one of the all-time greats, and see what Maher's really made of?
Seasons have been made, and shattered, by one kick. Unless the Cowboys have good reason for confidence in Brett Maher's development from last year, they could be carrying a significant liability into a year where they're trying to push for a Super Bowl.
If Matt Bryant could provide even a small amount of additional security, isn't he worth it?
Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend
Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.
One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.
Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.
A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.
Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.
If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.
The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.
Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.
This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.
Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.
But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Graduating From Notre Dame
The 2019 season is right around the corner for the Dallas Cowboys, with OTA's and training camp getting ready to kickoff in the coming weeks/months.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith made the most of his offseason, going back to Notre Dame to finish out his college degree. Smith is set to graduate from Notre Dame this Saturday, and will walk to earn his degree in Film & Television.
Smith talked to DallasCowboys.com's David Helman about why it was so important for him to graduate and finish what he started at Notre Dame.
“When I left after my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and finish...Finishing my third year with the Cowboys, it was time.” - Jaylon Smith
2,025 @NotreDame undergraduates will receive degrees during Commencement Weekend. That contingent includes @thejaylonsmith Yes, the current @dallascowboys & former @NDFootball All-American linebacker, who took 21 credits this spring #4for40 #GraduatingChampions #CEV
Smith continues his leadership on and off the field, and we all send our congratulations to the Cowboys starting MIKE linebacker!
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