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.