The ongoing divide between the Dallas Cowboys and franchised Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence is starting rise to the top of the 2019 offseason discussion. While Dallas has made a some solid free agent moves in the last week and the draft is still to come, it would seem all for naught if they don’t have their top pass rusher next season. That reality gives Lawrence plenty of leverage in these contract negotiations.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their bargaining position is far from solid. Between the overall DE market, Dallas’ own roster, and their lack of high draft picks, they are almost dependent on DeMarcus’ return to maintain a championship-caliber defense next year.
The consensus top-four defensive ends in free agency this year were Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Trey Flowers (Patriots), and Frank Clark (Seahawks). Three of them, Lawrence, Clowney, and Clark, were franchised by their previous teams. Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal to join the Detroit Lions.
The Flowers deal, averaging $18 million per year, didn’t even set the floor for conversations with these other players. They’re all looking at the $23.5 million that Chicago’s Khalil Mack averages as a much closer measure for the money they deserve.
According to reports today, the Cowboys and Lawrence are squabbling over about $10-$12 million over the life of the contract.
Now this doesn’t take into account the guaranteed money, which is often the biggest issue with NFL contracts. Average salary is nice but can come back to bite the player if a team releases him in Years 4-6 as a salary cap casualty. It’s the divide between base salary and the original signing bonus that generally makes those moves happen.
But whatever the conflicts are in these talks between DeMarcus and Dallas, it doesn’t seem like the Cowboys are going to win.
Lawrence swore last year he wouldn’t play 2019 on a second franchise tag. If he fulfills that vow, as we saw Le’Veon Bell do last year in Pittsburgh, then it leaves the Cowboys with a pretty ugly situation at defensive end.
- Tyrone Crawford – A solid veteran but needs better player around him to really make an impact. He is currently under investigation for a bar brawl incident a few weeks ago and could miss a few games under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
- Randy Gregory – Started to emerge last year but has been suspended once again for drug use. His status for 2019 is completely up in the air.
- Taco Charlton – Fell out of favor with coaches last year for work ethic and effort issues. Still young but has yet to make any impact relative to being a first-round pick.
- Kerry Hyder – A free agent signing who flashed talent in 2016 with eight sacks but missed all of 2017 with injury and played out of positions last year.
- Dorance Armstrong – An intriguing second-year prospect but still completely unproven.
That’s a motley crew, and even worse if Gregory stays suspended. It would likely lead to a disastrous reminder of years when Dallas tried to cobble together a pass rush out of guys like Jeremy Mincey or Benson Mayowa.
We’ve seen this defense without a consistent pass rush and it’s not pretty. Many would argue that it cost Dallas a chance at a title in 2014 or 2016, when they rode offense into the playoffs but twice got ousted by Aaron Rodgers.
The Cowboys project to have a strong offense once again. It would be a shame for the defense, which finally broke out last year, to take a big backward step by losing an impact player like DeMarcus Lawrence.
It’d be one thing if the Cowboys could let someone else pay Lawrence max money and replace him with a somewhat comparable player. Sometimes those deals are out there, but not in 2019.
The franchising of Lawrence, Clowney, and Clark has worked to the advantage of the players as it has frozen the market price at Mack’s huge deal from last year. Even if none of these players are necessarily on Mack’s level, or have produced as consistently as he has, they can argue that Khalil’s deal plus one year of general inflation sets a good price for them.
Plus, as they’re all franchised, none of them are available to help give their teams another option. Nobody is going give up the first-round picks to sign a franchise-tagged player when they could just re-sign their own.
The Cowboys are especially hindered by not having a 2019 draft pick until late in the second round. A late first-round pick would hardly be expected to replace Lawrence right away, but it would at least help their overall position.
Instead, Tank and his agent see a team that needs a catalytic edge player and has no reasonable way of acquiring one. This isn’t the increasingly undervalued world of NFL running backs, where a team felt like they could afford to go without an elite talent like Le’Veon Bell.
Dallas might be hoping to call DeMarcus’ bluff and at least have him play at the $20.5 million that his franchise tender pays. After all, that’s a year of earning Lawrence can’t get back.
But if Tank sticks to his guns then it’s the Cowboys who could lose, and lose big, by squandering their last season with Dak Prescott on his rookie contract. 2019 may be their best opportunity to go win a title before a huge portion of their salary cap gets tied up at QB.
All of these factors show how it’s DeMarcus Lawrence, and not the Dallas Cowboys, who have the power in these negotiations. Even if you think Lawrence is asking for more than he’s worth, it all comes down to what the team is willing to pay.
If winning next year means anything to the Cowboys, they may have to accept defeat this offseason.