Despite playing on one of the worst defenses in franchise history last year, DeMarcus Lawrence managed to still prove his individual value. The Cowboys’ veteran defensive end was ranked as the 7th-best edge player in the NFL by Pro Football Focus leading into the 2021 season.
Lawrence has drawn criticism in recent years for low sack production since receiving a major contract extension. But sacks are the simple man’s gauge for success with edge defenders; backfield disruption, quarterback pressures, and run stopping are vital aspects of performance which don’t show up in the box score.
It is in these areas where Tank has excelled for the Cowboys and when compared to his NFL peers.
Dallas rewarded Lawrence with a five-year, $105 million contract in 2019 after his breakout 2017 season and playing 2018 on the franchise tag. But after producing double-digit sacks in both those years, DeMarcus has only had five sacks in 2019 and 6.5 last season.
Naturally, this has led some to criticize Lawrence’s effort and effectiveness. He’s been painted as one of those athletes who pushed to get paid and then stopped putting in the work once he did.
Clearly, more detailed analysis proves otherwise.
Lawrence is one of the highest-paid edge defenders in the NFL; 4th-highest average contract value among his peers. Quibbling about the difference between fourth in salary and seventh in a ranking like this one would be a bit silly.
But if you want to dig into it, two of the names ahead of Tank on PFF’s list are T.J. Watt and Nick Bosa. Both of these guys are still playing on their rookie deals, meaning they’ve yet to receive market value for their work the same way Lawrence has.
This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t like to see higher sack totals from Lawrence. However, like most stats in football, sacks are about more than just the player getting the official credit. DeMarcus needs help from the other 10 defenders on the field to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Dallas is counting on schematic adjustments under new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn, plus some personnel changes at linebacker and in the secondary, to help give its pass rushers more time to generate pressure and hopefully produce more sacks.
We’ve also seen where someone else on the defensive line benefits from Lawrence’s presence. In 2019, veteran Robert Quinn joined the Cowboys and put up his highest sack total since the 2013 season.
Quinn cashed in on that one season in Dallas with a lucrative contract from the Chicago Bears last year. Unfortunately for them, the production dropped from those 11.5 sacks with Dallas to just two in 2020.
The Cowboys appear to be banking on Lawrence’s presence as an anchor for the 2021 defense. It’s partly why they’re trusting Randy Gregory to be the primary pass rusher opposite of Tank; confidence that Randy will perform well in the same role as Quinn.
Only time will tell how these choices serve Dallas this season. But rest assured, DeMarcus Lawrence isn’t a problem that needs solving as the Cowboys look to improve their defense in 2021.
If anything, he may be the only part that’s currently working.