The Dallas Cowboys’ most intriguing move of the 2014 NFL draft was trading up to select Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Dallas had a massive need at defensive end with DeMarcus Ware out of town, Anthony Spencer’s future uncertain, and George Selvie more of a No. 2 rusher, and they made sure that they weren’t going to get out of this draft without their man.
According to DallasCowboys.com’s Nick Eatman, the Cowboys had Lawrence ranked as the third-best pass-rusher in this class, behind only South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA’s Anthony Barr. Whether or not he should have been ranked that high, there are a whole lot of things to like about Lawrence and his fit in Dallas.
The Measurables (Length, Production and Age)
Let’s start by breaking down Lawrence from a purely objective standpoint. He’s 6’3”, 251 pounds, which is a little undersized for a 4-3 end. The height in particular isn’t near the top end of the spectrum, but I don’t think that matters. Instead, what’s really important is arm length; pass-rushers need long arms to fend off blockers.
How important is arm length? I calculated the correlation between various defensive end measurables and NFL success (as measured by Pro Football Reference’s approximate value).
The fact that the 40-yard dash correlation is negative just refers to the fact that a faster time is better—the lower the number, the better the production. Even so, you can see arm length is more closely linked to a defensive end’s approximate value than the 40-yard dash, height and weight.
Tall players seem to perform better as pass-rushers not because they’re tall, but rather because they usually have long arms. There’s also anecdotal evidence that short players with long arms (like Elvis Dumervil and Justin Houston) frequently offer value in the draft because they fall for a trait that’s not that important (height), but possess the most vital characteristic that helps them most in the pros (long arms).
Well guess what? Lawrence has very long 33.75-inch arms. Those would be long for any defensive end, but they’re especially long for someone who stands 6’3”. The fact that Lawrence has elite length is a major positive in regards to his NFL future. His 4.80 time in the 40-yard dash also isn’t as concerning as it might first appear.
Another trait that we want to see out of pass-rushers is college productivity. If a defensive end can’t dominate at the college level, why would we expect him to do it in the pros?
“Productivity” doesn’t only mean sacks, however. Actually, since teams are highly aware of sack counts and tend to pay for them, you probably can’t get a huge edge by emphasizing sack totals in prospects. Instead, tackles-for-loss is a better stat to analyze because it displays explosiveness to get into the backfield just like sacks, but it isn’t as strong of a component of draft slot (and thus won’t inflate draft stock to the point of a player no longer offering value).
At Boise State, Lawrence had 20 sacks and 34 tackles-for-loss in two seasons, including 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2013 alone, according to Sports Reference.
A final indicator of NFL success is age. That has nothing to do with player contracts and everything to do with errors in assessment; NFL teams frequently treat all prospects the same in terms of age, analyzing a 23-year-old the same as a 21-year-old. There’s a fundamental difference between the two; when a younger player dominates older competition in college, that’s a much better sign than an older player doing it against younger competition.
When the Cowboys drafted Tyron Smith, for example, one of the reasons to be so bullish on him was that he was incredibly young. The fact that he was so good at USC at ages 18 and 19 suggested that he was probably going to dominate in the NFL as he aged.
At 21 years old, Lawrence is at an age where we can be confident his college production wasn’t simply the result of being older and more experienced than the competition.
On film, what stands out about Lawrence is just how long he really is and how well he uses that size.
It’s a good thing that there are signs of future success for Lawrence, because he’ll need to produce like a mid-first-round talent for Dallas to see a return on their trade. Remember, they yielded their second and third-round picks to get in position to nab Lawrence, which is a steep price to pay.
According to the NFL Trade Value Chart, the Cowboys overpaid for the Redskins’ 34th-overall pick by about 13 percent. And remember, the chart is already incorrect, valuing high picks too much. Based on what they gave up, the Cowboys should have received the 29th or 30th pick in the first round.
The main issue with trading up at all, though, is that, well, it just doesn’t work very much. Looking back at first-round trades (which isn’t far from where Dallas moved, just two picks out of the first round), we see that the team moving down has usually gotten the best of the deal.
The teams moving down in first-round trades have acquired 64.4 percent of the total approximate value accumulated by the players involved in those deals. But even more incredible, the team trading down has gotten the best player in the deal 50.9 percent of the time, despite the lower pick!
By moving down in the first round, teams haven’t really even reduced their ability to draft the best player of the two teams involved in the deal, plus they’ve basically gotten an additional pick “for free.”
This is evidence of the idea that the draft is way, way more random than we’d like to admit. In any random environment, it makes sense to increase opportunities for success—in this case, more draft picks. As much as I like Lawrence, the move to get him isn’t worth the cost, because it reduced the Cowboys’ odds of hitting on players in a system that’s probably just as much (if not more) luck-based as skill-based.
For the trade to make sense for Dallas, they’d have to have a level of confidence in Lawrence that simply isn’t warranted. Maybe he’s exactly the player they think, but maybe he’s not. When you account for the fact that the team could just be wrong in their assessment of Lawrence—a notion that’s not too far-fetched considering he wasn’t drafted by anyone in the first round—it’s even more difficult to justify burning two draft picks on him.
The Final Verdict
My final position on Lawrence is “love the player, hate the trade.” The Cowboys gave up too much to get Lawrence, plain and simple. These types of trades don’t work out often for the team moving up, so the Cowboys have to believe they’re the exception to the rule in this case for the deal to be warranted.
In terms of the player alone, though, there’s a whole lot to like about Lawrence and his future with the Cowboys. He’s a long-armed player who produced at an elite level in college at a young age; you can’t ask for much more than that.