As much excitement as there was surrounding second-round defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence heading into training camp, there’s as much despair after the rookie went down with a broken foot early in the week.
Clarence Hill of the Star-Telegram confirmed Lawrence’s injury and recovery time.
At eight weeks, Lawrence is looking at a Week 4 return against the New Orleans Saints. That’s a best-case scenario—missing three regular-season games—but foot injuries are always difficult to predict. Lawrence is young, but we still don’t know how quickly he might heal or if he’ll be ready to go (either physically or mentally) once his foot is healed.
In the meantime, it’s imperative that the Cowboys find the replacement for a player who was going to start right out of the gate for the defense. This was a defensive line unit that was already desperately thin, but there are some ways they can manufacture production until they get their promising rookie back on the field.
Immediately following the injury, Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com listed Jeremy Mincey, Martez Wilson, and Tyrone Crawford as the options to start opposite George Selvie while Lawrence is on the shelf.
On Wednesday, Rowan Kavner reported that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also threw outside linebacker Kyle Wilber’s name into the mix as someone who can work as a pass-rush specialist.
We know that Anthony Spencer is likely to grab that starting spot if he returns, but he’s on the PUP list.
For now, I’m going to assume that Spencer will stay there to start the regular season, so he won’t be listed here as an immediate replacement for Lawrence.
Although Lawrence was fully expected to start at defensive end for Dallas, Mincey has been running with the first team. Believe it or not, this is Mincey’s 10th year in the NFL with his fourth team. At 30 years old, it’s very fair to question what sort of upside Mincey possesses.
It’s not that defensive ends can’t produce at age 30, because they can.
However, Mincey’s previous career peak came in 2011 at age 26—not an uncommon age for pass-rushers to peak—and he managed just eight sacks. In the three seasons that he was a full-time starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mincey averaged 5.3 sacks per season.
The Cowboys might “know what they’re getting” with a player like Mincey, but they have players with much higher upside who should be able to overtake him.
Of all the players on the Cowboys roster, none intrigues me more than Wilson. I looked back at Wilson’s pass-rushing productivity in the first three years of his career. Wilson has pressured the quarterback on 20 of his 318 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That 6.3 percent rate is decent, but keep in mind Wilson doesn’t even have a full season worth of snaps under his belt.
To me, Wilson is a very similar player to Selvie circa 2013, but even more athletic. Both players were productive in college but disappointing early in their NFL careers (albeit in small samples).
But take a look at Wilson’s size: 6’4”, 260 pounds with 34.6-inch arms! That’s truly elite length, which is extremely important for defensive ends. Let’s not forget that Wilson also ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash, jumped 36 inches vertically, and recorded a 10’4” broad jump at the combine, according to NFL.com.
Wilson likely has a really wide range of potential outcomes as a defensive end, but that range probably includes a ceiling to which few players have access.
Due to his upside alone, he’s worth a long look as a potential short-term replacement for Lawrence (and maybe someone Dallas can rely on down the line, too).
The Cowboys seemed content using Crawford as a backup defensive tackle, but Lawrence’s injury means he’s likely going to be thrown into the mix on the outside. With his size (284 lbs), he might be the Cowboys’ best bet on first and second downs.
So what’s to like about a third-round pick with 20 career tackles and no sacks? In addition to his bulk, Crawford is also long (33.75-inch arms) and was fairly productive at Boise State with 13.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss in two seasons, according to Sports Reference.
In terms of upside, Wilber is probably somewhere between Wilson and Mincey. The problem with Wilber is that he doesn’t offer elite athleticism (4.86 in the 40-yard dash) or elite size at just 245 pounds. He’s been about as productive as Wilson in his short career with a 6.7 percent pressure rate on 230 pass-rushing snaps.
My guess is that the Cowboys will probably roll with Crawford at defensive end on first and second down, moving Wilber there as a pass-rush specialist in passing situations. Crawford could then be kicked inside to tackle on those plays. I personally believe Wilson needs to be given a really long look as a potential impact player, but Crawford and Wilber are the favorites right now.
Why This Injury Matters...A Lot
Although the short-term impact of Lawrence’s injury might not be devastating to Dallas, it’s worth mentioning that not all injuries are created equally. While I believe “injury-proneness” to be most illusory, foot injuries seem to be a different animal.
Listen to this: According to information sent to me by the good people at Sports Injury Predictor, players who have broken a foot are four times more likely to re-break it as those who haven’t had a foot injury. Perhaps worse, they have a 63 percent chance of injuring their ankle at some point and a 59 percent probability of tearing a hamstring!
When players injure their foot, they tend to overcompensate in other areas, which places unnecessary stress on the body that leads to future injuries. The fact that Lawrence might be more likely than not to tear his hamstring at some point is crazy.
For that reason, I think it’s imperative that the Cowboys keep Lawrence out as long as is needed (and maybe an “extra” week or two just to be safe). This injury has the potential to be really detrimental over the long run if not handled properly.
As much as the Cowboys could use Lawrence’s services, the worst thing they could do for him and themselves is rush him back.