The Rams made Donald the highest-paid defender in the NFL—for a few hours, anyway—after long but mostly constructive negotiations last August. Donald showed up for work healthy and happy, won the Defensive Player of the Year award, earned some MVP buzz and helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Donald won. The Rams won. That's the best-case scenario for how the Cowboys should approach Lawrence's contract negotiations.
Mack, like Donald and any other employee of his stature, wanted a big-money extension last offseason. But talks with the Raiders went sideways. Egos got involved. The Raiders ended up trading Mack to the Bears on Sept. 1. Mack then signed an extension with the Bears for even more money than what Donald received.
Mack had an All-Pro season for a playoff team. The Raiders went 4-12. They earned some draft capital, which made them favorites of the see-who's-laughing-in-five-years crowd, but they were unwatchable and irrelevant last year.
The Cowboys don't want to win the Draft Capital Trophy. They want to win the Lombardi Trophy, sooner rather than later. They cannot do that without Lawrence.
That means they must find a way to pay him what he's worth.
The Cowboys franchise-tagged Lawrence for the second consecutive year in early March. Assuming he signs his franchise-tag offer—which isn't a 100 percent safe assumption in this post-Le'Veon Bell reality—he will play for $20.5 million this year. He'll then either become a free agent in 2020 or receive the dreaded nuclear option: a third consecutive franchise tag.
Lawrence and the Cowboys have been negotiating a new deal throughout the offseason, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said the two sides were "at an impasse" during the owners' meetings this week, per David Moore of the Dallas Morning News.
Jones said the sticking point is that Mack and Von Miller of the Broncos earn far more than any of the NFL's other top edge-rushers. (Donald plays defensive tackle, but his contract is also almost certainly a consideration).
"I'm sure that is why we're struggling a little bit," Jones said. "There is a delta between the top two guys and where the rest of the edge-rushers and pressure players have been paid up to this point."
Translation: Lawrence wants to be paid in the Mack-Miller-Donald range, but the Cowboys have a different range in mind.
Mack's six-year, $141 million Bears deal had $60 million fully guaranteed at signing, per Over The Cap. The Rams gave Donald a six-year, $135 million contract with $50 million guaranteed at signing. Miller's six-year, $114.5 million contract with the Broncos has a rolling guarantee structure that has already surpassed $50 million. And don't forget Trey Flowers, who just signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Lions that had $50 million guaranteed at signing.
Below those four big contracts and a white elephant or two—J.J. Watt's six-year, $100 million contract with the Houston Texans could be the subject of its own economics course—the guaranteed money for edge-rushers dips to the $30-40 million range.
That's quite a difference. Hence the impasse.
Calvin Watkins of The Athletic reported the Cowboys and Lawrence are only $2.5 million apart on average annual salary, but focusing on the average can be misleading. Lawrence surely wants that extra money front-loaded and guaranteed, not tacked onto the back end for appearances.
At first glance, Lawrence doesn't appear to belong in the top pay tier for his position. He tied for 17th in the NFL with 10.5 sacks last year, well below Donald (20.5), Miller (14.5) and Mack (12.5, with interceptions and forced fumbles to boot). Lawrence tied for second leaguewide with 14.5 sacks in 2017, but he lacks the track record and accolades of the $100 million men.
However, Lawrence's impact goes far beyond his sack totals.
He finished fifth in the NFL with 43.5 pass pressures in 2018, per Football Outsiders/Sports Info Solutions, ahead of Flowers (41.5), Miller (36.5) and Mack (38.0) but behind Donald, who led the NFL with 59.0. Lawrence just lacked reliable complementary pass-rushers to help boost his sack total. (As the Cowboys roster now stands, he still lacks them.) He also excelled in run defense.
Lawrence was the best player on a young defense that improved drastically last year, making him almost as indispensable to the Cowboys as quarterback Dak Prescott. And whether the Cowboys like it or not, Mack and Donald reset the market with their massive deals last year, which is why the good-but-hardly-spectacular Flowers now has $50 million guaranteed in the bank.
That leaves the Cowboys with only two choices: solve the "impasse" by giving Lawrence a Mack-like contract or risk losing him to some team who will.
No trade rumors or holdout threats have emerged as of yet. But the only thing top NFL players hate more than the franchise tag is a second franchise tag. When a team resorts to tagging a player to keep him off the market for two straight seasons, the player often looks for ways to escape, whether through trade demands, conscientious objection (Bell) or playing financial chicken until the team blinks (Kirk Cousins).
A complicating factor in the "impasse" is that the Cowboys, in a surprising development, are now trying to plan for their financial future instead of setting Jerry Jones' money hose to "Turbo Jet," soaking all of their favorite players with cash and worrying about the salary-cap consequences later.
Both Prescott and top receiver Amari Cooper are on the final year of their rookie contracts this season, which means Lawrence is one of three core Cowboys stars who must either receive an extension or potentially become a free agent next offseason.
Even Jerrah and Son have only so much cash to throw around. And if they don't juggle the size and structure of the contract extensions carefully, the Cowboys could overspend on a few of them at the expense of the rest of a not-quite-Super Bowl-caliber roster. Hence, the pay-as-you-go strategy for Lawrence.
But the franchise tag cuts both ways. Lawrence's $20.5 million cap hit leaves the Cowboys with roughly $17.5 million in space this year, which limits them in free agency and potentially complicates the structure of a Prescott extension. Also, the Cowboys could end up paying Lawrence $37 million for 2018 and 2019 because of their reluctance to guarantee him $50 million for 2019 and beyond.
In other words, the Cowboys are rapidly reaching the point where they will pay Lawrence as much guaranteed money under the franchise tag as they would have had they just signed him to a long-term deal last year. But that can make a team stubborn about paying even more guaranteed money, which in turn sours negotiations.
It's all a recipe for the downward spiral into the worst-case scenario: a Lawrence trade or holdout that leaves the Cowboys without their star pass-rusher, turning a team that appears to be a move or two away from the Super Bowl into a directionless franchise robbing its defense to pay for its offense.
If the Cowboys stop talking about "deltas" and offer Lawrence a Donald- or Mack-esque contract he cannot refuse, they can turn their attention (and some cap space) toward Prescott, solidify their core and go about becoming playoff contenders for the foreseeable future.
It's an expensive choice. But it's also an easy one.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.
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