Cowboys Made the Right Move in Paying Demarcus Lawrence $105 Million

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 8, 2019

FILE - In this Dec. 23, 2018, file photo, Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) celebrates as Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston shouts in the direction of an official after throwing an incomplete pass during the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas. A person with direct knowledge of the deal says the Cowboys have agreed on a $105 million, five-year contract with Lawrence. The agreement will include $65 million in guaranteed money, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Friday, April 5, because the deal hasn’t been announced. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

The Dallas Cowboys are building their team the right way by signing defensive end Demarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million contract extension—even if it costs the squad another star or two. 

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence Hill Jr., the deal included a position-setting $65 million in guarantees, including more money in the first year than any non-quarterback in NFL history. 

The contract's construction is quite interesting. The Cowboys are now tighter against the salary cap this seasonapproximately $13.5 million in available space since Lawerence's initial yield is $11 million more than if he played on the franchise tag, per The MMQB's Andrew Brandt. Yet the overall payout lessens in subsequent years to ease the financial burden once other extensions come due. According to The MMQB's Albert Breer, 47.9 percent of the deal's initial three-year cash flow comes in the first season. 

Even with Lawrence's new deal on the books, the Cowboys are expected to have over $80 million in available salary-cap space for the 2020 campaign after Spotrac originally listed them with a league-high $106.6 million projection

While that appears to be an enormous number, it'll disappear quickly. 

Quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, right tackle La'el Collins, cornerback Byron Jones and linebacker Jaylon Smith are scheduled to become free agents after 2019. Running back Ezekiel Elliot's rookie contract ends after the 2020 season. 

Difficult decisions are likely forthcoming with a couple of those upcoming negotiations, but Lawrence's extension was the absolute right move even with an eye toward the team's future. 

Four positions are considered franchise cornerstones: quarterback, left tackle, cornerback and pass-rusher. In some ways, the steadfast adherence to positional value is changing with right tackle, interior pass-rushers and elite mismatches in the passing game (wide receiver, tight end and even some running backs) garnering more attention and financial recompense than ever. 

Even so, organizations are forced to prioritize their personnel because of the league's financial realities, and positional value remains a deciding factor. 

Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Lawrence is a premium pass-rusher. He defines Dallas' defensive identity. He accounted for 32.5 percent of the Cowboys' sacks over the last two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info's Evan Kaplan. The Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones and Los Angeles Rams' two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald are the only two players in the league to produce a larger percentage.

Rod Marinelli's scheme is predicated on the front four being able to generate pressure with minimal blitz packages. The unit is reliant on individuals winning one-on-one matchups. Lawrence hasn't received much help the last two seasons. David Irving and Randy Gregory finished second in 2017 and '18, respectively, but neither remains an active member of the team. Robert Quinn's addition will help, but Lawrence remains the focal point on defense. 

Over the last two seasons, the 27-year-old defensive end registered 25 sacks and 145 total quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, Lawrence is a complete defender. 

The two-time Pro Bowl honoree is an outstanding run defender who tied for the most defensive stops (22) at or behind the line of scrimmage last season, per PFF

Paying top dollar for a highly productive performer in his prime at a premium position falls into the no-brainer category. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saw the negotiations as more than keeping the team's best defensive player in the short term. Jones knows Lawrence and the Cowboys are building a long-term relationship with the defensive lineman becoming a face of the franchise, per The Athletic's Calvin Watkins

This has gone on as far back for me, notably, with Emmitt Smith. Any of you know my relationship with Emmitt Smith today know that's a memory we smile about the way we are, 20-something years later and we're in business together. That's just part of the business. The main thing, and I don't want to be cavalier, this is a significant thing for not only our franchise but DeMarcus' life. It would make anyone be very, very judicious as they are working through the terms of this agreement.

The next step is obvious: Prescott becomes the priority, and his contract will dwarf what Lawrence just signed. 

As a 2016 fourth-round pick, the 25-year-old signal-caller is the NFL's best bargain since he's yet to make $1 million in any of his first three seasons. The Cowboys could let Prescott play out the fourth and final year on his rookie deal at $2.025 million or lock the quarterback up long-term without worrying about free agency or the franchise tag. 

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Each new quarterback contract resets the market. The Atlanta Falcons set the bar in March when Matt Ryan signed a $150 million extension with $100 million guaranteed. The earlier the Cowboys get something done with Prescott, the less his yearly average will be since the subsequent contracts will only continue to inflate the market. 

Cowboys director of playing personnel Stephen Jones commented on Prescott's contract status at the NFL Scouting Combine, per the Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr.

You look at a quarterback who has had the success he's had. He's started since Day 1, he's a fourth-round draft pick. You can imagine, I'm sure what Dak is thinking too. He's the leader of the football team, as most quarterbacks are. He's done everything the right way, and I think he deserves to have his contract looked at in a very progressive way.

Realistically, Lawrence and Prescott will combine to make over $50 million on an annual basis. Those two numbers alone will eat half of the team's projected 2020 salary-cap space. 

In doing so, two cornerstone positions are set for at least half a decade. The decision-making from that point becomes far more intriguing. 

Cooper's retention seems rather safe to assume since the Cowboys flipped this year's first-round pick to acquire him and he played exceptionally well once he donned the blue and silver. According to K.D. Drummond of USA Today's Cowboys Wire, the wide receiver ranked eighth overall in targets and receptions, ninth in yards and fourth in receiving touchdowns after being traded. 

Cooper, 24, is younger than both Lawrence and Prescott while about to enter a ballooning wide receiver market.

Right now, the NFL's 12 highest-paid receivers make at least $12 million on an annual basis. Cooper will likely push into the upper echelon of $16 million or more. He's already scheduled to make $13.92 million on the final year of his rookie deal. 

This year's franchise tag for wide receivers was $16.78 million. If the Cowboys want to avoid that situation and see Cooper's demands escalate, they'll likely have to make him one of the league's highest-paid receivers. That will take at least another $16-million chunk out of Dallas' available cap space. Whether the front office can actually work out a number in said range for the 2019 campaign remains to be seen. 

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott throws a stiff-arm on Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott throws a stiff-arm on Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Elliott falls fourth on the list of priorities for two reasons.

First, his rookie contract includes a fifth-year option the team can use as a buffer before addressing his situation. Second, running backs, even those as gifted as Elliott, remain devalued in the current market. The Rams' Todd Gurley, New York Jets' Le'Veon Bell and Cardinals' David Johnson each make at least $13 million per year. Gurley was injured and outplayed by free agent C.J. Anderson during the Rams' run to Super Bowl LIII. Bell was so worried about his usage he sat out an entire year. Johnson wasn't quite the same after missing nearly the entire 2017 campaign with a wrist injury (and returning to a Mike McCoy offense certainly didn't help)

Elliott already has two seasons of 377 or more touches in his first three campaigns. The Cowboys could ride the 2016 fourth overall pick into the ground before he even sees the end of his rookie contract. Before reaching that point, the organization should add depth in an attempt to take some pressure off its workhorse. If not, his production after reaching 26 years old won't be promising, not at the price he'll likely fetch. 

Can the Cowboys squeeze another $14-15 million under the 2020 salary cap? Sure. Should they for a running back? Not necessarily. Clearly, the team will be built around Lawrence and Prescott. Elliott is an expensive luxury. The back's effectiveness can't be denied, but the team could realistically find a viable alternative while retaining far more financial flexibility. 

Elliott brings name recognition, but a pair of defenders should take higher priority. 

Like Lawrence and Prescott, Jones plays a premium position. The fourth-year cornerback came into his own last season under the supervision of defensive backs coach Kris Richard. Jones earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro status after grading as the game's sixth-best corner, according to PFF. The Chicago Bears' Kyle Fuller, who has a similar profile, signed a deal worth $14 million per season. 

Smith, meanwhile, finally looked like the linebacker who demanded top-10 draft consideration before he suffered a devastating knee injury in his final collegiate game. Smith isn't on par with C.J. Mosley, who already made four Pro Bowls and signed a market-setting $17 million per season with the New York Jets. But Smith will be just 24 next season, while Mosley will be 27. 

Salary-cap Projections for Dallas' Upcoming Free Agents
PlayerPositionProjected Annual Salary
DeMarcus LawrenceDE$20.1 million
Dak PrescottQB$32 million
Amari CooperWR$17 million
Ezekiel ElliottRB$15 million
Byron JonesCB$14 million
Jaylon SmithLB$13.5 million
La'el CollinsRT$12 million
Total$123.6 million
Spotrac

Collins may seem like a throw-in among the aforementioned names. But young, albeit average, offensive tackles still receive significant free-agent interest. The Denver Broncos' made Ja'wuan James the NFL's highest-paid right tackle this offseason at $12.75 million per year. James, 26, has never made a Pro Bowl and isn't considered one of the best players at his position. 

If the Cowboys plan to re-sign Elliott, the franchise will likely be looking for a new top cornerback, middle linebacker and/or right tackle. Someone is going to get squeezed out when Lawrence, Prescott and Cooper alone could eat up to $68 million in annual salary. Current projections make it nearly impossible for Dallas to retain all five, not including Lawrence. 

None of this takes into account other upcoming free agents the organization prefers to re-sign or acquire on the open market. 

Dallas did a wonderful job retooling its roster through the last five draft classes and by locking up a defensive cornerstone this offseason, but balloon payments are now due and the Cowboys can't afford them all. 

         

All contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac. Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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