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Free Agent Spotlight: Edge Rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence

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Could the Bucs snag an elite pass rusher?

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have a tough decision ahead of them. One of their most productive defensive players is a pending free agent and multiple teams will come knocking on DeMarcus Lawrence’s door. They have the option to franchise him, but it seems unlikely at this point. So what would Lawrence hitting free agency look like?

DEMARCUS LAWRENCE’S CAREER

DeMarcus Lawrence was drafted at the top of the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft at 34th overall by the Dallas Cowboys. He had a typical rookie year with typical rookie struggles, only appearing in seven games and recording zero sacks and just nine tackles, but to be fair a training camp foot injury had put him behind the eight-ball; not unlike what happened to 2018 Tampa Bay rookie Vita Vea. For his sophomore campaign in 2015 Lawrence appeared in all sixteen games, racking up 55 tackles and eight sacks. But at the end of the season Lawrence had back issues and underwent surgery, where it turned out the issues were far more serious than the Cowboys had initially thought. That third year was a lost year for Lawrence, as he only appeared in nine games and recorded just eleven tackles and one sack. He had surgery again after that season for the same reason - herniated discs in his back. It looked like Lawrence’s NFL future was in doubt.

Instead, in the two seasons since, Lawrence has recorded 122 tackles and 25 sacks, with back-to-back double-digit sack campaigns. He’s been a top 25 edge rusher in terms of sacks and tackles for loss over his career. If you just take the last two seasons, he’s fourth in sacks and sixth in tackles for loss. In other words, he’s been elite, playing far more like a former first round edge rusher than a second. He will be one of the most highly sought after free agents this off-season.

WHY THE BUCCANEERS NEED HIM

Who doesn’t need an elite edge rusher in their prime? Lawrence will be just 27 next season, and if he’s healthy he can transform a defense. The Buccaneers did a lot to revamp their defensive line last offseason, and to some extent it worked. The Buccaneers went from 32nd in 2017 all the way to 8th in adjusted sack rate in 2018, nearly doubling their percentage from the league’s worst rate.

Still, while Jason Pierre-Paul’s resurgence was great to see, posting a double-digit sack campaign himself last season, he’s now 30 years old. Truth be told, even if the Bucs could count on him for four more seasons of high-level play, they don’t have that great second pass rush option that all good defenses have. Or more accurately, that a defense must have if it wants to be competitive deep into the postseason. Noah Spence has been a disappointment. 2018 free agent acquisition Vinny Curry was just cut. And while Carl Nassib is a fan favorite for his motor and tough play, he’s not talented enough to get you 10 sacks a season. He had arguably his best year as a pro this past season, but he only had 6.5 sacks - 3.5 sacks higher than his previous career high of 3, which was just a half-sack better than his rookie year.

No, Nassib would be an excellent third option. The Bucs need that second option. Gerald McCoy is still a top ten pass rushing defensive tackle. Perhaps a top five one when healthy. But if the Buccaneers wanted to put together an elite line, they’d go after someone like Lawrence.

WHAT WILL LAWRENCE COST?

Ah, the $60 million dollar question. Not that Lawrence will get paid $60 million. No, he’s going to get paid more than $60 million. The top five 4-3 defensive ends have previously inked deals worth a minimum of $60 million in total value, with guaranteed money north of $30 million. Chandler Jones signed for $82.5 million total. Melvin Ingram got $34 million guaranteed. And Lawrence is already tied with Ezekial Ansah as one of the highest paid edge rushers in average value per year - at $17.14 million. Plus, the salary cap will have inflated approximately $20 million dollars since Jones and Ingram signed their contracts, and Lawrence will easily be the most coveted player in free agency. In other words, prepare yourself for Lawrence to get quarterback money.

If the Cowboys want to keep him, and can afford it, all they have to do tick that per year value up just a smidge and extend out the guaranteed money and years. That’s easier said than done, and Lawrence might want to test the market. No one would blame him for seeing what teams are willing to offer him.

WILL IT HAPPEN?

For the Buccaneers? Probably not. With a top pick in the 2019 Draft coming up the Buccaneers could simply draft their own top-flight pass rusher and put the money to use fixing their secondary. It’s not like the pass rush finished 32nd again either - 8th in adjusted sack rate is nothing to sneeze at, and no one would blame the Bucs for staying put on the defensive line to address issues elsewhere.

The Bucs saved $8 million by cutting Curry, but that only leaves them with about $16 million in cap space, and they have to keep most of that for draft picks and injury free agency space during the season. If the Bucs want to make something like Lawrence happen, they will probably have to move both McCoy and DeSean Jackson.

The Cowboys have about $46 million in cap space, and even if they can’t hold onto him, if Lawrence makes it to free agency the Bucs will have to outbid 31 other teams. We can dream though, right?