“I feel like they have given me the opportunity to really break the bank next year.”
That’s what Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence said after promptly signing his $17.143 million tender when designated as a franchise player in early March. Lawrence was coming off a breakout 2017 season, which began like gangbusters. His 6.5 sacks in the first three games resulted in him being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.
The Cowboys were content to let the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long term deals pass without reaching an agreement with Lawrence. The five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million in guarantees the Giants gave Olivier Vernon during 2016 free agency was an important data in contract discussions. Lawrence is represented by David Canter, who negotiated Vernon’s deal. By Collective Bargaining Agreement rule, the Cowboys are precluded from signing Lawrence long term until the regular season ends on December 30.
Lawrence is putting his words into action. He is currently leading the NFC with 5.5 sacks. Lawrence is proving that he is the ”war daddy” pass rusher Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been looking for since releasing future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware in 2014. He is second in the NFL in sacks since the start of the 2017 season with 20 in 21 games.
Barring a serious injury, Lawrence is likely to become another prime example of the principle that the longer a team waits to sign a Pro Bowl caliber player, the more it costs. The top of the non-quarterback market has changed dramatically since the mid-July franchise player deadline.
Interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and edge rusher Khalil Mack became charter members of the $20 million per year non-quarterback club in early September. Donald was the first to break the barrier when the Los Angeles Rams gave him a six-year, $135 million contract extension with $86.892 million in guarantees. $40 million of the guarantees are a signing bonus. Donald is tied with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for the fourth biggest signing bonus currently in an NFL contract.
Less than 48 hours later, Mack signed a six-year, $141 million extension containing $90 million of guarantees in conjunction with his trade from the Oakland Raiders. Mack’s $60 million fully guaranteed at signing established a new record for non-quarterbacks. Only four players, quarterbacks (Matt Ryan-Atlanta Falcons, Kirk Cousins-Minnesota Vikings, Aaron Rodgers-Green Bay Packers and Matthew Stafford-Detroit Lions), have more fully guaranteed at signing. Mack has the fourth most overall guarantees ever in a NFL contract at $90 million behind only Ryan, Rodgers and Stafford, who are at $100 million, $98.2 million and $92 million respectively.
Lawrence should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the changing market conditions considering that players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks are paid a premium. According to Pro Football Focus, Lawrence tied Mack for the NFL’s third most quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) last season with 79. Lawrence’s 23 pressures in five games put him on pace for a comparable number to his 2017 total. Just two players have more than the 102 pressures Lawrence has since the beginning of last season. Donald and Mack have 109 and 103 respectively.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Canter viewed adjusting Vernon’s contract to a 2019 salary cap environment as Lawrence’s salary floor when negotiations can continue once the regular season ends. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, a deal equivalent to Vernon’s would average close to $21 million per year. Exceeding Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller’s $70 million of overall guarantees, which was the non-quarterback standard before the recent signings, and Donald’s $50 million fully guaranteed may also be necessary.
Lawrence’s great attitude about being franchised this year appears that it will not extend to a second designation in 2019. He was adamant about not playing two years in a row on the tag once the signing deadline passed although his 2019 number will be $20,571,600 because of the CBA mandated 20 percent increase from his current $17.143 million salary.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry had this same mindset after playing under a tag in 2016. He became the NFL’s highest paid safety on the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he signed with the Chiefs in 2017 when the two week period to designate franchise players was closing, which typically is in early March.
“If I do my thing, I put up my stats and I help my team win, they ain’t got no choice but to sign me,” Lawrence said during the middle of the offseason. Dallas refusing to reward Lawrence provided he continues to hold up his end of the bargain regardless of the team’s record has the potential to recreate the acrimony of this year’s biggest contract disputes unless his stance toward a second franchise tag changes.
Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.
You can follow him on twitter: @corryjoel
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