Stage Set: Cowboys' Lawrence To Debut Sunday

The Cowboys are set to finally get a look at the guy they pegged to replace a legend. DeMarcus Lawrence laces them up for the first time this Sunday. Here's a look at how we got here, and how his rookie class compatriots have fared so far in 2014.

Welcome to the league, rook.

The Cowboys have already reaped great rewards from their 2014 draft class with the play of their first round pick Zack Martin. Martin has arguably been Dallas’ best lineman in a season where the unit is getting complimented near and far for their league leading run game status. This weekend, Dallas will get their first game glimpse at the player they selected next after Martin, with hope that he would augment the defense in the same manner.

Demarcus Lawrence suffered a foot injury during training camp and has robbed the team of the edge rusher they so desperately lack in Rod Marinelli’s swarming defensive scheme. The injury landed him on Injured Reserve, Designated to Return, and that moratorium expired with the final whistle in the loss to Washington.

When the Cowboys selected the Boise State star in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the usual bluster came with the selection. Dallas made a second-day trade with division rival Washington to maneuver to the top portion of the second round and select the talented edge rusher. A team filled with numerous holes went against scientific evidence and sacrificed multiple lottery tickets for what they believed was a luckier set of numbers. Dallas gave up picks 47 and 78 to acquire pick number 34. Washington used those selections to grab Stanford DE Trent Murphy and Nebraska G Spencer Long.

Lawrence is a unique physical specimen. Standing at 6’3” and weighing in at 251 pounds at draft time, he had the frame of someone capable of adding serious strength. On tape, he flashed a variety of pass rushing moves as well as versatility in playing up and down the defensive line.

Make no mistake about it. There is tangible data that points to the draft being one big crapshoot and shows teams are much better off hording picks, then sacrificing them in order to go out and get the guy they think rises above the rest. Check out this post from Blogging The Boys on the subject. Dallas is a franchise that scoffs at this kind of research. Time and again, they make moves in order to get their guy with varied results. Fans will love to complain about trading a second-round pick to move up and select Mo Claiborne in 2012. However, they likely fall silent about relinquishing a third-rounder to move up and get Dez Bryant in 2010.

Regardless, the move to get DeMarcus Lawrence had its critics. Dallas painted themselves into a corner when they (wisely) realized that paying future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware close to $16m in salary cap space to anchor a bad defense didn’t make much sense. The issue wasn’t only Ware’s 2014 contract number; the move accelerated his signing bonus to hit on the 2014 cap. Dallas saved space on 2014’s cap and there isn’t a cap charge for 2015 if they had designated him as June 1st or kept him another season.

However the only move that Dallas made to replace Ware was a low-budget signing of Jeremy Mincey. While Mincey is creating quarterback pressures at an acceptable rate, he just registered his first sack of the season this past Monday night. For all of his quality technique, he simply isn’t quick enough to beat left tackles and force quarterbacks to step up into a collapsing pocket.

Dallas failed to sign any other edge rusher in free agency and when Lawrence went down, were left with little recourse. Now, to start the second half of the season, they will finally get to see their investment on the field.

The injury brought about two juxtaposing positions. On one hand, Lawrence is undoubtedly behind the curve. He missed the remainder of camp, and all of preseason, meaning Lawrence is low on the experience factor. It’s hard enough for rookies to adjust to the league, but not being able to participate in the learning sessions puts him behind schedule. No matter what kind of production Lawrence provides, he would likely have been more productive if he had spent more time on the field instead of rehabbing.

On the other hand, Lawrence has returned to the team much more physically sound. The foot injury left Lawrence working on his upper body strength and all reports say that he looks like a completely different player after three months of strength training. In addition, as BTB pointed out here, the remaining calendar much more closely resembles that of the collegiate game. Lawrence won’t have to fight through a rookie wall and now has that offseason strength work that can prelude a huge jump in second-year production. It will be interesting to watch those two dynamics play out over the next eight games and possibly the playoffs.

After the trade up to get him, Dallas’ brass quickly admitted Lawrence was the last player remaining on their draft board who they thought would be able to play the weakside defensive end position. The Right DE is the one typically assigned to go after the quarterback on every down, and have both the speed and the power to get around the opposition’s best protector that plays left tackle. Dallas’ scouts saw that ability in only three players in what was considered a relatively deep, but middle heavy group of edge guy. Jadeveon Clowney went number one overall to Houston, and Anthony Barr was selected by the Minnesota Vikings.

That was the Cowboys justification for using multiple picks for one asset. Starting with this Sunday’s game against the first-place Cardinals, fans will finally get a chance to start passing educated judgment on whether this was the right move to make.

Here’s a look at what the 2014 class of edge rushers has accomplished thus far in the regular season. Snap totals are via Pro Football Focus and their cumulative grades are used simply as a point of reference for players most haven’t had a chance to watch.

PlayerNFL TeamDraft Pedigree2014 SnapsPFF GradePlayer Capsule
JADEVEON CLOWNEYHouston Texans1 (1) - South Carolina56-0.1Clowney was injured opening day and just returned to the lineup this past weekend. He has 0 sacks on 1 QB pressure.
Dee FordKansas City Chiefs1 (23) - Auburn48-0.3There was plenty of thought that Ford was too light for 43 DE and he was drafted by a 34 defense. He is used sparingly with his first sack coming this past weekend (4 pressures).
ANTHONY BARRMinnesota Vikings1 (9) - UCLA525+7.0By far the most accomplished from the draft, Mike Zimmer has been using Barr primarily as a SLB with great results (a concern was whether Barr would be able to play with his hand down in the pros). Barr already has 3 sacks on 14 QB pressures with 24 stops on the year. He returned a fumble he forced to win the game in overtime this past Sunday.
DEMARCUS LAWRENCEDallas Cowboys2 (34) - Boise St0N/ASet to make his season debut against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon.
Scott CrichtonMinnesota Vikings3 (72) - Oregon State16-0.9Crichton is on the same team as Barr, but has played sparingly as the Vikings boast the league leader in sacks, Everson Griffen at RDE.
Marcus SmithPhiladelphia Eagles1 (26) - Louisville50-1.0The Eagles have used Smith as needed, or as warranted depending on POV. He has no sacks on 3 pressures as he shuffles between inactive and multiple 34 LB spots
JEREMIAH ATTAOCHUSan Diego Chargers2 (50) - Georgia Tech65+0.6Attaochu is also playing in a 34 as a LB. He hasn't made much noise since a sack in the opener, battling a hamstring injury after that.
Kony EalyCarolina Panthers2 (60) - Missouri158-10.0Ealy has gotten into the rotation after the domestic violence suspension of Greg Hardy. He is credited with 1 sack out of 5 total QB pressures. He is playing as a strongside defensive end.
Kareem MartinArizona Cardinals3 (84) - North Carolina139-2.6Martin is playing DE in a 34 defense, so his role is different than the edge rushers listed here. He has yet to register a sack and has 3 pressures.
Jackson JeffcoatWashington RedskinsUDFA - Texas1+0.4Jeffcoat started off with Seattle before making his way to the inactive list on Washington's 53 man roster every week.
JAMES GAYLETennessee TitansUDFA - Virginia Tech0N/AWe got nothing except he's a 34 OLB.
TRENT MURPHYWashington Redskins2 (47) - Stanford244-0.4Murphy got his first start after Brian Orakpo tore another pec muscle. He almost had a pick against Dallas last week before Romo knocked it out of his hands. He has 11 pressures on the year but still looking for his first sack.
AARON LYNCHSan Francisco 49ers5 (150) - South Florida192+4.8Lynch had high pick talent with highly questionable character, hence the slide. In San Fran where character flaws are often overlooked, he is getting plenty of snaps in Aldon Smith's absence. He has 1 sack on 15 pressures.
Will ClarkeCincinnati Bengals3 (88) - West Virginia8-0.6Clarke hasn't seen the field since Week 3 when he registered a single pressure on his 8 snaps.
Chris SmithJacksonville Jaguars5 (159) - Arkansas11-0.4Smith made his season debut last week for the Jags, an it was a non-descript one at that. No stats.

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