This isn’t exactly how it was supposed to go down.
The offseason is the best of times for all 32 NFL teams. With 8 months off from meaningful games, hope springs eternal for every fan base. This is especially true for a club that was on the precipice of greatness like Dallas was in 2014; right up until “The Catch That Wasn’t”. Unfortunately, once the regular season starts, a lot of hopes fall by the wayside. Some come crashing down, others experience a slow, steady downward spiral. For the Cowboys, nothing more starkly proves this than starting 2-0 and watching the season slip away, week by week, waiting for Tony Romo’s return. In the meantime, Cowboys Nation has been subjected to several realizations that what was counted on in regards to this team’s constitution, may have included several pre-hatched chickens.
Offseason talk included declarations that Devin Street was ready to challenge Terrance Williams for the second receiver slot; he was looking that good. Nope. Terrance Williams would hold off Street because he had ascended to the upper tier of Number Two wideouts, capable of being a borderline Number One. Nope. Tyrone Crawford was poised for a breakout season and certainly worth locking up at a level far greater than his resume suggested. Nope.
Perhaps the one unfulfilled hope that is hurting the 2015 Cowboys the most (aside a 16-game season for Romo), is that Tank Lawrence was ready to ascend to a dominating force at defensive end. Nope.
The offseason was filled with dropped jaws as Tank Lawrence returned for his second season. His physical maturation curve sped past NFL prototype. Injured in 2014 training camp, he was non-descript once he returned to the field in the regular season. In the playoffs, though, Lawrence made crucial plays and it was expected that would carry over into this season as he bookended elite rusher Greg Hardy. Nope.
In the 2014 NFL Draft, Dallas knew it needed to draft a defensive end. The club had released future Hall-of-Famer Demarcus Ware earlier in the offseason, as his performance no longer matched the salary he was scheduled for. In all honesty, the club might have been motivated by the idea that paying such a premium on a team that wasn’t expected to compete for a championship made little sense. Ware had faded down the stretch of multiple seasons, dealing with multiple injuries and the club decided it was better to part ways. In free agency, the club decided against moving money around to create room for a splash pickup, and only signed journeyman Jeremy Mincey at the position.
Come draft season, the pressure was on.
It wasn’t the best pool of prospects for rushers in 2014. Jadeveon Clowney was surely going with the number one pick, and did. Khalil Mack went Top 5. Dallas had a lot of interest in Anthony Barr, a stud stand-up linebacker from UCLA, but he went to Minnesota with pick number 9. Aaron Donald was the apple of many Cowboys draftnik’s eyes, but he was snatched up by St. Louis. That was the end of the elite rush talent in the draft.
Of course, Dallas didn’t do too badly with “consolation prize” OG Zack Martin, who was an All-Pro lineman as a rookie.
Still, Dallas needed an edge rusher.
Moves made out of desperation rarely work out. After Dallas selected Martin, the Chiefs snatched up Dee Ford with the 23rd pick and Philadelphia reached for Marcus Smith at 26 (Dallas dodged a bullet there, however). Perhaps seeing that teams were already starting to draft rushers higher than perceived value, Dallas spent the 24 hours after the first round working on a way to secure, as they put it, the last player they projected as being a capable right defensive end.
So Dallas ponied up their second and third picks, moving from 47th and 78th to 33rd to select the edge rusher from Boise State with a panoply of talents. Speed, violence, power, explosion, mean temperment, bend, violence, frame to add bulk, good hand technique, violence. Did we mention violence?
Now, talks of Lawrence being a bust are just silly. He just played his 16th regular season game, 18th in total. He only has one full training camp under his belt, and we all know the average edge rusher rarely puts up gaudy numbers in his first two seasons. CHQ’s Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) tells us that rookies drafted top 100 that play at least 8 games average just 2.8 sacks their rookie year. Second rounders average 2.19. Second year guys drafted top 100 that play 8 games or more in Year Two average 3.54 sacks. Second rounders average 2.80.
That’s not the problem.
The problem is the price Dallas paid to acquire him. If you trade up to acquire a defensive end the way Dallas did; the player needs to be “that” guy for your club. To this point, Lawrence hasn’t been.
It’s a relatively well-known edict that clubs just don’t get the proper ROI on trading up, yet they do it anyway because their target is “the one”. The draft is a crap shoot, and the best way to master it tends to be “shoot your shot” as many times as possible. For more on this, you should read this May 2014 article from Blogging The Boys’ Rabblerousr (@Rabblerousr), that covers any and everything about the merits of moving around in the draft and contains this nugget:
Dallas saw Lawrence as a first-round talent, and figured the cost was worth it. It doesn’t seem that way to this point. Of course things can change, and Dallas hopes they will over the second-half of the season and through his career with the team. However, to this point, Lawrence has been a bit under-whelming, at least compared to off-season expectations.
Here are Lawrence’s two-year regular season numbers:
|Year||Games||Tackles||QB Hits||QB Hurries||Sacks||Total Pressures||PRP||TFLs||Stop %|
While Lawrence does lead Dallas’ defensive end group in the majority of 2015 categories, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire. His position-group leading 18 QB pressures (using ProFootballFocus’ numbers), come on 190 pass rushing snaps. They equate to just a 7.2 Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) number, which means nothing by itself, but ranks him just 18th amongst 4-3 DE’s who have played 50% or more of their team’s defensive snaps.
He is second on the team in tackles for a loss (TFLs) with four, but his Stop Percentage is only 5.7%. Stop percentage measures how often a player makes a tackle (percentage of their total tackles) that keeps the offense from gaining 40% of “yards-to-go” on first down, 60% on second down or 100% on third or fourth down. Those benchmarks are what are considered “successful” offensive plays.
His numbers are below average, and they haven’t improved much even with Greg Hardy’s insertion into the lineup starting Week 5. His PRP was 6.8 through the first four games, ranking him 20th amongst NFL 4-3 DE’s. Remember, this isn’t even including edge rushers from 3-4 defenses.
Were there better choices? Hindsight is always 20/20, but when a team goes out of it’s way to say “He was the only one left” then they open themselves up for such scrutiny.
Kony Ealy was selected with the 60th pick of the second round, and had been linked to Dallas as a potential pick. Ethan Westbrooks was a player many draftniks wanted Dallas to take a flyer on with one of their numerous seventh rounders that year. Both have higher PRP ratio numbes than Lawrence, as well as higher volume totals in sacks. Granted, the pool of second-year 4-3 DE’s getting snaps is a shallow one. This lends credence to Dallas’ feeling they “had to grab their guy”, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
When 3-4 Outside linebackers are added in, the picture looks worse considering Dallas giving up a premium pick to go up and get Lawrence. Here’s a look at the edge rusher class of 2014, in their second season.
|Player||Drafted||Games||Rush Snaps||QB Hit||QB Hur||Sk||Pressures||PRP||Run Snaps||Cmb. Tkl||TFLs||Stop %|
In almost every category, rush or run stop, Lawrence is behind his second-year counterparts. While you can’t judge a draft properly until after the third year, it currently looks like trading up didn’t reap the rewards Dallas hoped for in comparison to what they could’ve gotten later in the draft.
Attaocho was available for the Cowboys at their original slot, 47th, as was Kony Ealy taken at the end of the second round. Aaron Lynch slid in the draft due to character concerns; in 2014 Dallas wasn't ready to bring on troubled players as Jason Garrett's RKG system hadn't "won" yet. UDFA players are crapshoots, but Dallas selected Ben Gardner over both of these players, and he isn't even on an active roster right now.
To make matters worse, Dallas traded up for a DE, and probably gave little-to-no consideration of using that trade-up to select the heir apparent to Tony Romo. Could Derek Carr had won any of the last six games if he was the backup instead of bust Brandon Weeden, who the Cowboys decreed was a bad backup plan? Or journeyman Matt Cassel who they had to trade for midseason? It’s possible, and Carr went 36th to Oakland, three picks after Lawrence.
It spins forward as well. Say Dallas’ front office would like to walk away from Greg Hardy this offseason. Has Lawrence given them any reason to believe they have a formidable pass rush entering next season without the much-maligned star? Has his performance led them to believe adding another rusher wouldn’t be a priority without Hardy in tow?
There are now only eight regular season games remaining for the Cowboys in 2015. The playoffs are a long shot, but even without making the tournament, there will be plenty left to prove for a collection of Dallas’ players. Lawrence has ample opportunity to prove his selection, and more importantly the cost to acquire him, was worth the price. The Cowboys need it to happen.