The Dallas Cowboys are on a great run lately at choosing draft picks.
Last year, they landed the league’s most immediately electrifying player in running back Ezekiel Elliott. If that wasn’t enough, they also got the best bargain in the draft when they selected quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth round. This year their top draft pick was another defensive end, Taco Charlton, out of Michigan.
The newest star on the Cowboys is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, out of Boise State, who was the Cowboys’ top pick in 2014. Going into Sunday, his 7.5 sacks comfortably leads the league. How good is that? If he could maintain the pace he’d have a 32-sack season.
It took a while, though, for Lawrence to stand out. When he was selected as the 34th overall pick in 2014, the idea was to replace his namesake, All-Pro DeMarcus Ware. Before finishing his career in Denver for three years, Ware became the Cowboys’ all-time sack leader. Chosen 11th overall in the 2005 draft, he was another great pick by Dallas.
In his rookie year, Lawrence missed eight games with a broken foot and failed to record any regular season sacks – though he got two of them in postseason. In 2015, though Dallas had only four wins, Lawrence broke out and led the team with eight sacks.
Last year, however, he managed only one sack, as he had a back injury that led to surgery for the second straight offseason. He also had to serve a four-game suspension. It’s funny how often soaring statistics and use of performance-enhancing drugs coincide, isn’t it?
Lawrence will soon become a rich man, as his original four-year contract with Dallas will be up at the end of the year.
As you might expect, the 6’3” 265-pound dynamo offers a mix of power and quickness. His athleticism, however, did not jump off the charts at the NFL combine. Among defensive ends, his 40-yard dash was 60th percentile, and his 20-yard shuttle time was 75th, but his bench press total was only 23rd percentile. The latter measure might no longer be relevant, as recent game film shows a physically dominating man casting aside would-be blockers (see above: “performance-enhancing drugs”).
The Green Bay Packers’ offensive line is going to be put to the test against Lawrence on Sunday.
I reviewed the Dallas-Rams game film, and Lawrence was contained quite well. He had four tackles, two quarterback hits and one sack. He got credit for the sack when he was fairly well blocked but stuck out a hand and swiped the ball out of Jerad Goff’s hand. He was all but invisible during the Rams’ second-half comeback, and he did little to stop Todd Gurley and his mates from rushing for 255 yards. I don’t think Lawrence, in his fourth year, has yet to establish himself as a premier defensive end – but the Packers need to cool off the hot streak he’s on.
I also watched Lawrence’s three-sack outburst in the Dallas-Arizona game. Lawrence both over-powered and out-quicked right tackle Jared Veldheer the entire second half. Bryan Bulaga is two years younger than the 30-year old Veldheer, and he’s also three inches shorter – Veldheer’s long frame might not be working to his advantage. Green Bay’s final injury report for the upcoming game lists both David Bakhtiari and Bulaga as questionable, but both were limited participants all week at practices.
Lawrence lines up opposite the right tackle on most plays. It’s an interesting strategy – instead of facing an opponent’s best tackle (for the Packers, left tackle David Bakhtiari), the Cowboys like to line Lawrence up against who is usually the inferior tackle. That means he’ll probably be dueling right tackle Bryan Bulaga on Sunday, assuming he plays.
Though Lawrence’s sacks this year are impressive, three of them were of Carson Palmer, the largely-immobile 37-year old Arizona quarterback.
If Lawrence attacks Aaron Rodgers from the front, it will give Aaron an opportunity to use his juke moves – stuttering, stepping forward, darting back, spinning to the right or left, and so on. Over the years, we’ve seen Rodgers become maybe the cagiest QB in the league. He just keeps getting better at it. Rodgers’ elusiveness might be more of a problem for Lawrence than how well the Green Bay blockers are contesting him.
If Lawrence starts gaining the upper hand on whoever faces off against him on the Packers’ line, let’s hope Green Bay responds – and quickly – by providing some tight end or running back help, or by giving the right tackle a breather or two. Lawrence seems to wear blockers down as the games go on. Green Bay has reacted poorly, if at all, when Justin McCray has had trouble after being inserted into the lineup this year.