It’s easy to call Dallas Cowboys’ defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence a disappointment in his first season in Dallas. Out of the seven games he played in the regular season, Lawrence only recorded a total of nine tackles and had zero sacks. That’s not the kind of production you expect from a pass rusher the Cowboys traded their 2014 second and third round picks for.
But you also have to consider that the young defensive end out of Boise State broke his foot in July, forcing him to be sidelined during all of training camp, the preseason and the first eight weeks of the NFL regular season. Basically, from Week Nine until the end of the year was Lawrence’s real training grounds.
Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett expressed his frustration with the injury setback and the growth he’s saw in Lawrence during those final weeks of the season.
"“We were really disappointed (DeMarcus) lost that time once he got hurt in training camp, lost that time in the early part of the season because they grow so much early on,” Garrett told ESPNDallas.com earlier this week. “These practices and these preseason games are so valuable to these guys. They can really benefit from these reps maybe as much as anybody. I think when he came back we saw that. We saw him grow from practice to practice and week to week and by the end of the year, he was really making a lot of impact plays for us.”"
And those weeks finally started to pay off in the playoffs as Lawrence recorded three tackles and two sacks in his first two postseason appearances. And it just so happened that one of those sacks help propel Dallas further into the playoffs.
"“That sequence in the Detroit game was really big for him, ” Garrett recounted. “You think about…he knocked the ball out, recovers the fumble and gives it up and they get the ball back and then three or four plays later he makes the sack-fumble and then recovers it. That really wins the game for us. I think that shows what he’s all about and what kind of young man he is. You talk about football character. Those are the kind of things we’re looking for. We think the sky is the limit for him. We just got to get back to work getting ready for that, too.”"
In the playoffs, the young defensive end showed flashes of what he could become for the Cowboys this upcoming season. And the team will certainly need him as retooling this defensive line seems to be priority number one this offseason in Dallas.
Despite his low numbers, Lawrence is not alone when it comes to young pass rushers needing extra time to transition from the college game. For example, let’s look back at last season’s sack totals for all the first-year pass rushers taken prior to Lawrence in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Houston Texans’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (0.0), Oakland Raiders’ linebacker Khalil Mack (4.0), Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr (4.0), St. Louis Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald (9.0), Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier (0.0), Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker C.J. Mosley (3.0), Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive end Dee Ford (1.5), Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker Marcus Smith (0.0), New England Patriots’ defensive tackle Dominique Easley (1.0).
Outside of Donald, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, not a single first round pass rusher collected more than 4.0 sacks during the regular season. It simply proves the point that pass rushers need time to develop in this league.
Still, due to the high price his acquisition cost the Cowboys in last year’s draft, the bar for Lawrence is set very high in 2015. Here’s what Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News replied during a recent fan chat about his expectations of the young prospect going into the new year.
"“Very high expectations. They paid a 2nd and 3rd to get him and he needs to emerge as a 8-10 sack guy in Year 2 to be worth that price. I hope he can really take a big jump up and the Cowboys feel that he can. If he is the real deal and Tyrone Crawford continues, then a 1st round pick means you have a very young and rebuilt DL already.”"
Bottom line: Lawrence’s development as a pass rusher is key to this Cowboys’ defense turning the corner in 2015. With the injection of more talent from free agency and the draft, the new three-year contract for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, plus returning players like linebacker Sean Lee; Dallas’ defensive squad could emerge as one of the league’s best this season.