The Dallas Cowboys have made defense the primary focus this offseason. That was never more clear than during the 2021 NFL Draft in April where the team dedicated eight of their 11 draft picks to the defensive side of the ball. That included investing their first six draft selections into defensive rookies.
That all in an effort to support new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who replaced Mike Nolan after he was fired following a disappointing performance by this unit in 2020. The Cowboys ranked 23rd in total yards allowed (6,183), 31st in run defense (2,541), and 28th in total points allowed (473) under Nolan last year.
While Quinn has handpicked rookies and some free agent veterans to help run his scheme in Dallas, the Cowboys have plenty of existing talent that was already on the roster waiting to be tapped. And the unquestioned leader of this group is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Entering his eighth season in Dallas, the player lovingly known as “Tank” is once again expected to be a disruptive force for the Cowboys to rely on. That’s despite posting mediocre sack numbers again last season recording just 6.5 sacks, but still leading the team in that category.
In April of 2019, Lawrence inked a five-year contract extension worth $105 million with $65 million in guarantees. That after posting 25.0 total tackles over the previous two seasons. In the two years since that sack total has dropped to a disappointing 11.5. And that’s despite being paid as the fourth highest-paid edge rusher in average yearly salary according to overthecap.com.
But the veteran’s impact goes far beyond his sack numbers. Here’s what Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus wrote about Lawrence presently after ranking the Cowboys defensive end the seventh-best edge defender entering the 2021 NFL season.
"“Pass rush is always going to draw headlines for edge defenders. Lawrence has been one of the league’s best in that department, putting up a top-10 pass-rush win rate at the position since 2017. However, he has also been an elite run defender in recent years. Lawrence’s 90.1 run-defense grade over the last four seasons makes him one of just seven players at the position to clear the 90.0 mark since 2017.”"
The fact that Lawrence ranked so highly as a run defender but the Cowboys defense as a whole was one of the worst against the run in the NFL last season illustrates just how bad the scheme, the coaches, and cast around Tank performed in 2020.
While the sack totals were disappointing for the second year in a row, especially considering his hefty price tag, DeMarcus Lawerence is undoubtedly the best defender the Dallas Cowboys have. And if the team is going to perform to even an average level in 2021 under its third defensive coordinator in three years, Lawrence will need to continue to be the stalwart defender he has been for the past few seasons. But a career performance from Tank this year could be the spark this unit desperately needs.