IRVING, Texas– DeMarcus Lawrence had quite the week around this time last year: He went from talented pro prospect, to Dallas Cowboys draft pick, to dad.
Lawrence's son was born on the eve of his first scheduled NFL practice. He missed the first day of rookie minicamp to see his family, then returned to Valley Ranch proudly wearing his hospital wristband.
A year later, Damari's approaching his first birthday.
"He's running," Lawrence said. "Climbs the stairs. He's everywhere."
In football terms, Dad is taking steps, too, toward becoming a force on the Cowboys' revamped defense.
Lawrence's 2014 rookie season got shortened before it began. Drafted in the second round as a pure edge rusher, he broke his foot on the fourth day of training camp practice in Oxnard, Calif. The injury required surgery that wiped out his entire preseason and first nine games of the regular season.
Though not a 'redshirt' rookie, Lawrence returned to practice in October rusty with only raw experience in offseason workouts. He had nine tackles and no sacks over the final seven regular-season games.
"It was hard," he recalled. "It was a real tough grind to deal with, just trying to stay focused and into the playbook and just coming back trying to get back into your rhythm and your groove. But I just had to deal with the punches as they came – focusing on my technique and my skill development was my main focus. It just got better over time in the games."
Lawrence gradually showed flashes of the elite pass rush skill that enticed the Cowboys to trade up 13 spots in the second round to grab, in their view, a true right defensive end who could deliver much-needed pressure off the edge and develop into a long-term replacement for departed veteran DeMarcus Ware.
His best moments came in the playoffs – first, with a strip-sack fumble recovery on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford that redeemed his earlier fumble-recovery-turned-fumble in the Wild Card round; and then with one of only two Cowboys sacks on a hobbled Aaron Rodgers in the Divisional Round loss to the Packers.
"When the playoffs rolled around I just felt a switch flick on," Lawrence said. "It was just me and my mindset – trusting my body, trusting my foot again and just letting go and having fun."
Lawrence's strong finish, coupled with his full offseason strength and conditioning program at Valley Ranch, have the Cowboys excited about his upside in Year 2.
He'll have plenty of help on the defensive line.
The Cowboys have loaded up on pass rushers in free agency and the draft. They signed 2013 Pro Bowler Greg Hardy to a one-year contract in March and selected ends Randy Gregory (second round) and Ryan Russell (fifth round) two weeks ago to help fortify depth with Hardy scheduled to serve a 10-game NFL suspension, pending appeal.
At the draft, team owner/general manager Jerry Jones called the influx of rushers a dramatic "sea change" in talent on defense, which ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks last year (28).
The Cowboys took a similar approach to addressing the offensive line over several years, and with top prospect La'el Collins arriving last week as an improbable undrafted free agent, it's now arguably the league's deepest unit.
"The game is won up front – it always has been and always will be," head coach Jason Garrett said. "You look at teams that have success in this league in 2014, and the best ones are good on the offensive line and good on the defensive line.
"We feel like you have to obviously allocate some resources to that, whether you're trying to acquire a guy in free agency or via the draft, and add some really good players there who play the right way; have talent and have a demeanor about them; have some playmaking ability. We did that last year with DeMarcus, we've done it again this year and we'll continue to do that as it's a really important part of successful teams."
Lawrence figures right into their plans working at left or right defensive end in a rotation that will include veteran Jeremy Mincey, Gregory, and Hardy when he's eligible. Lawrence could also move inside to rush from the tackle position in certain sub-packages.
Right now Lawrence is using the voluntary workouts to strengthen his legs, his power and his explosiveness off the ball. He was solid against the run as a rookie, but a quicker first step will make him more dynamic as a pass rusher.
"Trying to lift and get stronger every day," he said, "and flip it all to the field."