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Helman: D-Law Is Aiming Past Danielle Hunter


FRISCO, Texas – All of a sudden, it makes sense why DeMarcus Lawrence is comfortable playing on the franchise tag.

That might sound counterintuitive, but let me explain.

If you didn't hear the news, the Minnesota Vikings have made the latest waves in the NFL's pass rusher market. They signed Danielle Hunter to a contract extension on Wednesday morning, inking the 23-year-old defensive end to a five-year, $72 million deal with $40 million in guarantees.

By almost any measure, that's an absolutely absurd amount of money. In the world of NFL pass rushers, though, it's actually a bit of a bargain.

Hunter has had a fantastic career since the Vikings drafted him No. 88 overall in 2015. He has tallied 147 tackles and 25.5 sacks in three seasons, highlighted by a 12.5-sack effort in 2016.

The deal includes roughly $40 million in guarantees, which is among the best in the NFL. But the reality of the situation is it's probably not as much as Hunter could have gained in free agency. If you calculate is average salary of roughly $14.4 million, it's only the eighth-best in the league right now.

Now, let's circle this back around to Lawrence, who is set to play the 2018 season on a one-year, $17.5 million deal.

If we're being strict with our comparison, Hunter has arguably had a better career to this point. He's got more career tackles, two more career sacks and he has missed fewer games.

The difference is the power of the open market. There is a premium placed on rushing the quarterback in this league, as Olivier Vernon proved in 2016 when he signed a five-year, $85 million contract with just 29 sacks to his name.

Hunter outperformed his draft slot and was clearly comfortable re-signing in Minnesota, so he accepted a smaller deal than he might have been able to get as a free agent. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it's still true.

Strictly speaking, the Cowboys still have roughly two weeks to negotiate a long-term deal with Lawrence. If the sides can agree on a deal by July 16, it's still theoretically possible Lawrence could play the 2018 season on a multi-year deal that's friendlier to the Cowboys' salary cap.

That doesn't seem likely to happen, and Hunter's deal is a good indicator of why.

It's a gamble, but if Lawrence is able to put up a comparable season to his 14.5 sacks in 2017, he has a chance to blow that deal out of the water.

He described it pretty perfectly himself when asked about the tag back in February.

"I feel like they have given me the opportunity to really break the bank next year," he said.

He touched on it again in May, when reporters asked him if he'd like to get a long-term deal done before the season.

"It really doesn't matter," he said. "If I do my thing, I put up my stats and I help my team win, they ain't got no choice but to sign me. That's how I feel."

It's a valid point. Another Pro Bowl season could give Lawrence the leverage to command top dollar in free agency. It could also prompt the Cowboys to place the franchise tag on him for a second-consecutive season, which would likely earn him nearly $20 million more in guarantees.

There's more than one way to secure a long-term contract in the NFL, and kudos to Hunter for doing so at such a young age. But if Lawrence's strategy pays off, he could be setting himself up for a much larger pay day.