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Spagnola: Don't Forget The 'Warrior' In Tank


FRISCO, Texas – Welcome to the "flavor of the week" time of the offseason, this period canvassing nine OTA workouts and next week's three-day mandatory minicamp.

And then while Friday, June 14, is officially called Flag Day, it's actually the official end to the NFL's offseason work. Let summer begin, a week prior to the calendar year's first day of summer.

Yep, this is when one week someone goes head over heels over the American Birthday Cake of football, then Mississippi Mud or Carmel Macchiato the next.

Am I right?

Like, we've been hearing a heckuva lot over the past three weeks about the likes of guys such as Robert Quinn and Kerry Hyder.

Then there has been third-round pick Connor McGovern and rookie free agent Mitch Hyatt on the offensive line.

Or this new bunch of speed-burner receivers, the likes of Jon'vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton, then most recently Reggie Davis.

And to think the only football equipment being worn so far has been a helmet, with nary a soul pancaked or tackled.

But hey, we've been here before. This is nothing new. Take last year. Why, the flavor of the entire month had been Jihad Ward, the defensive tackle who had become All-Frisco during OTAs and minicamp. Couldn't be blocked. This guy was going to take over the 3-technique position, the guy the Cowboys acquired by trading Ryan Switzer to the Raiders during the draft. Ward was going to make us forget the troubled David Irving.

Right. The guy didn't even make the team. Cut before Labor Day.

So thought maybe we ought to tap the breaks on some of these newbies and just get a little more excited about the progress of one of these originals, that being DeMarcus Lawrence, the Rocky Road of football.

Seems as though Lawrence had been on everyone's minds until the twice-franchised defensive end signed his five-year, $105 million deal that included a $25 million signing bonus and $65 million guaranteed.

Then, immediately afterward, Lawrence underwent his much-needed shoulder surgery to repair the multiple tears in the labrum that he has played through over the past two seasons, and haven't heard much about him since.

So how is ol' Tank doing?

Glad you asked.

Very well, thank you very much.

And to me, that's a good thing. No, and not giving into hyperbole, that's a really great thing, and something to get real excited about.

The Cowboys desperately need a healthy Lawrence. And not for the start of the June 11 minicamp. Not for the July 25 start to training camp or even the Aug. 10 preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

But for the Sept. 8 season opener against the New York Football Giants, and guarantee you, plus factoring in the previous back issues he's had, this guy will be a protected species out in California until then.

That's why you haven't heard much about Lawrence since his surgery. He is spending his time rehabbing, working on his conditioning with the trainers. And working hard, mind you. I'm told he is right where he needs to be here in early June. The shoulder repair is solid. He's already doing some lifting. And while the team has been going through these OTA practices, Lawrence has been outdoors doing his conditioning work.

Doesn't seem to be resting on his millions.

Even the hard-nosed Rod Marinelli says of Lawrence, "He's doing good. … He's locked in, can't wait to get him going."

Probably no need for a D-Law primer, like reminding of his team-leading 14.5 sacks in 2017, then, playing on the franchise tag last year for $17.1 million that he immediately embraced, led the Cowboys again with 10.5 sacks in 2018, the first consecutive double-digit sack seasons for the team since DeMarcus Ware's final two of seven straight in 2011 (19.5) and 2012 (11.5).

And for historical purposes, Lawrence is the first Cowboys player not named Ware with as many as 14.5 sacks in a season since Hall of Famer Randy White had 16 in 1978, and that was before sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982. He's also the first Cowboys player not named Ware with consecutive seasons of double-digit sacks since Charles Haley in 1994 (12.5) and 1995 (10.5).

And to think he did all of this with a bum shoulder.

"This guy is rare," Marinelli says, referring to what Lawrence went through last year just to participate. "He plays hard, and is brutally tough. … Blows my mind he was still able to practice at such a high level."

And play, too.

Not only did Lawrence lead the team in sacks last year and with 39 QB pressures, but he also led the Cowboys with 12 tackles for loss, illustrating he is not one of these cutesy speed rushers whose only concern is bagging sacks. This guy will play the run now, finishing with 47 total tackles, seventh on the team but first among defensive linemen.

Marinelli refers to the now sixth-year veteran as the "Racing Lizard."

That's good because the Cowboys don't have a whole bunch of these proven lizards pressuring the quarterback on this team. Quinn you would think has a chance to join the race, with 69 career sacks during his eight-year career, the first seven with the Rams and last year with Miami. But 40 of those came from 2012-14 (10.5, 19.5, 10.5), earning him Pro Bowl honors in 2013 and 2014, and a first team All-Pro nod in 2013.

But we haven't seen him do that with the Cowboys – yet. And his sack high over the last three of his seven seasons with the Rams was 8.5 sacks in 2017 before then totaling 6.5 a year ago with the Dolphins, who traded the 3-4 scheme misfit to the 4-3 scheme Cowboys for no more than a 2020 sixth-round pick.

After Quinn, what else?

Can last year's fourth-round pick Dorance Armstrong, who is working with the first team in Lawrence's absence at strongside defensive end, be a dependable guy? What about fourth-year veteran Hyder, the Detroit Lions' free-agent defensive end the Cowboys signed this offseason? After Hyder's breakout, eight-sack effort with the Lions in 2016, he missed 2017 with a torn Achilles, and with a new coaching staff in 2018 that moved from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, Hyder only played in seven games (one sack). But he seems to be moving well.

After that, well, who knows if 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton will finally emerge in his third season after playing through the shoulder injury he had repaired after last season (labrum). Then there are rookie draft choices Joe Jackson (5th round) and Jalen Jelks (7th round).

But let's not forget Tyrone Crawford, another ol' reliable who split last season between defensive tackle and then right defensive end out of necessity when the Cowboys were having problems stopping the run on that side. His position this season likely becomes an at-need decision.

And lastly, the wild card of the defensive end bunch could be Randy Gregory if the NFL happens to pardon him from his indefinite suspension. After his 2018 breakout season (14 games, 44.6 percent snaps, 6 sacks, 28 QB pressures, 15 tackles) and before being suspended a third time since entering the league in 2015 this offseason, the Cowboys looked at Gregory as the potential starting weakside defensive end for 2019.

But while it seems the Cowboys are optimistic over his chances to be reinstated, sure can't count on it. And other than Quinn's track record, sure can't count on any of the rest of this we haven't seen.

That is why the Cowboys having signed Lawrence to the long-term contract is the biggest offseason move they could have made, coupling that with Tank having the badly-needed shoulder surgery. And the fact he's doing swimmingly during his shoulder rehab is the icing on top of all that.

Because the Cowboys sorely need him ready to go on Sept. 8 for at least 60 percent of the snaps, and they certainly gave us – and him – 31.1 million guaranteed reasons in early April to prove so.

"Just a warrior," Marinelli says.

And don't you forget it.