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Spagnola: Think 14.5 Sacks Were A Fluke? D-Law Says 'Stay Tuned'

*        FRISCO, TEXAS –* This question was posed to me quite unexpectedly the other day:

         Do you think we'll see a repeat season from DeMarcus Lawrence? (14.5 sacks last year after 9 in his first three seasons combined.)

          Usually for these types of radio or Skype interviews the questions are pretty predictable. This one caught me by surprise. So my answer, judging from the pregnant pause immediately afterward, must have been deemed somewhat hollow:

         "Yeah, if he stays healthy."

         Now, for the record, "D-Law" recorded a career-high 14.5 sacks this past season, tying him for second in the NFL, just 2.5 sacks behind league-leader Chandler Jones of Arizona. And the inference, too, is accurate. Lawrence had just nine sacks over the first three years of his career.

         What changed?

         My guess is the question comes up since the Cowboys used the $17.1 million franchise tag to preserve his rights for 2018, and have until July 16 to pursue a lucrative and preferable long-term deal, one the defensive end doesn't seem all eaten up with receiving. He figures, hey, $17.1 million guaranteedis a pretty good payday when you consider over the first four years of his career he totaled $5.506 million as a second-round draft choice in 2014 out of Boise State.

         "I really don't care about that," Lawrence said the other day for about the umpteenth time of *having *to play 2018 under the franchise tag, which comes with no signing bonus and meaning you have to continue to work for your money on a 17-week basis. "I'm playing, so what does it matter?

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

         The question also arises out of limited insight into the career of Lawrence. You know, as I like to say, most want to drop numerical perceptions into a huge box and tie a bow over the top without taking the time or having the foresight of looking inside the numbers.

         Let me be at your service, politely diving into a darn good reason why D-Law went three seasons with just nine sacks and then emerged in his contract-drive season with a robust 14.5, supporting, albeit recklessly, that cliché assuming players play harder when a new contract is on the line.

         We'll start from the beginning, and you can decide.

         Barely a week into his rookie training camp in 2014, Lawrence suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal of the right foot on July 29. Surgery was required, and since he was projected to be out eight to 12 weeks, the Cowboys placed him on reserve/injured-return, meaning he was required to miss the first eight games of the season. Although he would later miss a ninth game that year, he began to show promise as a pass rusher, even though he did not record any regular-season sacks.

         Because in the Cowboys' two playoff games, Lawrence finished with two sacks, a tackle for a loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a QB pressure, to go with his six pressures from the regular season. Remember, he closed out the Detroit playoff victory that year with the sack/forced fumble/fumble recovery, demonstrating why the Cowboys used their third-round pick in 2014 to trade up from 15 to No. 2 in the second round to grab the much-desired pass rusher.

Then in 2015, healthy, Lawrence continued to show promise, leading the team with eight sacks, was second with 31 QB pressures and third with eight tackles for loss – just maybe the replacement for DeMarcus Ware had arrived.

But not so fast. Little did most know, Lawrence played through some back issues during that season, and by late January, he underwent microdiscectomy surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. There goes his offseason, having to spend the down time rehabbing. That was only the beginning of a tough 2016 for him.

Not only was he suspended on April 20 for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing drugs, but not long after his return his repaired disk began barking at him again. Lawrence didn't say much, as he took one for the team that season, managing to play through the pain and in just nine regular season games. The injured disk caused him to miss the final three of the regular season, but he felt obligated after missing the first four under suspension to give it his best in the playoff game against the Packers, no matter what. He finished with three tackles, one for a loss and three QB pressures in the loss.

A second back surgery on the same disk followed the conclusion of that season, one in which he recorded just one sack and was only able to start three games.

This time around the Cowboys became overly cautious with his rehab. Lawrence spent the entire offseason rehabbing, doing very little in OTAs and the minicamp. Thought was to have him ready for training camp, 2017. He was, but again, they slow-played his return during camp, making darn sure he was ready for the season.

Boy, was he ever, recording at least one sack in each of the first seven games, giving him 10.5 at the halfway point. The cat was out of the bag by then. Without much pressure coming from the other side, teams began doubling Lawrence and chipping him with a back or tight end, making sure he did not disrupt their offenses. The Cowboys began to counter by moving him around, left to right defensive end on certain downs.

While he would record only four sacks in the final half of the season, his 14.5 were the most by a Dallas player since Ware had 19.5 in 2011. In fact, the 14.5 were the most by a Cowboys player not named Ware since Hall of Famer Randy White had 16 back in 1978, when sacks were not considered an official NFL stat – meaning since 1982 when sacks became an official NFL stat, only Ware (three times) officially has recorded more sacks for the Cowboys in a single season. 

Thus, the genesis of my answer, stay healthy.

In fact, I went on to say that not only do I think he can duplicate his 2017 production, D-Law might even improve on that sack total – providing the right-side defensive ends do a respectable job at keeping offenses honest – because of this:

Do you realize this is the first offseason since the end of his rookie year that Lawrence hasn't been involved in rehabbing from the back surgeries in the Januarys of 2016 and 2017? My gosh, how much better might he be working on progressing instead of rehabbing?

"That's the best part of the offseason, being healthy," Lawrence said. "All thanks to God. That's the main thing, having a chance to (work on) elevating my game.

"It's a blessing."

Again, a blessing he hasn't enjoyed during the offseason since 2015 when he broke out with the eight sacks.

So again, stay healthy, and recall the real reason why he had just nine sacks in those first 32 games of his career that constituted only 16 starts, 13 of those coming in the eight-sack 2015 season.

See what I mean?

But when recalling the question presented to me that began this entire discussion, telling him my answer was "yes," he is capable of duplicating his 2017 season, his eyes widened, and Lawrence quite seriously said, "Don't need to say yes, just say, 'Stay tuned.'"

Shaking his head, emphatically repeating himself, "Stay tuned."

OK D-Law, got it.

Staying tuned.

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