The Cowboys had a cordial meeting with Lawrence's agent, David Canter, at the NFL scouting combine last week in Indianapolis and made an offer, but the two sides never took a deep dive into working out a long-term deal for the Pro Bowl defensive end.
As a result, Lawrence will count $17.143 million against the 2018 cap when free agency begins next week, a significant amount of space that makes a deal with right guard Zack Martin much more important and a deal with linebacker Anthony Hitchens that much more difficult.
The Cowboys and Canter will have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal for Lawrence. If they don't, Lawrence will play the season on the tag. The Cowboys made a similar move with Dez Bryant in 2015, tagging him before free agency and reaching a deal on a five-year, $70 million contract before the July deadline.
Many things can change between now and July, but the sense is that Lawrence will play the season on the tag.
"There are advantages that the franchise tag gives you," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said inside the team's luxury bus at the scouting combine on Saturday. "It creates some leverage to get a long-term deal done. You certainly have some ambiguity as a player when you have a one-year deal. You have it as a club, too, but you can read some tea leaves during that year. I'm satisfied at where the numbers are. Both Lawrence and the Cowboys are getting value here. I see it both ways. But it's an acceptable value for the Cowboys as well to be able to do a one-year deal."
Without question, the Cowboys' defense is better with Lawrence. He had a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2017. The coaches credited him with 52 quarterback pressures, a staggering figure not seen by a Cowboys pass-rusher since Hall of Famer Charles Haley was credited with 52 in 1994.
Lawrence's effectiveness goes to the running game, too. He had six tackles for loss, which was the most among the team's defensive linemen. The Cowboys allowed 3.88 yards per rush with Lawrence on the field in 2017 and 4.19 yards per rush without him.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli raved about Lawrence last season.
"He's a racing lizard out there," Marinelli said in December. "He's all over the place. Just concentrate on what we can control. His deal since he's been here is 'I am going to play hard.' He plays hard. ... That's why I just love the guy. There's nothing that slows this guy down."
But there are questions. In two of his four seasons, Lawrence recorded 22.5 sacks. In the other two, he recorded one.
Lawrence missed the first eight games of his career in 2014 with a broken foot. He missed the first four games of 2016 because of a suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. He needed two back surgeries in the offseason of 2016 and '17, though Jones has said that Lawrence's back is not a cause for long-term worry.
So why weren't they able to make a deal?
Lawrence appears to be everything the Cowboys want. He doesn't turn 26 until April. He is one of their own, drafted in the second round in 2014 and developed by their staff.
Clearly, it comes down to the cost. Two years ago, Olivier Vernon, another Canter client, signed a five-year deal worth on average of $17 million. Vernon had 29 sacks in his first four seasons with the Miami Dolphins and one double-digit-sack season. Lawrence has 23.5 career sacks in his first four seasons with the Cowboys, one double-digit-sack season and a Pro Bowl appearance.
Do the Cowboys want to see Lawrence prove himself once again?
In 2012, the Cowboys used their franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, who did not record more than six sacks in any of his first five seasons with the Cowboys and had 21 sacks in that span. They could not afford to lose Spencer but weren’t ready to commit to him long-term either. Spencer recorded a career-high 11 sacks in 2012, and the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him for a second season, earning him nearly $20 million over two seasons.
If Lawrence produces another double-digit-sack season without a long-term deal in place, then the price will go up. If the Cowboys wanted to tag him a second time in 2019, it could cost upwards of $20 million.
That could affect the Cowboys' future dealings with Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott, who can receive new deals for the first time after 2018. If Martin does not get an extension this offseason, then the Cowboys will face the possibility of losing either Martin or Lawrence in 2019 because a team can use the franchise tag on only one player.
Jones acknowledged the risk the Cowboys would take if Lawrence plays the season on the franchise tag.
The good news is they know they will have Lawrence for 2018 and maybe for 2019, but it seems that the clock has started on the chance of a long-lasting relationship.