If the Cowboys are not able to secure a long-term deal with Lawrence by March 6, they will place the franchise tag on their Pro Bowl defensive end, and it will cost them roughly $17.5 million in salary-cap space.
"Our first goal is to sign him to a long-term deal,” executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters last month at the Senior Bowl. "To me, the only reason you use a franchise tag is to hopefully protect yourself if you can't get a long-term deal signed that you like. That's normally the route we like to go. Certainly, we're going to roll up our sleeves and see if we can do something with DeMarcus without having a franchise tag."
The Cowboys have used the franchise tag five times on four players. The first was left tackle Flozell Adams in 2002. In 2008, they used it on safety Ken Hamlin. In 2012 and 2013, they used it on outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. In 2015, they used it on wide receiver Dez Bryant.
In 2015, they signed Bryant to a five-year, $70 million deal that included a $20 million signing bonus and $45 million guaranteed. In 2008, they signed Hamlin to a six-year, $39 million deal that included a $9 million signing bonus and $15 million guaranteed.
If the Cowboys want to get a deal done with Lawrence before the franchise-tag deadline, they will have to work quickly with Lawrence’s agent, David Canter. If they place the tag on Lawrence, they will have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal. If they don’t, Lawrence will play the season on the tag.
Deadlines can lead to deals, and the Cowboys will meet with Canter at the NFL scouting combine next week in Indianapolis, but the sides have yet to exchange any proposals. Jones likes to say that if both sides want to get a deal done, it can happen in hours.
The Cowboys went down to the wire when they signed Bryant in 2015 and Hamlin in 2008 in July of those years.
The Cowboys and Canter might not have to look very far in the framework of a long-term deal. In 2016, Canter negotiated a five-year, $85 million deal for client Olivier Vernon with the New York Giants that included a $20 million signing bonus and $52.5 million guaranteed.
Like Lawrence, Vernon had one double-digit-sack season in his first four with the Miami Dolphins and never played in a Pro Bowl, but the open market led to a big contract. The Dolphins initially placed the transition tag on Vernon but rescinded it and allowed him to test the market. As a result, he cashed in.
The Cowboys will not let Lawrence see the market. Not after a 14.5-sack season where he was their best defensive player and finally played to the potential that motivated the Cowboys to move up in the second round of the 2014 draft to select him.
The Cowboys might deem the Vernon contract too high. Another New York defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul, signed a four-year deal last year that included a $20 million signing bonus and $40 million guaranteed. His deal averaged $15.5 million.
Pierre-Paul was able to return from a serious injury to his hand as a result of a fireworks accident in 2015. Lawrence’s health has been an issue as well. He needed back surgeries in successive offseasons. After leading the Cowboys with eight sacks in 2015, he underwent his first discectomy. He had just one sack in 2016, missed three games due to injury and probably should have missed more, but he wanted to fight through the pain.
He had a second surgery after the 2016 season and was able to play in every game in 2017 and have a breakout season when it mattered most to him. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said the back surgeries are not a concern for the Cowboys.
Lawrence turns 26 in April. With the franchise tag or with a long-term deal, he will be rewarded financially. It could take two weeks, or it could take four months.
Either way, he will be a Cowboy for at least 2018.