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Cowboys, DeMarcus Lawrence set some sort of market for premium pass rushers

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NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys signed edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million contract according to reports on Friday afternoon. Lawrence was on his second franchise tag in as many years and reportedly awaiting a new deal before he’d commit to playing next season. That deal is now in place and it gives the Seattle Seahawks some idea perhaps of where to stand in negotiations with Frank Clark, who is on his first franchise tag.

Clark is set to make $17.1 million in 2019.

The key figure for Lawrence is $65 million in the first three years, the most of any non-QB in history, including a record $31.1 million in year one, $100,000 more than Khalil Mack.

Lawrence is about to turn 27 and he has 25 sacks over the last two seasons with 49 QB hits and 29 TFL. Clark is turning 26 in June and he has 22 sacks, 48 hits, and 20 TFL over the same period of time, but he has 32 sacks over the last three years, which is more than Lawrence, who experienced a troubled 2016 season that included only one sack over nine games.

The Cowboys opted to wait and give Lawrence a “prove it” year after his breakout 2017 campaign, and he proved it. That being said, there is no real “prove it.” There’s always a gamble. Lawrence is clearly a very talented pass rusher, but many football players have proven to be more valuable before their biggest contract was signed than after it. This same risk will be applied to Clark if and when he signs an extension with Seattle.

Clark and his agent have both implied that he is willing to play 2019 on the franchise tag and any “holdout” so far seems to go no further than him missing the most amount of time that he’s allotted until returning, just to make it as hard as possible on the Seahawks to not consider a long-term deal. However, they must also make considerations for Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and Jarran Reed, also all set to become free agents in 2020.

It might behoove the Seahawks to take care of Clark’s unknown 2020 future by instead extending Wilson and one of the other two defenders first, then waiting on Clark until next year and taking that risk. He’s perhaps the riskiest of the four to sign long term, not just because of his troubled past prior to the 2015 draft, but also because pass rushers are the highest-paid (in other words, often the most overpaid) players in the league. Trey Flowers now makes $18 million per season, while Dee Ford makes $17 million, same as Olivier Vernon.

The highest-paid pass rusher with a Super Bowl ring? Brandon Graham of the Eagles at $13.3 million, but that’s a deal he recently signed. Dante Fowler was a bust who was traded last season and he’s making $12 million next season.

Pass rushers are making so much money because teams are also fearful of not having pass rushers. Flowers has two Super Bowl rings. Graham played alongside Chris Long, Fletcher Cox, and Derek Barnett. The LA Rams feature Aaron Donald and Fowler. The Chiefs had Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones on the way to their AFC Championship game last season. These teams have also purged some pass rushers: Flowers, Ndamukong Suh, Jones and Houston, the Eagles with Michael Bennett. There’s a churn because of salary figures but also a desperation to have the next version of the affordable, valuable edge rusher.

Nobody can deny Clark’s talent, but they can make an argument against his value at $21 million per season. That’s why I think it would be best to wait, work on Wilson and either Wagner or Reed, then go into 2020 with potentially the peace of mind that you can franchise tag one and make an offer to the other, or pick up compensatory pick(s) as some compensation.

One piece of the puzzle is in — an elite edge rusher on a franchise tag has been re-signed. The Cowboys weren’t really hurt by giving Lawrence two tags in a row, I don’t think the Seahawks would be either with Clark.