Agent's Take: What Demarcus Lawrence's deal means for the next pass-rushers slated to get paid
With more than double the guarantee of Dee Ford's deal, Lawrence has reset the market for elite pass-rushers
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence joined Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack in the $20 million per year non-quarterback club with the Cowboys on a long-term deal over the weekend.
The Cowboys have signed Lawrence, who was designated as a franchise player for a second year in a row, to a five-year, $105 million contract, which averages $21 million per year. Lawrence's deal has $65 million in guarantees, of which $48 million was fully guaranteed at signing. A $25 million signing bonus is a part of Lawrence's guaranteed money.
The Cowboys clear nearly $9.5 million of 2019 salary cap room with Lawrence's long-term deal. Lawrence had been counting on Dallas' salary cap at his $20,571,600 franchise tender. His 2019 cap number is now $11.1 million.
The Cowboys made Lawrence an early offseason signing priority in hopes of avoiding another franchise tag being used on him. There was never going to be a deal until the Cowboys topped the five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million in guarantees and $40 million fully guaranteed at signing David Canter, Lawrence's agent, got Olivier Vernon from the Giants during 2016 free agency after factoring in salary cap inflation. Vernon's deal equates to just over $20.6 million per year with approximately $63.65 million of guarantees where almost $48.5 million is fully guaranteed at signing.
Pass rusher 2019 contract comparison
Lawrence becomes the second of the four edge rushers designated as franchise players, along with Dee Ford, to sign multi-year contracts. Trey Flowers, who benefited from the decreased competition on the open market, received the top edge rusher deal in free agency. The chart below compares their five-year deals in some key contract metrics.
|Name||Club||Contract guarantees||Fully guaranteed at signing||Signing bonus||3-Year cash||Average per year|
Ford, who received his deal after the Chiefs traded him to the 49ers for a 2020 second-round pick, clearly has an inferior contract in all aspects. Most importantly, Ford's guaranteed money pales in comparison to Flowers and Lawrence's. Just $33.4 million of Ford's guarantees have the capacity to become fully guaranteed because his $11.6 million salary guarantee in 2021 is only for injury.
Potential beneficiaries of Lawrence's deal
Lawrence's deal undoes any damage Dee Ford's may have to the market for highly productive pass rushers in line for new contracts, primarily Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Both were designated as franchise players.
The $20 million per year non-quarterback club could be expanding if either Clark or Clowney signs long term, or if Chiefs interior defensive lineman Chris Jones and Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, 2016 draft picks, don't play out their rookie contracts. The agents of the four players will likely view Lawrence's deal as the salary floor for their clients. At the very least, the four should be able to command contracts that are the average of the Flowers and Lawrence deals. These deals average $19.5 million per year with $60.5 million in guarantees and $44 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Clowney, who was named to the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive year in 2018, reportedly rejected an offer for a multi-year contract last preseason. He is expected to file a grievance to be classified as a defensive end since the NFL considers him a linebacker. For tag purposes, a player's position is determined by where he participated in the most plays during the prior season.
The defensive end designation is $17.128 million, while Clowney's tag is $15,967,200, which is 120 percent of his $13.306 million option year salary in 2018. The Texans paid Clowney $1 million more than the fifth-year option price for linebackers selected in the top 10 of the 2014 NFL Draft to resolve a dispute over his position designation.
Signing Clowney to a lucrative contract in the $20 million per year neighborhood may have unintended consequences for the Texans. If defensive end J.J. Watt has a mindset anything like a majority of the clients I represented as agent, paying Clowney substantially more than him will be problematic now that he has largely regained the form that made him a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner after being limited him to eight games over the 2016 and 2017 seasons due to injury. Watt earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2018 with 16 sacks, which were second most in the NFL. Clowney's nine sacks were second on the Texans.
The six-year, $100 million contract extension Watt received prior to the start of the 2014 season making him the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback upon signing has become outdated. Watt, who recently turned 30, is now a relative bargain for the Texans. He is scheduled to make $46 million over the remaining three years of his contract, which runs through the 2021 season.
Erik Burkhardt, Clark's agent, has made comments indicating he understands the value of pass rushers. He suggested during the 2018 season he would be comfortable with Clark playing on a franchise tag if he and Seahawks can't get on the same page financially. This thinking has apparently changed. Clark reportedly doesn't plan on signing his franchise tender or showing up to training camp without a new deal. His stance isn't unique to franchise players. Missing part or all of the preseason after the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long term passes is a fairly common occurrence for those receiving the designation. The tender eventually gets signed, with a notable exception of running back Le'Veon Bell last year with the Steelers.
There has been some speculation that Seattle might trade Clark rather than making him one of the NFL's highest-paid defensive players. Previous trades have left the Seahawks with only four picks in the upcoming draft. Seahawks general manager John Schneider would like to acquire more draft capital. A potential replacement for Clark could be found, since this year's draft is considered to have a deep pool of pass rushers. Seattle would probably want more than the second-round pick obtained by the Chiefs to trade Ford.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach revealed a couple of weeks ago at the NFL owners meeting that talks for a Jones extension have begun. Jones got the NFL's attention with his pass-rushing prowess last season. He was third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Jones set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games.
Jones' leverage has increased because of Kansas City's personnel decisions this offseason. He is Kansas City's only proven pass rusher remaining after Justin Houston's release and Ford's trade.
A premium is paid to players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks whether a defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker or interior defensive lineman. The Eagles signed All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to a six-year, $102.6 million extension containing $63.299 million of guarantees in 2016 which made him the NFL's second highest paid non-quarterback at $17.1 million per year until Von Miller re-signed with the Broncos. The Cox deal averages just over $20.725 million per year if adjusted to the 2019 salary cap environment.
Cox was coming off a 9.5 sack season where he had 77 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits), according to Pro Football Focus, when he got paid. Jones had six more sacks and three fewer pressures in 2018 than Cox that season. His 74 pressures were tied for fourth in the NFL last season.
Ari Nissim of Roc Nation Sports represents Ngakoue. He is a former long-time executive with the Jets who was responsible for negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap before switching to player representation in 2014. Expect Nissim to drive an extremely hard bargain for Ngakoue. Nissim dramatically changed a running back market that had been in steady decline by negotiating a four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically achievable salary escalators) for Todd Gurley with the Rams last July.
Ngakoue has developed into a pass-rushing force without much fan fare. His 134 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons are more than the edge rushers receiving 2019 franchise designations had during this span except Lawrence. Lawrence has 142 pressures since the start of the 2017 season.
Donald and Mack took pass rusher compensation to unprecedented heights with their contracts averaging $22.5 million and $23.5 million per year, respectively. Lawrence signing for $21 million per year means Donald and Mack's deals aren't market anomalies. With Lawrence being the latest data point for players that can consistently pressure quarterbacks, $20 million per year pass rushers are going to become a more common occurrence in the NFL over the next couple of years.
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