On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Jon Machota published an insightful list of 10 Dallas Cowboys players who “need to step up most in 2021,” as their respective futures with the organization could hang in the balance.
To little surprise, the grouping mainly consisted of the team’s highest-paid (and/or under-achieving) players, beginning with Ezekiel Elliott — the richest running back in NFL history coming off a career-worst campaign.
“It’s difficult to imagine the Cowboys not having a good season if Elliott has a big year,” Machota wrote.
Checking in at No. 2, though, is not, as you might imagine, salary-cap burden Jaylon Smith or a tenuous starter like Connor Williams.
It’s star defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has combined for 11.5 sacks since inking a $105 million extension in 2019. If the Cowboys are to realize their ever-present championship aspirations, and Lawrence intends to provide a return on the massive investment, “that needs to change this year,” Machota states.
“He is Dallas’ most important defender, and the expectations should be high as he enters his eighth season,” he wrote. “Lawrence hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2018, his last year with double-digit sacks. That needs to change this year. Lawrence does so much more than just rush the passer. He’s a very good all-around player. But causing problems for quarterbacks is the area where the Cowboys need him to make the biggest impact in 2021. If Lawrence is back to getting 10-plus sacks along with 20-plus quarterback hits, that should only increase the opportunities for Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Damontae Kazee and Donovan Wilson to make plays on the back end. If the Cowboys get 2017 and 2018 Lawrence, this defense will get back to being, at the very least, middle of the pack. And with a loaded offense, that should be more than enough to be in position to make some noise in the playoffs.”
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Cowboys Opt Against D-Law Restructure
Heading into the offseason, with franchise QB Dak Prescott at that point still unsigned, Lawrence was considered a prime candidate to have his gargantuan deal restructured, freeing up precious space for the cap-strapped Cowboys.
That never came to pass. Instead, Dallas reworked the pacts of three offensive linemen — Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins — netting around $21 million that catalyzed Prescott’s record-setting agreement.
Lawrence is due to count $25 million against the cap in 2021, his age-29 campaign — up from a manageable $9.9 million last season. He’s slated to collect $17 million in base salary with an $8 million prorated bonus. A simple restructure of his contract, per OverTheCap.com, would have yielded $11,943,750 in immediate relief.
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Cowboys Urged to Add Ex-Pro Bowl DL
Per Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox, the Cowboys “should take a long look at” signing former New York Jets and Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, completing a months-long defensive rebuild under new coordinator Dan Quinn.
Richardson spent the last two seasons in Cleveland and emerged as a valuable piece in the Browns’ defensive line rotation. He played 74 percent of the defensive snaps last year and finished with 64 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and 22 quarterback pressures.
Not only could Richardson help boost Dallas’ front-line run defense, but he could also help generate pressure from the interior. For a team that was so bad against the run and only logged 31 sacks as a team, his addition could be huge.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL