Projecting DeMarcus Lawrence’s 2018 Sack Totals: Statistical Support for the Franchise Tag in 2018

Dallas Cowboy Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence had a career year in 2017 with 14.5 sacks. In response, Dallas applied the Franchise Tag to Lawrence, and his cap hit is 17.1 million dollars in 2018. For a salary cap strapped team the idea of negotiating a long-term deal for Lawrence had to be appealing as it would likely lower his cap number by 8-10 million depending on the structure, and would have allowed them more flexibility in free agency. However, from a purely statistical perspective it was prudent to stand pat and let Lawrence play the year out on the franchise tag because, despite his four years in the league, we simply do not know what type of player Dallas has in Lawrence.

There are equal reasons to be both skeptical and optimistic that Lawrence can maintain the dominating level of play he exhibited in 2017 going forward. Last year was not simply Lawrence’s best year, it was a statistical outlier. An anomaly that occurred during a contract year. By way of example, in Lawrence’s first 3 years in Dallas he combined for only 9 sacks in 32 games. That is one sack every 3.55 games played. Last year that number spiked to one sack for every 1.10 games played. This has to raise the specter that his play will tend toward his mean production and a more moderate 2018. Conversely, Lawrence only played in 66% of the available games in his first three years, his supporting cast on the defensive line improved last year, and he performed consistently all year. This supports the idea that while he may not play at the same level next year, last year’s performance is more representative of his abilities and any regression will be minimal in 2018 – 2019.

And those competing arguments are the exact horns of the dilemma Dallas faced this off season. There simply was not a sufficient sample size because of the 16 games Lawrence missed to make conclusions as to Lawrence’s play. Based on the available numbers, here are two charts with probabilities concerning the number of sacks the Cowboys can expect from Lawrence in 2018. The first shows the probability that Lawrence will have exactly “X” number of sacks:

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Based on the foregoing we can conclude that the most probable number of sacks for Lawrence next year is only 7 sacks. We can also conclude that there is a 64% chance that Lawrence has between 6 and 10 sacks in 2018. While that may sound promising, that percentage means there is a 56% chance that he has 6 sacks or less in three of the next six seasons.

This next chart shows the likelihood that Lawrence will have “X” number of sacks or more in 2018:

chart (6)

Based on the foregoing we know there is only a 43% chance that Lawrence has eight or more sacks in 2018. To put that number in perspective, that means there would be nearly a 77 percent chance that Lawrence had less than eight sacks in three of the next six seasons.

If Lawrence’s 2018 season conforms to the most likely probabilities expressed above, Dallas, and their fans, will be grateful to have the contract off their books and to negotiate a deal for significantly less than Lawrence would have commanded this year. If Lawrence’s 2018 season more closely approximates his 2017 campaign, then they can give him a long-term contract next year at a rate of 5-10% more than the one they could have offered him this year. In terms of the increased certainty another year of data will provide, the increase in cost is minimal when weighed against the possibility of over committing this year.

Dallas needs more data before committing to Lawrence long term.