Going Deep: DeProblem with DeMarcus Lawrence

Disclaimer: Every time I refer to DeMarcus Lawrence as playing badly in this piece, I’m referring exclusively to fantasy production, unless otherwise stated. He’s been plenty good in real life, it just hasn’t translated so far.

 

This week, while doing my weekly IDP rankings, I finally did what had to be done, and moved DeMarcus Lawrence well out of my Top 10. He did start the year as my #7 defensive lineman after all but  I finally reached a point where I can’t pretend there’s not something wrong here. The following is my dive into how bad Lawrence has been, looking for possible reasons WHY he’s been so bad, and trying to figure out what we should do with him the rest of the season.

 

Some Context

 

To understand how bad things are right now, we first need to understand how good they’ve been. The following table illustrates DeMarcus Lawrence’s finishes at DL in each of his NFL seasons with at least 12 games played, as well as his fantasy points per game.

 

DeMarcus Lawrence Fantasy Results

 

His career has been relatively short, but in the seasons he’s managed to play a full slate of games, he’s been rather good, particularly the last two seasons. So then, let’s see how he’s doing this year:

 

 

#42 at the position (#65 in FPPG) is not what you’re looking for from a guy drafted in the top ten at his position, and neither is 100.5 fantasy points (6.3 FPPG), his approximate season pace this year. For reference, the current top two at the position (Myles Garrett and Danielle Hunter) are just 14.9 and 15.8 points away from 100.5 already, respectively, and are well over doubling Lawrence’s per game production, despite being drafted in the same range at the position. For some further perspective on how poor of a start DeMarcus Lawrence is off to, I’ve assembled every single one of the top 10 drafted defensive linemen for each year back to 2015, and plotted them according to how to their points per game and games played through the first six weeks of the season: (Note: I’m aware this isn’t the prettiest scatter plot ever, and that I’m not the best ever at drawing perfect circles with a mouse. Please don’t let my terrible circles distract you from the actual information presented in the graphic. Also note that, because he didn’t play any of the first six weeks, 2018 Joey Bosa is not on the scatterplot).

 

 

Firstly, direct your attention to the blue circle. This circle has nothing to do with DeMarcus Lawrence and is instead Cameron Jordan and his 18 FPPG in 2017. It’s unrelated to the article, but I thought it was worth acknowledging by far the best six-week start by a defensive lineman over the last five years (only one other player, J.J. Watt in 2018, even managed to reach 16). The red circle is the one important to this article, and that’s because it’s DeMarcus Lawrence’s from this season. It’s the lowest in the span by a DL who had participated in 6 games, and only 4 players of the 49 player sample were worse in FPPG, albeit in fewer games (Carlos Dunlap with 5.6 in 2017, Ezekiel Ansah with 4.8 in 2016, Mario Williams with 5.5 in 2015, and Rob Ninkovich with 4.6, also in 2015). Of this same group, only nine other players total even fell under 7 FPPG, which itself is well under the group average of 10 (technically 9.98, but let’s be real, it doesn’t matter that much for these purposes). Originally, my plan was to use the data on how those nine players finished their seasons out, but the sample ended up being so laughably small, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to try and draw a real conclusion from it. Still, I made the table, so you guys get to look at it.

 

DL Drafted Top 10 to Average Fewer than 7 FPPG Week 1-6

 

Due to injuries to Watt, only six of these players even played after Week 6, and only two of them were able to get back to that 10 FPPG average from the last graphic. As previously stated though, this just isn’t a large enough group of players, nor a scientific enough method to really let it impact our hypotheses or conclusions on Lawrence. So, as we’ve established, Lawrence has been bad. Not unprecedentedly bad, but certainly in the minority of elite fantasy d-linemen who completely fell flat on their face out of the gate. So, the most important question to ask, is why?

 

What’s Going On?

 

Here’s what you all came for. Why is he so bad? We’re going to try and figure that out. To do that, we need to look at a lot of potential factors, starting with one of the easiest and simplest to examine: schedule. Using Rob Friedman (The IDP Guru)’s awesome tool that shows us how many points teams allow to each IDP position, we can look at how difficult Lawrence’s fantasy schedule has been, and compare it to other defensive linemen to see if this is why he’s playing so poorly.

So far this season, the Cowboys have played the Giants, Redskins, Dolphins, Saints, Packers and Jets as of this writing. These six teams rank 11th, 28th, 8th, 22nd, 21st, and 1st in fantasy points per game allowed to defensive ends, respectively. This works out to a trio of good matchups, and a trio of bad, and adding these ranks together and dividing them by the number of games played gives us 15.17, almost perfectly average. For context though, let’s compare it to the ACTUAL Top 20 defensive linemen in FPPG: (Note: I swear, not ever graphic will have a note. I only considered players who’ve appeared in all their teams’ games thus far, to avoid people being able to make the case that their strength of schedule is inflated or deflated by playing fewer games. Also, Lawrence has been added to the bottom for comparison).

 

Player Schedule Difficulty

 

Highlighted in green are all the players who are averaging more points than Lawrence per game, while also having a harder average positional schedule. Out of every single NFL defensive lineman to appear in all his teams’ games and average more FPPG than Lawrence, 23 out of 39 (59%) had a harder schedule, immediately scuttling the idea that Lawrence’s struggles come down to a hard schedule. Before moving onto the next point though, kudos to Texans DT D.J. Reader, who’s averaging a very healthy 8.1 FPPG, with an insane average strength of positional schedule of 24.83.

 

Sometimes, when you’re researching and trying to find a satisfying conclusion for a conundrum like this one, you overlook some of the easiest, simplest explanations and points, and I’m definitely guilty of this over the course of working on this piece. It wasn’t until I saw this graphic from @TheQuantEdge on Twitter that I realized something incredibly obvious, that I might have realized sooner if I had more opportunities to watch Cowboys games.

 

 

The original purpose of this graphic was to highlight how much of a positive impact Lawrence has on the Cowboys defense this season, despite the quiet box scores. However, what it actually made me realize is that DeMarcus Lawrence simply isn’t playing as much as he was. In 2018, he was on the field for 71.68% of the Cowboys’ snaps, versus just 62.66% in 2019. On its own, the figure doesn’t seem too alarming. The difference between 71.68% and 62.66% this season would be just 36 snaps so far, hardly enough to swing his season from a dud to what we’ve seen him do before. Why is he seeing the field less though? Perhaps answering that question would lead us to more answers, and whaddaya know, the answer is both simple and helps us out in other ways. Though his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired in the offseason, seems to be fine, he’s dealt with knee and heel issues as recently as Week 5, illustrating that Lawrence is faaaar from fully healthy right now. As Cowboys beat writer Michael Gehlken noted, “…it might be easier to list what isn’t hurting“. By applying this knowledge to other facts we already know, we can draw some very significant conclusions. First, while it not be by a lot, this season is the least we’ve seen DeMarcus Lawrence drop back into coverage or be deployed to stop the run. Between 2017 and 2018, Lawrence was used in a run-stopping or coverage capacity on 34.7% of his 1437 snaps taken. In 2019, that’s dropped to 32.8%, a pretty minuscule difference that’s largely the result of the first three weeks. In those three games, Lawrence was on the field for 124 snaps, just 27.4% of which were in coverage or run stopping. Compare that to the last two weeks, in which he’s gotten a very healthy 36.7% of his snaps in the aforementioned capacity. It’s unexpected then, that this increase in opportunity resulted in just two tackles. If he’s able to continue to get in on that many run/coverage snaps going forward, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to start posting respectable tackle numbers again, which would instantly boost his floor in a major way.

Tackles may be easiest to come by in run or pass defense, but tackles are only about 50-55% of his fantasy value. The next biggest portion though is sacks, which will almost always come on snaps where Lawrence is lined up as a pass rusher. In contrast to his run defense and coverage snaps, his pass-rush snaps have held firm, and he’s even been in on more this season. 67.2% of his 2019 snaps have been as a dedicated pass rusher, versus 65.8% and 64.8% in 2018 and 2017, respectively. Despite this though, he has just 3.0 sacks, a number he’d already reached by Week 3 of 2018, and Week 2 of 2017. I believe this is largely the result of Lawrence seeing an enormous amount of double teams, especially in comparison to years prior. While finding exact stats is tricky if you’re not an industry insider (especially because Football Outsider’s defensive line stats weren’t working while I wrote this), we do know one thing: DeMarcus Lawrence is the most double-teamed player in football right now, per Seth Walder of ESPN. This makes it more understandable why Lawrence’s sack numbers have dipped dramatically, as having multiple three hundred pound men trying to push you down understandably makes things difficult for anyone not named Toshinori Yagi or Aaron Donald. This also helps explain how Robert Quinn has played as incredibly as he has across the line from D-Law. Pro Football Focus has given Quinn a very good pass rush grade of 80.4 in his four games this season, though his performance as a run defender leaves much to be desired. Despite averaging a still solid .5 sacks per game (8.0 over a full 16) since 2015, Quinn has exploded onto the scene after his suspension with 5.0 sacks in four games, and a 12.3 FPPG mark which ranks 4th among all defensive linemen this season.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

 

So, there you go. Lawrence has plenty of reasons for his poor fantasy start. But, the important question for fantasy owners is whether or not it’s going to continue. The fact of the matter is, I don’t know. No one knows. Only Lawrence knows how much his injuries are affecting him, and perhaps they’re severe enough to hamper him considerably all year. Maybe Robert Quinn’s run of dominance will pull some attention away from Lawrence again, opening him up for more sack opportunities. Maybe his surprisingly low tackle production will positively regress back to the mean, but in a season as short of 16 games, it’s also entirely possible they don’t. It feels like a bit of a cop-out to end this article by essentially just saying I don’t know, but the fact is that with both strong points for a bounceback and points for him continuing to wallow, letting you draw your own conclusion feels the most appropriate. My personal opinion is that Lawrence is a strong buy-low candidate at the moment, who can likely be very cheaply acquired in a decent amount of IDP leagues. We know he’s been elite before, so I think it’s worth taking a (small, I’m not telling you to sell the farm here) risk to take on Lawrence, and potentially end up with one of the absolute kings of the DL position. Whatever you decide to do, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you for reading this far, and I hope the fantasy football gods smile on you all this season.


Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Nate Watt

Nate is a medical biller living in Spokane, WA. Interests include the Mariners, Seahawks, Hawaiian shirts, and putting off the unplayed games in his library to replay Earthbound again.

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