“Tell them you want them to explore a trade.”
This was the message agent David Canter texted to his frustrated client, DeMarcus Lawrence. The advice landed on Lawrence’s phone during a conference call Thursday with the Dallas Cowboys as the two sides continued what had been a largely unproductive negotiation.
Lawrence was speaking when his phone lit up. He paused. He didn’t ask about a trade.
It was at that moment his future was cemented. Lawrence was staying in Dallas.
Ultimately, Lawrence and the Cowboys agreed to a five-year contract worth $105 million, with a whopping $65 million guaranteed. Both sides walked away happy. Dallas has a premier pass-rusher. Lawrence has generational wealth. Canter has another mega-deal on his resumè and a satisfied client.
“I was and am still a little overwhelmingly excited that we got it done,” Canter said. “I couldn’t have been more pessimistic until last Thursday. We were never there structurally or on average per year, total guarantees, full guarantees. Not in the same realm. We were never close to getting a deal done in my mind until Thursday.”
Yet the story doesn’t end on that conference call. To get Lawrence signed, contentious moments at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis had to be overcome. There were trades explored and low-ball proposals, culminating in a whirlwind of emotions on Friday.
To understand how the deal got done, go back to the 2018 NFL Pro Bowl. It was there that the groundwork was laid for Lawrence and Canter to reach their number, starting with a franchise tag that was readily accepted.
That week in Orlando, Canter and Lawrence talked about what to expect. The longtime agent laid out the basic road map. Dallas wasn’t motivated to pay Lawrence after what had been a breakout campaign of 14.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys wanted to see it again. The right move for Lawrence was to sign the tag and guarantee himself $17 million for the 2018 season.
On March 4 of last year, Dallas sent over a proposal. It was declined. The following day, the Cowboys applied the franchise tag to Lawrence. It was signed later that afternoon.
From that point until the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, there were no talks of a long-term deal. In the days leading up to the event, Canter and the Cowboys began to have preliminary conversations. Proposals on both sides were drawn up and sent.
The first one that crossed Canter’s desk set the tone moving forward, leaving both he and his agency’s (DEC) Director of Football Analytics and Contract Research Brian McIntyre wondering if the offer was real.
While specifics were not given on its terms, Lawrence was offered less than the five-year, $85 million contract signed by fellow defensive end and Canter client, Olivier Vernon. That’s a deal that was done three years ago, an eternity in terms of contracts and free agency. While more offers were lobbed back and forth, the result was the same. A stalemate.
“The first offer which is always the worst, but it was tremendously low,” Canter remembered.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Welcome to Indianapolis
The two sides hoped the gap could be closed at the NFL Combine, the league’s annual business convention. Canter arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Feb. 27 and did what he always does: Booked a table at Prime 47.
For the balance of the week, Canter sat down at 9 p.m. and stayed until 4 a.m., holding court and talking shop. The idea is to gather information, talk about clients and have a good time.
On Thursday night, Canter and the Cowboys’ brass talked at Dallas’ table. The conversation immediately went south. By Friday morning before the start of the NFL Players Association meeting for agents, Canter openly talked to reporters about his pessimism over the chances of getting a deal done.
“It was real bad, real fast. It wasn’t the normal we love you, we’re going to get it done,” Canter said. “It was contentious. … When we got on the bus with our first face-to-face with (Cowboys CEO) Stephen (Jones), there were definitely thoughts in my mind that we would miss May, June, July and August before coming in the Saturday before the regular season and then going to free agency.”
On March 7, Canter and McIntyre sent the Cowboys a six-year proposal. Nothing.
Days later, McIntyre and Canter talked and then told Lawrence to wait and see what the marketplace looked like in the upcoming free agency period. Days later, when Trey Flowers agreed to five years and $90 million with the Detroit Lions, Lawrence’s value was more defined.
While Flowers is younger and a Super Bowl champion, he has never enjoyed a season of double-digit sacks. With Aaron Donald ($22.5 million) or Khalil Mack ($23.5 million) setting the ceiling for edge rushers, Canter now had a framework.
A week later, Canter put together another six-year deal at $22 million per year. The offer drove a chasm between him and the organization, with the Cowboys believing the contract was too steep.
In the ensuing weeks, Canter began to explore trade possibilities. Two teams entered the fray, with interest being described as tepid for one and significant for the other. Multiple conversations were had by Lawrence’s team and the potential suitors, both on contract value and structure should a deal be reached.
However, Canter didn’t push Lawrence on the trade idea. At least not yet. He wanted to be prepared. Acting was up to his client.
“I don’t work for me, or Jerry or Stephen, I work for DeMarcus Lawrence,” Canter said. “He’s my boss. … I had a lot of conversations with my client and his family, his wife Sasha, and what they wanted, what their visions were.”
Among the topics broached in those talks included state tax, potential player movement around the league, free agency and the upcoming draft. There was also a discussion about Lawrence’s injuries, which have led to four surgeries and an upcoming fifth to clean up his shoulder.
Throughout those conversations, one thing was clear: Lawrence wanted to remain in Dallas if at all possible.
At the owner’s meetings in late March in Phoenix, the divide grew. Dallas squashed any idea of a trade, wanting to retain Lawrence for 2019 and hopefully beyond. Additionally, talk began spreading about Lawrence wanting more than Mack received in his extension from the Chicago Bears. The Athletic wrote a story saying Lawrence’s asking price was too high.
Canter prepared Lawrence for these moments, dating back to the 2018 season. Throughout the negotiations, Canter would end text threads with both the player and his family the same way:
“We will win.”
While the stalemate continued on, Cowboys general counsel, Jason Cohen, stepped in. Although talks appeared dead multiple times, it was Cohen who backchanneled with Canter, working on solutions to the issues. Through his work, the Cowboys altered their offer from six years to five without reducing guaranteed money. Still, the details of the contract were significantly awry.
On Lawrence’s side, the frustration grew as his value wasn’t being shown in Dallas’ proposals.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The day of reckoning
On Monday, April 1, Canter was on the move. First, a trip to Utah for a pro day. The following morning had him in Boise, Idaho for another showcase. By pure coincidence, Lawrence was also in Boise where he had collegiately starred for the Broncos.
On Tuesday, the duo sat down for breakfast at The Grove Hotel. They talked about their next steps. At this juncture, Lawrence and the Cowboys remained tens of million apart. The time had come to set up a conference call with Dallas in hopes of making serious progress.
“As much as the fans root for the star on the helmet and the jerseys, this is business, and the Cowboys are the best in the NFL at business,” Canter said. “I’m not negotiating against a general manager or an employee, I’m negotiating against the owner.”
On Wednesday, Canter flew home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and set the call for Thursday.
The discussion lasted approximately 30 minutes. Lawrence said his piece, followed by Jones. The tenor was professional yet friendly, although the numbers continued to be apart. This was when Canter texted Lawrence, telling him to ask for a trade. Lawrence balked. It was clear to Canter that his client still wanted to be in Dallas.
Canter pivoted. It had become clear the Cowboys were never going to a sixth year at his price. It was also evident that the guaranteed money would be paid out after three seasons, protecting the team from potentially injury-plagued years in Lawrence’s 30s.
After the call, Canter and Jones kept talking. Three proposals were exchanged, two by Lawrence’s team and one from Dallas. By nightfall, a deal by week’s end looked imminent.
Canter went to bed at midnight. He fell asleep at 2 a.m. After 45 minutes of sleep, he awoke and prepared for another day of negotiating.
“Friday was and remains one of the weirdest days I’ve ever had in my industry, dating back 23 years,” Canter said. “We went backwards fast.”
The day of chaos … and a deal
Less than 24 hours after a pact seemed certain, everything went sideways.
Canter and Jones couldn’t quite agree on overall value and guarantees, setting off a chain of events that led to Lawrence’s side believing hope of a deal was dead. While talk of a potential deal was dominating NFL Network, Canter believed Lawrence was headed for a protracted holdout that wouldn’t end until the eve of Week 1.
At 3:45 ET, Canter phoned Lawrence. The two-time Pro Bowler, training with his wife in California, couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Lawrence asked if the deal was dead. Canter replied yes.
One last-ditch effort. Canter texted Jones, imploring him to keep negotiating with the positive momentum from a day before still fresh in the men’s minds. No answer. Canter called Jones. No answer. Fifteen minutes later, Canter’s phone rang. It was Jones.
“He was honest and blunt,” Canter said. “He told me where he would go, and he said if I go there we’re done, no games. We’re done.”
The value charts McIntyre had tirelessly worked on said Lawrence should be paid $50 million over the first two years and $66 million over the initial three years of the contract. Jones’ final offer checked in at $48 million through 2020 and $65 million through 2021.
For Lawrence, it’s the most cash for a non-quarterback in NFL history in the first year, and the most through the first four years of a contract. The deal also ranks first in average guaranteed money for a non-quarterback on a multi-year deal. In the end, going to five years helped all parties. The Cowboys can get out after three seasons. Lawrence gets more money up front.
“The one thing I hope people get out of this is the Cowboys really stepped up,” Canter explained. “We got $65 million guaranteed on a five-year deal. In order for Von Miller to do his deal, and he didn’t come close to our fully guaranteed money, he had to do six. And Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald had to do (seven-year deals).”
Lawrence’s deal was more than a year in the making. Charts, research, negotiations and restraint all played roles in making it happen.
Yet, in the end, it was Lawrence’s desire to stay in Dallas that made all the difference. He had won.