Dexter Lawrence Has Developed Into Special Player

Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

When the New York Giants made Dave Gettleman their new general manager, it came with some public criticism and joking. When Gettleman made Saquon Barkley his first selection in New York, it came with more public criticism and joking. When Gettleman made Daniel Jones the sixth overall pick and second-drafted quarterback that year, it came with a lot of public criticism and joking.

We might have been wrong about the Jones thing, in retrospect on the QB class as a whole. Some of the other stuff—like the value of a top-five pick on a running back or the trade-up for DeAndre Baker—feels pretty strong. One decision that Gettleman has unquestionably, undoubtedly won across his scrutinized tenure in New York? The decision to draft Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence with the 17th overall pick in 2019.

So Dave, here comes my mea culpa. Good on you for snagging another early-drafted defensive tackle. You got a special one.

Lawrence’s film was hilarious to watch over these last couple of days. His phone booth power doesn’t stand out just on his team, it stands out on a league level. Carrying 330 pounds well in a large frame, Lawrence is rarely displaced by doubles and is able to play multiple gaps by ragdolling offensive linemen and closing down space. Watch the first rep of this compilation of Lawrence against the Ravens. He holds his ground against a combo block and knocks the center into the running back, closing the space and hindering the back’s momentum. That’s the sort of stuff that doesn’t show up in a game log but matters so dearly to a functional run defense.

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Lawrence was dominant against average interior offensive linemen; against top offensive linemen, he won just as many as he lost. The consistency with which he explodes into contact, wins with his hands, and locks out rivals the top run-stopping defensive tackles in the league. That’s what allows him to make plays like these against Ali Marpet. He peeks to the initial gap the back pushes and then crosses face just as the back bounces to the other side. This is high-level two-gapping against one of the best guards in the league.

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This level of stopping power, coupled with a hot motor, leads to some of the legitimately hilarious reps. Lawrence is late to identify this trap block, which would leave most defensive tackles up the creek without a paddle. The quickness with which he’s able to drop his hips and the sheer stopping power not only to take on a full-speed Wes Schweitzer but then collision him back into the running lane, is not a play that you see from standard defensive tackles. This is unique and a testament to how deadly a force he is in the running game.

The primary question that faced Gettleman after Lawrence’s drafting wasn’t his run defending strength. That was assumed, predicted, expected—and the fact that he has exceeded all of those expectations and become a dominant nose tackle after three seasons? That’s what the Giants were praying for. It’s what allowed them to let Dalvin Tomlinson leave in free agency. But Tomlinson wasn’t much of an impact pass rusher, and last season, neither was Lawrence. He was taken off the field too often on long and late downs to have a measurable impact as a pass rusher.

But, with that said, there’s reason to be excited here. It’s always hard to assume small-sample efficacy projects to large-sample efficacy, but when Lawrence rushed against true pass sets—a filter established by PFF to filter out things like screens, rollouts, and play-action—he was stupid freakin’ good. His Pass Rush Productivity was 15th among interior rushers, just behind Leonard Williams, his remarkably high-paid teammate; his win percentage was seventh! Those are scary good numbers for a “two-down player.”

Get this: that power that shows up in run defense? Yeah, it rocks on passing downs, too.

Pocket pushing is important to a successful pass rush, especially on a team without elite outside rushers. By compromising pocket integrity and moving the quarterback’s set point, Lawrence creates sack opportunities for his fellow rushers and forces quarterbacks into difficult throws. This sort of player—especially if he’s aligned with another interior player like Williams, who isn’t a dominant run defender—is critical to the success of the Giants defense.

So maybe—just maybe!—Gettleman has a good eye for NFL talent. He does, really—always has. The valuation on his picks can be tricky, but there’s no doubt that Lawrence is one of the best young defensive tackles in the game. With an expected surge in production on passing downs now that Tomlinson is out of the rotation, Lawrence is going to exceed the expected value on a 17th overall pick that was, at the time, highly criticized. 

Whatever thrill there is for Vita Vea in Tampa Bay, there should be accompanying (though lesser!) hype for another young star nose tackle in Dexter Lawrence. Big ups, Dave Gettleman.