Some first-round picks enter the NFL and catch lightning in a bottle, immediately fulfilling the promise of being such a high draft selection.
For others, they develop at different rates and it could take some time before they become a meaningful contributor. The latter was the case for Shaq Lawson, who had some difficult obstacles to overcome early in his NFL career.
The first challenge for Lawson was suffering a shoulder injury just weeks after the 2016 draft which required surgery and forced him to be sidelined for five months. Missing nearly all of the offseason and system install sessions is difficult for any player, let alone a rookie who was switching positions.
Among the many detrimental mistakes of Rex Ryan’s tenure in Buffalo was his failure to put his personnel in the best position to succeed. A prime example of that was converting Lawson to a 3-4 outside linebacker role when his skill set is clearly that of a base 4-3 defensive end. Nonetheless, Ryan insisted Buffalo become “fully pregnant” with his scheme which required more 3-4 looks and a position switch for Lawson where he was completely miscast.
Good news for Lawson, Ryan was only his coach for one season before Sean McDermott was hired to clean up the mess and use the Bills’ talent appropriately. This included a switch back to defensive end for Lawson who was still clearly finding his was during his sophomore season but demonstrated positive growth as the lightbulb started to come on.
In 2018, Lawson truly emerged as a run defender as he discovered the right playing weight for himself in the NFL and rewarded Buffalo with his best season yet. Despite the growth, Buffalo opted against picking up the fifth-year option on Lawson’s contract which opened the door for him to become a free agent after 2019.
Lawson used that decision as motivation and was the best version of himself in 2019 where he racked up a career-high 13 tackles for loss, 18 quarterback hits and 6 1/2 sacks. Keep in mind that production came in only 47 percent of the Bills defensive snaps because Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy were entrenched as the starters.
So what’s next for an ascending talent like Lawson who is just 25 years old and plays a premium position in the NFL? Let’s examine.
Where He Wins
While Lawson is a solid pass rusher that can win from the outside or interior, his best attribute is his run defense. His outstanding functional strength and polished hand usage enable him to control reps at the point of attack, disengage and finish. Lawson processes the run extremely well and plays through blocks. He’s reliable at setting the edge and makes sure he takes care of his contain responsibilities.
Lawson plays the game with a hot motor and outstanding urgency in pursuit. His power moves as a pass rusher are translatable to rushing through any gap.
Potential Red Flags
On the injury front, Lawson’s only significant problem was the shoulder injury in May before the start of his rookie season. He had an ankle injury that cost him some time in 2017 but nothing of great concern in the last two seasons.
While it could have more to do with the context surrounding his entry into the NFL and how that impacted the rate of his development, Lawson really never emerged until contract implications were at the highest of stakes. Whether that was playing his best ball in 2018 so the team would pick up his fifth-year option or the Lawson we observed in 2019 during a contract year, those were the times Lawson peaked.
While his playing time increased every year in Buffalo, Lawson never commanded an overly high percentage of the snaps. He played 22 percent of the snaps as a rookie, 29 percent in 2017, 43 percent in 2018 and 47 percent in 2019. Will the same hot motor player show up when he signs a lucrative new contract and is tasked with playing more than 60 percent of the snaps?
Spotrac estimates Lawson will receive an average salary of $7.6 million, referencing recent contacts for Henry Anderson, Robert Quinn and Matthew Ioannidis as comparable situations.
That projection is reasonable. Lawson isn’t going to command a payday for a lead pass rusher, but he is an outstanding option as a complementary piece that shines against the run.
Potential Landing Spots
There’s a good chance Lawson stays right in Buffalo. While McDermott purged nearly all of Ryan’s roster, Lawson stuck around for a coach that is extremely particular about who is part of his locker room. The Bills boast one of the NFL’s best defensive units but there are some question marks regarding its edge-rusher situation. Murphy and Hughes are aging and Murphy’s deal expires after the 2020 season with Hughes’ contract up after 2021. Lorenzo Alexander, who played an important pass-rushing role for the team, recently retired. Armed with a projected $80 million in available cap space, Lawson coming back to the Bills makes sense.
Matt Patricia came to Detroit because of his defensive prowess and his unit has struggled. Defensive end is a position that can use an upgrade and Lawson is a great fit. For a defense that wants heavy-handed defensive linemen than can compress the pocket and anchor against the run, Lawson is an ideal candidate. Lawson could step in opposite Trey Flowers to solidify the Lions’ defensive end duo and with a projected $45.9 million in available cap space, they have the ammunition to get a deal done.
All AFC North Teams
Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens offense carved up every defense it faced last regular season except the Bills and Lawson was a big reason why. His outstanding run defense and ability to contain, bottled up Jackson and limited the league’s best offense from 2019. While the teams within the division have varying degrees of cap space, Lawson’s performance from that game should make him a coveted option as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati look up at Baltimore as the division champs that boasted the best record in football.