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The impending Shaq Lawson / Lorenzo Alexander balancing act

The Bills’ first-round pick is ready to return, but that doesn’t mean he should supplant the league leader in sacks on the depth chart.

If all goes according to plan, BIlls’ first-round pick Shaq Lawson should be returning to the practice field today for the first time this season since the decision was made for him to undergo shoulder surgery early in the offseason.

While the pros and cons of that decision (as well as the pick itself) have been long debated, the debate might have gone a bit smoother if anybody realized what the man who was replacing him brought to the table.

Through seven games, Lorenzo Alexander has an NFL-leading eight sacks. Keep in mind that last year, Jerry Hughes and Mar Will (I’m writing half his name in honor of his continuing half-assed effort) led the team with five sacks. Alexander has recorded at least a half-sack in every game, and at least a full sack in all but one.

Now, with Lawson primed to return to the lineup at some point in the near future, how will Rex Ryan and the defensive staff manage the balance in playing time between the 33-year-old in the midst of an All-Pro season and the 22-year-old who hopes to have a few of them in his future?

To be clear, for the short term, his role is pretty well-defined. As Nick Veronica of The Buffalo News wrote yesterday, the coaching staff has indicated that Lawson “won’t be starting when he returns to games.” Rex did mention that Lawson will “have a chance to get in there and play” as a rotational sub for Alexander and Hughes, but will probably end up seeing a limited snap count early on. Those snaps will likely come from linebacker Brandon Spikes, the middle linebacker who rotated into an edge role against the 49ers but struggled in his 12 snaps. Lerentee McCray, the primary backup at the edge-rusher position, could see his playing time dialed back as well.

But what about the long-term outlook? Alexander is 33, and while he should stick around the team for a while, it’s not reasonable to expect him to keep up the same level of output for the next few seasons. As Richie Incognito has shown us this season, one year of top-tier playing isn’t a guarantee of more to come, especially on the other side of 30. Lawson needs as much playing time as possible, and the sooner he receives it, the better.

The ideal outcome (at least to me) is that things continue the way they have been, with Lawson becoming the primary backup to Alexander and Hughes, for the remainder of the season. Alexander returns in 2017, but unless he starts off the season on a tear, Lawson can slowly take over his spot on the depth chart, becoming a starter by the end of next season. Alexander can still produce in a limited role (and really, he has been in one of those this season, only playing in 64% of the team’s defensive snaps).

Of course, a sudden drop-off in production from Alexander should speed the process along. I’m not saying Lawson should go in the moment Alexander drops from the top spot on the sack charts, but if he hits an extended dry spell, it might be worth seeing if Lawson can give the team a boost this season.

If Lawson comes in and excels in his backup role, though, I don’t think that merits a change in the status quo. Alexander has completely earned the right to remain the starter, and until circumstances arise where he either shouldn’t or can’t continue in the role, he should absolutely be out there.

You would hope that would be the case, but let’s not forget that this franchise once sat the quarterback who led them to a 10-5 record for the playoffs because they wanted to go with the guy they traded the ninth overall pick for. I know that was ages ago, and nobody involved with that decision is around to make this decision, but until this team gives me reason to believe otherwise I’m always going to be wary of things like that.