Defensive end Shaq Lawson was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 19th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Big expectations were immediately tempered when Lawson was placed on the physically unable to perform list before the preseason could even begin. Playing in 10 games his rookie year (starting only one), his underwhelming stat line of two sacks and 13 tackles was rationalized due to injury. Last year, under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Lawson appeared in 11 games and started 10 before being sidelined with another injury. While 4 sacks and 33 combined tackles was much better, it was still disappointing.
Enter 2018, and Shaq Lawson is drawing rave reviews from OTAs for his work ethic and offseason preparation. Frazier spoke glowingly on Lawson’s attitude this year, with similar sentiments of a changed man echoed by Lawson himself. Lawson seems set to prove himself this season. With head coach Sean McDermott hinting that it’s time he did, Lawson will seek to avoid the label of “bust” in his third year. What does his 2017 season indicate we should be looking for?
Shaq Lawson is often credited with setting the edge well and playing in run support. These are the kind of plays that highlight why he deserves that credit. Lawson is up against Greg Olsen and he wins pretty quickly here. He sheds his block cleanly and with excellent anticipation when the play comes his way. It should be noted that this represents his ceiling, and is not the typical result of his one-on-one matchups. Lawson found himself against one-on-ones for most of the season, with many against tight ends. He struggled to use his power effectively on a consistent basis.
Lawson wasn’t as effective in run support as is often believed if statistics are any indication. Lawson played around 60-70% of the time in the eleven games he appeared in and is a major contributor in the chart below (around 40% of the total defensive snaps on the season). For rushing defense to the offensive right side (Lawson’s side), the Bills performed significantly worse than on the offensive left side (Jerry Hughes’ side). The average gain on runs to either end is a full yard of difference between right and left. Lawson’s injury impacts the amount of influence he had on bulk statistics such as this one, but the data supports the tape in this case. As we discuss some weaknesses in the next few gifs, it’ll provide some likely reasons for his inconsistency across the board.
It turns out that examining his four sacks on the year will tell you nearly everything you’d want to know about Shaq Lawson. Here he is taking down Cam Newton. Kind of. Lawson is credited for this one, but it’s Ryan Davis that likely ought to be. Kyle Williams and Cedric Thornton occupy the offensive line well enough for Preston Brown to shoot in and cause Newton to start scrambling. Davis comes off the back end and finishes it off. Lawson is met by a rare double team here and is rapidly overpowered. It actually works to his advantage on this play, as neither of his opponents engage and keep him from moving back toward the play. Lawson is deceptively quick once he starts moving, and to give full credit here, he displays very good change of direction to wrap Cam Newton’s ankles. Lawson does contribute, but the sack would have happened without him.
Similar to above, Lawson is double-teamed. The extra attention to Lawson frees up Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes to flush Trevor Siemian out of the pocket. Lawson has recovered at this point and gives chase, showing his speed again. Because he’s the one pursuing the quarterback, the sack is logged to his name. However, it’s Preston Brown and his on-field intelligence that makes the play. Brown nudges C.J. Anderson just enough to alter his path. Siemian steps out to avoid being tackled by his own teammate. As above, it’s not that Lawson doesn’t deserve any credit, but the stat sheet doesn’t capture the circumstances of this sack well at all.
This is all due to two things: Shaq’s speed once he starts moving and a decent bend around the edge. Jeff Cumberland gives a half-hearted chip and Lawson takes full advantage. He shows great instinct in knowing he won’t make the tackle and puts his hand on the ball instead. This was officially recorded as a fumble, which gave Lawson his third sack of the season. The bend and change of direction are pretty impressive here as he ends up in front of Philip Rivers without hitting him for an unneeded penalty.
This is a pretty standard play for Lawson. Lined up one on one, he struggles to beat his man. Note in this play and all the others that he’s not doing a lot of hand fighting. He could likely make huge gains this year by adding more of that to his arsenal. This sack can be chalked up as a coverage one. Jerry Hughes has the most success initially, but Nate Solder shows off why the Patriots are going to miss him (not that I personally mind he went to the New York Giants). Hughes eventually startles Tom Brady enough to make him move, and Adolphus Washington is there to intimidate him into falling. Shaq Lawson happens to be the one that touches Brady down. Yet again, it’s not that Lawson shouldn’t receive some credit, but the play goes down mostly as a result of his teammates.
Play 5 (again)
This is the other angle from the last play to show the single biggest thing he should seek to improve on to make an impact in 2018. The first stop of many is to highlight the first frame in which the center moves the ball. Defensive lineman can’t move until it does, and need to react quickly once it begins. The next pause is to show that Kyle Williams is the first to go after the snap. Just in case you’re wondering...it took him about 250 milliseconds from seeing the ball move to starting his own movement. Almost immediately after, the rest of the defensive line bursts into action, too. Except for Lawson. He needs another 200 milliseconds or so after Kyle starts moving. The rest of the stops highlight how much difference this makes. While Shaq is still at the line of scrimmage, the rest of his teammates are all roughly two yards deep. Hopefully this is more than wishful thinking on my part, but to me it looks like Lawson is watching the man across from him and begins his movement on that cue. If he can be taught to play off the ball more consistently, it should drastically improve his game.
There’s enough to love about Shaq Lawson that it makes his weaknesses all the more frustrating. Though inconsistent, his power is more than adequate for the position. He shows off speed, but his poor reaction time puts him in catch-up mode before he can start going. It’s hard to find a player with a higher motor and work ethic than Lawson. But, offensive coordinators were able to handle him effectively, negating his high motor with one-on-ones almost all season. This hurt more than just Lawson, as Hughes and Williams saw lines heavily skewed to their side.
By all accounts, this is Lawson’s final audition. If he can improve his hand-fighting technique and reaction time, he has the tools to make it a successful one.