When the Buffalo Bills signed free agent Trent Murphy to a three-year, $22 million contract this offseason, it signaled that the Bills were not satisfied with their pass rush from a year ago, when the Bills ranked tied for 29th in the league with a mere 27 sacks.
Murphy’s arrival also was interpreted as a direct challenge to former first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson, who has so far underwhelmed in two seasons since being tabbed with the No. 19 overall pick out of Clemson in 2016.
If the first few days of training camp at St. John Fisher College are any indicator, the left defensive end position belongs to Murphy, who recorded nine sacks in 2016 before missing all of 2017 with a knee injury.
“Shaq was coming off an injury at the end of last season. We signed Trent, he was one of our big free agent acquisitions and we’re excited about watching him perform and seeing how he progresses,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told reporters prior to Sunday’s practice session. “[Our defensive end] rotation is fluid. Trent is our starter right now and he’s doing a really good job for us. We’re watching Shaq and he’s making progress, but we’ll see how things go. You want to always put the best 11 out there, but for the time being Trent is our number one at left end.”
Murphy appears to have the upper hand at left end, but his versatility is such that he can line up at either end position and still be a solid contributor.
During his breakthrough 2016 season, Murphy played 52 percent of his snaps on the right side, and 48. His sack totals were evenly split with 4.5 sacks on the left side, and 4.5 sacks from the right end position.
So far, Lawson has not demonstrated the edge rushing skills he displayed at Clemson, when he was a first-team All-American who led the country with 25.5 tackles for a loss during his junior season campaign, including 12.5 sacks, the fourth-highest single-season total in Clemson’s history.
Lawson knows the pressure is on to step up his productivity in 2018.
“Last year I had to fight for my spot to earn the right to start,” Lawson told Buffalo TV station WIVB Saturday. “This year I’m fighting for a spot trying to get it right. Each year, camp is the same for everybody. You have to earn the right to be here.”
When Lawson has been on the field and healthy — he missed six games his rookie season and the last six games, including the Wild Card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars — in 2017, he has shown flashes of his potential.
After posting only two sacks in 10 games in 2016 as an outside linebacker, Lawson transitioned back to defensive end and tied Jerry Hughes for the team lead in sacks with four, before an ankle injury ended his sophomore season in December.
During a group media availability with reporters Saturday, in the same sentence that McDermott heaped praise on Murphy, he seemed to challenge Lawson to “step up” his game this year.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, that he continues going forward what he started off with these first two days. He’s in a good place, looks like he’s in shape, and ready to go. Look, I’m not going to hide behind [the fact that] there’s a strong competition there between a few guys, including Trent Murphy, Shaq, and so it’s time for him to step up. I look forward to him doing that through training camp and on through the season,” McDermott said.
Murphy, who is working his way back from an ACL tear a year ago, was fully cleared medically before camp. Read more about Murphy in these profiles from The Athletic and The Buffalo News (but please note, both are behind paywalls).