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What should Buffalo Bills do with DE Shaq Lawson and fifth-year option?

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Bills face dilemma: pick up 5th year option, trade, or extend the edge rusher

When the Buffalo Bills selected Shaq Lawson out of Clemson with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the team expected Lawson to provide the Bills with a valuable edge rusher.

Through his first two seasons, Lawson failed to live up to those lofty expectations, even being labeled a bust by many in the media. It didn’t help Lawson’s case that he missed 11 games due to injuries during the 2016 and 2017 season. Then, in 2018, Lawson finally started to play like the edge rusher the Bills believe they drafted out of Clemson.

Splitting time with 2018 free-agent signee Trent Murphy, Lawson enjoyed the best year of his young NFL career. (Lawson has admitted the Murphy signing served as a wake-up call.) Both he and Murphy played 43.3 percent of the defensive snaps, and Lawson responded with a career-high four sacks to go with 30 tackles, 11 quarterback hits, six deflected passes, and two forced fumbles.

On the heels of his best season as a pro, the Bills are now faced with a difficult decision. Do they exercise Lawson’s fifth-year option, something the team hasn’t done with a fifth-year option since 2015 when it picked up cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s option.

Or should general manager Brandon Beane deal the emerging edge rusher for a second- or third-round pick rather than open up the checkbook and pick up his option?

By exercising Lawson’s option, he would play the 2019 season under the terms of his original rookie contract, including a $3.27 million cap hit. The following season, in 2020, Lawson would receive a salary equivalent to the average of the Nos. 3-25 top salaries at defensive end in 2019.

If the Bills give Lawson the fifth year, his salary for the 2020 season would likely fall in the range of $10-$11 million. That is a large chunk of change, but in today’s NFL, edge rushers who can get after the quarterback are worth their salaries, and Buffalo would be wise to keep Lawson on a defense that finished in the top five in 2018.

Another option to explore is trading Lawson and trying to recoup value before making an expensive decision on his future. There certainly would be interest in a 24-year-old edge rusher who is just entering the prime of his career. But unless the team can net enough in return (think at least a second-round draft pick), it doesn’t make sense to move on from Lawson and create a void on a team that has plenty of needs to fill on the other side of the ball.

Fellow edge rusher Jerry Hughes’s contract ends after this season, while Murphy didn’t provide much return on the team’s investment in 2018, making edge rusher a potential area of need moving forward.

If Buffalo is serious about retaining Lawson, a third option, one that could lock him into Western New York long-term, is to extend him to a team-friendly deal—think four years with an average annual salary between $11-13 million dollars and $25-$28 million in guaranteed money.

That kind of deal is comparable with the league’s next tier of edge rushers (think Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals, Everson Griffen of the Minnesota Vikings, Carlos Dunlap of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Nick Perry of the Green Bay Packers), would likely be enough to entice Lawson to stay in Buffalo, and would help keep an up-and-coming pass rusher in the fold for four more years at a relatively solid salary. But would the team make that kind of commitment to a player like Lawson, who was drafted by the old regime and has struggled to consistently put it all together on the field?

If you were Beane, how would you handle Lawson’s contract moving forward? Buffalo has until May 3rd to decide.