Another day, another tough contract discussion for the Buffalo Bills. Earlier this week, you may have read my article on why I wouldn’t re-sign Jordan Phillips if I was the general manager for the Buffalo Bills. In short, I think he will get offered a contract on the open market that would be unwise for the Bills to match for both asset allocation and on-field reasons.
Today we tackle a different challenge: Shaq Lawson. Lawson came to the Bills as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft under the previous regime of Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan. Ryan envisioned him as a 3-4 outside linebacker and he was miscast from the start. Concerned whispers about Lawson’s shoulder ran rampant throughout the NFL community leading up to and on draft night, and although Whaley insisted team doctors had evaluated the shoulder and found it not only suitable to play but “nothing to worry about” during his rookie year, Lawson tweaked the injury during offseason workouts and had surgery in the summer, playing in ten games that season but recording only two sacks.
In 2017 and 2018, Shaq Lawson continued to show improvement in the 4-3 defense brought in by head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Lawson recorded his best season in 2019, tallying a career-high 6.5 sacks along with playing the run at a high level.
As usual with these decisions, the factors come down to the FINANCES and the FIELD.
Let’s start like we did in the Jordan Phillips discussion: Let’s predict the contract. As previously stated, I recognize that average salary per year (APY) is not the only way in which to measure contracts but, for the purposes of keeping this article under 5000 words, we will use it as a shorthand measurement.
When looking at 4-3 DE contracts, the top contracts in APY by millions are:
- DeMarcus Lawrence - $21
- Frank Clark - $20.8
- Trey Flowers - $18
- Cameron Jordan - $17.5
- Dee Ford - $17
- Olivier Vernon - $17
- Melvin Ingram - $16
- Calais Campbell - $15
- Everson Griffen - $14.5
- Danielle Hunter - $14.4
- Carlos Dunlap - $13.5
- Brandon Graham - $13.33
- Justin Houston - $11.5
- Jerry Hughes - $10.75
- Ezekiel Ansah - $9
- Jabaal Sheard - $8.5
- Nick Bosa - $8.39
- Robert Quinn - $8
- Clelin Ferrell - $7.84
- Myles Garrett - $7.6
- Trent Murphy - $7.5
- Solomon Thomas - $7.04
Where does Shaq Lawson fit on that list? Some of the defensive ends listed are on slotted rookie deals so, as before, they can’t be used to indicate market value for their position. This past June, we wrote a piece on what a potential Shaq Lawson contract extension could look like and arrived at three years and $22.15 million. After Lawson’s career year, I’d anticipate his market to be slightly higher than it was at the time of that writing, but given the statistically significant data of playing the same position in the same defense for three years, it may not cause the massive jump in market value the way that perhaps a breakout year from Jordan Phillips might.
Let’s say for the purposes of this example we arrive at a market contract of three years, $25 million with $11 million guaranteed. That is a contract that puts him between Jabaal Sheard (who I think is a comparable player) and Robert Quinn. I would absolutely agree to this deal were I Brandon Beane for the appropriate day...with one important caveat:
You have to release Trent Murphy.
Unlike the Star Lotulelei contract situation discussed in the Jordan Phillips article, the release of Trent Murphy saves the Bills over $7 million in cap space, which easily handles the overwhelmingly majority of the 2020 cap hit that a new contract for Shaq Lawson would entail. Due to the potential contract that Lawson could command, one could even look at this decision as a “Shaq or Trent” decision and, if that is the case, the choice should be an easy one based on the production of the two players during their respective times in Buffalo.
Murphy has not reached the heights the Bills were hoping he would when they signed him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract before the 2018 season. Giving out a THIRD $8m+ contract to the same position on the team is poor resource allocation and the Bills would enter the draft with it STILL being a need on the team. The re-signing of Lawson necessitates freeing up space in that area regardless of the perceived lack of cap crunch for the team in the 2020 season. The Bills having three 4-3 DEs on the list I provided above may not be appropriate for prudent roster-building, but signing Lawson to the outlined contract and then releasing Murphy gets you the superior player against the pass and the run at a slightly more expensive price while not over-allocating monetary resources to one position on the roster.
Shaq Lawson played very well in 2019 and it’s not a fluke. It was absolutely his career year, but the growth in Lawson has been evident from the 2017 to 2018 seasons and then again from 2018 to 2019. It doesn’t appear likely that he will break into a Pro Bowl-level talent after signing his second contract, but it also doesn’t appear likely he’ll regress to the level where buyers’ remorse comes into play for the franchise (assuming the contract outlined above is the bar we are using).
Lawson was the Bills’ best run-defending edge player in 2019 and his performance against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens this season could be used as a teaching tape on how to play on the edge against a mobile quarterback and a zone-read offense with moving parts that require both eye and foot discipline. Having Lawson, Hughes and a first-round rookie (the 22nd overall pick would likely get a four-year deal in the $3.12 million/year range) as the main three-man rotation at DE provides a markedly greater production level at only a slightly higher cost than the current rotation of Hughes/Lawson/Murphy and Lawson’s ability to play not only both sides in the 4-3 edge but also kick inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs helps alleviate the potential loss of Jordan Phillips AND the retirement of Lorenzo Alexander. If the first-round rookie has the potential to play off-ball at SAM in base defense for 10-15 snaps per game (K’Lavon Chaisson from LSU comes to mind), you end up with a highly effective and versatile front seven and Lawson being part of the team is a big part of that.
Shaq Lawson is an example of homegrown talent (albeit from the last regime) who has improved every year and responded to the challenge from the coaching staff and front office that they issued him publicly by not picking up his fifth-year rookie contract option. That decision by the front office means they’re forced to deal with this contract situation a year earlier than they absolutely had to, but if the contract terms are in the neighborhood of what I’ve outlined above, it’s a move I would absolutely make.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!
- All-22 Analysis: Shaq Lawson’s 2019 season shows solid play and room for improvement
- Contract projection for Shaq Lawson entering free agency
- In-house replacement options for Shaq Lawson are very green
- Elite-level defensive ends hitting the market could upgrade Bills pass rush
- 2020 NFL Draft has tiers of pass rushers
- Opinion: Why I would re-sign Shaq Lawson