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Contract projection: Buffalo Bills free-agent defensive end Shaq Lawson

The former first-round pick is set to hit the market.

Shaq Lawson was a first-round pick of Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Rex Ryan four years ago. This past offseason, Buffalo declined the option to keep him for a fifth year, which would have meant a roughly $10 million contract for the 2020 season.

Was that a good move? In hindsight, probably yes.

Lawson balled out in his contract year, registering career highs with 6.5 sacks and 32 tackles. He played 47% of the team’s defensive snaps, another career high, even though he didn’t start any games rotating with Trent Murphy.

As a solid piece of Buffalo’s defensive line, Lawson should be in line for a new contract with the Bills, but how they are going to structure it is the key. Are they going to pay him as a starter and expect him to play two-thirds of the snaps or a rotational piece playing a 50-50 split?

A 25 year old entering his prime pass-rush years coming off a great season isn’t going to come cheap. Let’s jump into our contract projection.

Comparable player contracts

Henry Anderson
New York Jets
Three years, $25.2 million including $17 million guaranteed in 2019

This contract was signed a year ago when Anderson was similarly coming off his rookie deal. He was a part-time starter, playing 60% of the Jets’ snaps in 2018 and coming off a seven-sack year after just three total sacks in his first three seasons. Anderson was a little better against the run earlier in his career, but I think it’s fair to say they are pretty even now.

Trent Murphy
Buffalo Bills
Three years, $22.5 million including $10.375 mullion guaranteed in 2018

The other rotational piece at defensive end for the Bills, Murphy was originally signed because Lawson had underperformed. He was also expected to make a jump into the lead role—a leap he never achieved. Like Lawson, he peaked in his last season before the deal, notching nine sacks and playing 60% of the snaps for Washington. (He did have an ACL injury the following year before signing with Buffalo.)

Matt Ioannidis
Three years, $21.75 million including $14 million guaranteed in 2019

A fifth-round pick who played his way into the rotation, he played in just 43% of Washington’s snaps in 2018 but notched 7.5 sacks and 31 tackles—nearly identical numbers to Lawson. Washington banked on him being a player on his way up and he rewarded them with a good first year on the new contract.

DaQuan Jones
Tennessee Titans
Three years, $21 million including $14 million guaranteed in 2018

Jones was the Titans’ starter at defensive end by his second season and developed into a solid run defender at the end spot. He also contributed 3.5 sacks in his contract year before re-upping in Tennessee. With 102 tackles in the three years before his contract extension, he’s outpaced Lawson and been very healthy.

Contract projection

Three years
$26 million including $16 million guaranteed ($8 million fully)

It’s a step up from all four contracts. More guaranteed money than Murphy since Lawson isn’t coming off a serious injury. He’s younger than Anderson, so a bit more money. He has a lot more negotiating power than Ioannidis did at the time.

For structure, the Jets gave Anderson $4 million in signing bonus plus $4 million in a roster bonus then guaranteed his first year salary. Only $8 million was fully guaranteed, roughly the same as Murphy. Ioannidis had first-year salary and signing bonus plus his second year salary fully guaranteed.

For the Bills, this will work out. Instead of spending a major asset such as a first-round pick or guaranteeing money to an unknown commodity, they can plug in Lawson to keep their three-deep defensive end rotation and then have the flexibility to add another young player to the rotation to maybe take over for Jerry Hughes or Trent Murphy a year from now.

If it really works out for Buffalo, Lawson could end up playing 60% of the snaps, get up to nine sacks and a bunch more pressures, be stout in the run game, and bridge the gap when Murphy and Hughes eventually ride off into the sunset.

One more thing before we go. Buffalo may have been able to ink Lawson to a cheaper contract a year ago. I projected three years and $22 million last June.

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