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2019 Player analysis: Shaq Lawson, Buffalo Bills defensive end

Coming off the final year of his rookie contract, what’s the latest on Shaq Lawson

Shaq Lawson has been quite the dilemma in Buffalo. Brought in with high expectations, an injury derailed his rookie year. Initially drafted for the “vaunted” Rex Ryan defense, uncertainty about how he’d fit in with the new McDermott/Frazier scheme didn’t help things. Lawson has steadily improved and dismissed a lot of questions that plagued his early career. Has it been enough to convince the Buffalo Bills to try to work out a new contract?

Play 1

Fair warning, this is about as close to a highlight-reel style clip as I’m gonna give you. It wasn’t that long ago I asked you to take a look at the flaws in Lawson’s game through the lens of his best plays of the season. This time around, I’d like to look at the drastic improvements he’s made through the lens of fairly mundane plays.

For this play it’s straightforward what I’d like to show. Shaq Lawson needs to react to a few possibilities here and cycles through what’s happening quickly. He didn’t get the sack but it’s a safe bet he was remembered the rest of the game.

Play 2

Lawson is lined up just a hair outside the left tackle and it looks like that will be the block he’s facing. The entire Denver Broncos line moves left, which makes Lawson’s quick sidestep even more effective. Lawson’s move creates hesitation in both the tackle and the guard and allows him to shut down some possible lanes. It’s ultimately a pretty successful run, but Lawson did some work that’s easy to like.

Play 3

The initial double team makes it hard to skirt around the edge and, to be honest, I’m not sure Lawson was asked to anyway. Responsible for a couple potential gaps for the running back, Lawson puts himself in a good spot to account for them. As the running back flows out, Lawson changes tactics. When the quarterback gets ready to throw, Lawson reacts well to that too. It’s a fluid sequence that can’t be taken for granted.

Stats intermission

Thanks to the existence of a database that includes exact lineup details and average play results for each combination, I decided to do some digging. Before I show you what was unearthed, I will note that this exact database does things a bit different than more common ones. As a result, some variation is to be expected between what I have here and what some sites will report.

Specifically, what I wanted to examine was the average gain for passing and rushing plays when each of the three starting defensive ends were on the field. Caution should always be exercised with correlation-based analysis but, with a full season of data, these numbers are as valid as they’re gonna get.

Per the database used, the Buffalo Bills’ defense allowed 5.3 passing yards per play (similar to net yards per attempt reported elsewhere). For rushing plays, it was 4.2 yards per attempt.

  • For all snaps including Jerry Hughes, the Bills allowed 5.6 yards per pass and 4.9 yards per rush
  • With Trent Murphy on the field it was 5.4 yards per pass and 4.3 per rush
  • In formations that included Shaq Lawson, Buffalo averaged 4.5 yards per pass and 4.0 yards per rush

Play 4

With his eyes on the quarterback the entire time, Lawson still spots the cut block coming and avoids it. The intention of getting the defensive end to the ground to open up a passing lane doesn’t go according to plan as a result.

Play 5

The Buffalo Bills’ defensive line plays a lot of snaps somewhat conservatively. Shaq Lawson isn’t attempting to get in the backfield until the play is well underway. Asked to set the edge, he should be able to freely move left or right depending on how the play develops. The only thing to avoid is being held up by his opponents. The extended right arm and rotated body provide more than enough space to do exactly that. It’s a tiny thing that just so happens to be a major factor in his game.

Play 6

If there’s one thing I’d like to see Lawson keep working on it’s his finesse techniques. He has an adequate rip and can do some hand-fighting for sure. It’d be great to see more things like this on a regular basis though.


Since Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier have been in town, Shaq Lawson has been routinely, and publicly, asked to step up his game. Rather than balk at this critique, Lawson has gone to work. The willingness to be coached and responsiveness to the current coaching staff suggests some strong chemistry that can’t be ignored. Lawson is starter quality and has worked his butt off to improve every year. And for that alone he’s worth keeping around.

I usually try to steer clear of the money side of things but if you’ll allow me to approach the fringe of it, there are two scenarios that only make this decision easier in my opinion. Buffalo is hoping a younger player like Darryl Johnson Jr. will also improve, which could cut into snaps at defensive end, potentially impacting Lawson.

In the first scenario, Johnson doesn’t improve. The Bills can use the three-man rotation with Murphy and Hughes like they have been. It’s likely not their ideal line, but puts three starters on the field, all of whom get starter’s reps.

I’ve been banging the drum for the second scenario all season long. With Lorenzo Alexander retiring (best wishes Zo), it frees up cash and snaps at defensive end, defensive tackle on passing downs, and a handful of linebacker reps. Lawson has already been asked to sprinkle in some of these things and fared pretty well. There’s no reason I can think of that he couldn’t be successful as that Swiss Army Knife player.

With starter value as a defensive end on both sides AND the potential to fill the hybrid role the Bills seem to covet, Lawson should be a priority to retain.

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