The Buffalo Bills have a big decision to make with soon-to-be free agent Shaq Lawson. He was drafted by the previous general manager and coach to play a different role than he is currently, but he’s excelled under Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier.
As Lawson enters free agency, what do you think the team should do? We’ve laid out a bunch of possible scenarios. Read through the info and vote now.
(By Jeff Kantrowski)
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.
There are two scenarios that only make this decision easier in my opinion:
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.
(By Matt Warren)
$26 million including $16 million guaranteed ($8 million fully)
We used four comparable contracts to make this educated guess, but Lawson beats all of them. More guaranteed money than Trent Murphy since Lawson isn’t coming off a serious injury. He’s younger than Henry Anderson, so a bit more money. He has a lot more negotiating power than Matt Ioannidis did at the time he signed his contract.
For structure, the New York 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.
(By Matt Warren)
Darryl Johnson Jr., a 2019 seventh-round pick, proved he wasn’t ready for the next step in his career. In Buffalo’s defense, that would mean at least one-third of the snaps possibly up to 50%. He was wasn’t effective enough in the job to warrant that leap in playing time.
Mike Love was on injured reserve all year after suffering an injury during the preseason. He will come back but he appeared in just two games during the 2018 season, tallying fewer than 30% of the snaps and was outplayed by Johnson in the 2019 preseason. He could be ready to step into a complementary role, but he’d probably be better off as the fourth defensive end until he proves more.
Eddie Yarbrough, who was a Bills fan favorite and played on the team’s active roster in 2018, was poached off the practice squad at the end of the 2019 season. He’s not coming back.
Also on the roster was Jonathan Woodard, who signed futures deal after ending the season on Buffalo’s practice squad. A former seventh-round pick, he’s been released four times by three teams since then. He did spend a brief moment on the Miami Dolphins roster, nabbing one sack and a few tackles in six games in 2018.
If the Bills are going to let Lawson test free agency, they’ll need to keep Hughes and Murphy at two-thirds of the snaps and hope one or two of these young players can up their games. It’s a big ask, especially with Murphy’s play lacking for a big chunk of 2019.
Free Agent Replacement Options
If the Bills want to add a truly elite defensive end, they’ll have the opportunity to do so this offseason via the free-agent market. However, they’ll need to be ready to spend some serious cash if that’s the route they want to take in replacing Shaq Lawson.
Here’s the big fish in the pond. He’s played in 63 of a possible 64 regular-season games, notching 37.5 sacks, 42 tackles for loss, and 85 quarterback hits in his career. He knocked six passes down at the line of scrimmage this year, and he even returned an interception for a touchdown. He’s forced 14 fumbles, as well, adding to a phenomenal resume that’s sure to lead to a huge contract. If Buffalo wants Ngakoue to join the squad, they’ll need to be prepared to offer at least $90 million, perhaps even more, over a five- or six-year contract.
Another elite option, the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft has been hampered by injuries throughout his NFL career, as he’s only managed to play a full 16-game slate once in six seasons. He’s been less productive overall than Ngakoue, but he’ll probably command a similar salary thanks to his freakish athleticism and overall pedigree.
Don’t want to commit to a $100 million contract? Still looking for an elite talent who’s only 30 years old? Quinn is the man for you! The nine-year veteran had a resurgent season playing for the Dallas Cowboys this year, notching 11.5 sacks for his highest total since the 2014 season with the St. Louis Rams. If Quinn could replicate his “average” 16-game season (37 tackles, 10 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hits), it would be well worth a three-year deal in the $10-million-per-year range for his services.
Quietly, the man known as JPP had two solid years as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year, he had 8.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, and 16 quarterback hits, all while playing just over half (51.9%) of Tampa’s defensive snaps. While he’s never been a great run defender, if it’s pass rush you’re looking for, he’s always been elite in that category.
Inconsistency has plagued him for his whole career. Aside from his second year, where he totaled 15.5 sacks, Beasley’s production has been incredibly pedestrian. He has only 22 sacks in his four other NFL seasons combined.
Another savvy veteran, Bennett has remained very productive even into his 30s. Splitting his time between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, Bennett notched 6.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and 15 quarterback hits last season. If it’s short-term improvement that the team wants while its young pass rushers develop, they could do a lot worse than a player with 69.5 career sacks.
(By Andrew Griffin)
Even if the Bills keep Lawson, Buffalo could be in the market for a pass rusher to replace Trent Murphy or eventually Jerry Hughes.
Below are some options in the draft who may be able to offer just that:
Chase Young (Ohio State)
A.J. Epenesa (Iowa)
Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State)
Terrell Lewis (Alabama)
Julian Okwara (Notre Dame)
Curtis Weaver (Boise State)
Bradlee Anae (Utah)
Jabari Zuniga (Florida)
(By Bruce Nolan)
I would absolutely agree to signing Lawson 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.
Now it’s your turn to decide. There are a bunch of options available for you in the poll. Then hash it out in the comments.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to vote in the poll and you’re using a mobile device, you’ll need to click through to the site. Apple News and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) strips the poll from the page.
What should the Bills do with Shaq Lawson this offseason?
This poll is closed
Sign him to the projected contract to be the starting DE, keep Trent Murphy
Sign him to the projected contract to be the starting DE, release Trent Murphy saving $7 million
Let him go, keep roster as is heading into 2020
Let him go, sign a big-money free agent DE to replace him
Let him go, draft a top pick to replace him