The 2016 NFL Draft is almost here, and before we know it, the Buffalo Bills will be turning in their card with their first first-round pick in two years.
Historically, the Bills have drafted a player who visited them pre-draft with their first-round pick. Leading up to the draft, we'll be looking at key visitors for Buffalo, to see who makes sense for them at No. 19 overall.
We're looking over the first round edge rushers with connections to the Bills. In this report, we'll examine Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson.
Lawson grew up in Central, South Carolina. He was a two-sport athlete in high school, fielding Division I scholarship offers as a junior when the unthinkable happened: his parents were in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. His dad died, and his mom spent a long time recovering in the hospital. You can read Lawson's personal account of overcoming adversity on Bleacher Report. He committed to Clemson as a four-star recruit, but his freshman grades brought down his GPA too much, so he headed to Hargrave Military academy for a year of prep school. By the time he graduated and attended his first semester at Clemson, Lawson was on the honor roll.
As a freshman, Lawson played behind future Top 10 pick Vic Beasley on the depth chart, and he used that time to learn from the best and develop his game; as a part-time player, he accumulated 7.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in those two seasons. Lawson finally became a starter in his junior season, and his production skyrocketed, to the tune of 12.5 sacks and an astonishing 25.5 tackles for loss. He turns 22 years old in June.
Lawson stands 6'3" and weighs 270 pounds, with 32.75-inch arms. It's not an ideal build for either a defensive end or an outside linebacker, making him a bit of a 'tweener.
One of the biggest areas of dissonance in this year's draft class is the range of opinions on Lawson's athleticism. He's the only edge rusher in this class who qualifies for Justis Mosqueda's Force Players, a mathematical formula that uses athletic testing to set a threshold for effective NFL pass rushers. Per the official Combine measurements given to NFL teams, Lawson had a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, a 1.63-second 10-yard split, a 4.12-second short shuttle, and a 7.16-second three-cone drill. He also jumped 33 inches in the vertical leap and 10 feet in the broad jump. He's very comparable to Emmanuel Ogbah - perhaps a little less twitchy, but with more ability to bend.
Yet, for some reason, many analysts downplay Lawson's athleticism, saying that he's slow off the snap, or that he moves sluggishly in space. I chalk that up to a misunderstanding of Lawson's role in the defense. He was often responsible for run containment in Clemson's defense, and for reading offensive tackles when moving off the snap, rather than watching the ball to know when he moves. That technique (a tackle read, as opposed to a ball read) can make a player look slow off the ball. It happened last year with Randy Gregory's narrative. In this player's case, I definitely believe in the athleticism we've measured off the field.
Run defense and edge setting
I just brought up Lawson's run responsibilities, so how does he do in that job? Lawson is a challenge for plenty of offensive linemen, because he has excellent power in his hands and core. He plays with his feet under him, keeps his pads low, and collapses the edge with a bull rush. He's very solid taking on double teams (something that happened a lot this year), and if a runner tries to bounce a run outside, they're going to find themselves in trouble when he sheds his block and takes them down.
Pass rush talent and refinement
If you want to know what Lawson can do, you have to watch him versus Ronnie Stanley in the Notre Dame game. That game, especially the fourth quarter, is a master class of blocking and countering. At the end of the day, I think Lawson bested arguably the best pass protector in this draft class, and a likely Top 10 pick.
Lawson uses his strength as the main threat against an offensive lineman, but he has multiple moves he'll try. He can dip and rip around the edge, and while he's not super bendy, his arm is strong enough to win him a few of those battles. He has an inside swim technique, and a spin move that he uses as a counter. And of course, the speed-to-power bull rush is his forte.
The other thing I like about Lawson is that he has the balance and know-how to attack from a second style within the same play. Even if he doesn't win on his first attempt, he's good at maneuvering to earn a second chance. He's a high-motor player, pardon the scout-speak.
Fluidity in space
Much like Ogbah, Lawson has the type of build that isn't really suited for dropping back as a full-time outside linebacker. He would play as a defensive end for Buffalo, and make his occasional short drops into coverage, but he's not going to be as good as Jerry Hughes in this role, let alone as good as a true linebacker.
For a long time in this pre-draft run, Lawson has been considered a consensus Top 15 pick. Recently, his stock seems to have taken a slight dip. Some of it is related to a shoulder injury Lawson suffered and played through in his junior season. For more of it, teams are finding they prefer Leonard Floyd better, and some teams also reportedly like Lawson's teammate, Kevin Dodd, more for their edge-rushing needs.
If Lawson does drop to No. 19 overall, I think he should be the pick for this Bills team. They have an anemic pass rush, a dearth of edge-rusher talent, and a desire to keep the running defense intact. Lawson can be an 8-12 sack player opposite Hughes, and would be a force against the run. Outside of Joey Bosa, Lawson is the best edge defender available in this draft class. The Bills could select a defensive lineman or linebacker on day two, but Lawson is their best chance for improving the pass rush this year.