Defensive end Shaq Lawson enters his third year with the Buffalo Bills. This year will either be his coming out party, or his exit season as a Buffalo Bill.
The Bills drafted Lawson to bolster a pass rush that would replace Mario Williams. He was miscast in his first season as an outside backer under Rex Ryan. Now he’s in a familiar 4-3 defense, as a defensive end, the same scheme he played in Clemson.
Lawson fell to he Bills in the draft because most teams believed he required shoulder surgery. A surgery that ended up becoming a reality and cost Lawson most of his rookie season.
Now healthy, Lawson must come out in training camp and prove he’s the long-term defensive end. The Bills need an improved pass rush to get back into the playoffs, and Lawson must factor in to that formula. Not improving team sack production means that Lawson isn’t adding anything undrafted free agent Eddie Yarborough can add.
To start this process, Lawson is trying to capture that elite first step he used in college to become one of the top collegiate pass rushers. To do this, he is shedding weight. Lawson is hoping to be down roughly 15 pounds from his playing weight a year ago.
The loss in weight should not only make him faster, but hopefully more durable. It’s often said that the best ability is availability. For Lawson, to have missed 11 games over his first two seasons has been a setback to his NFL career. Getting on the field and staying in the defensive line rotation will be key for Lawson. A healthy offseason, and regular season will allow Lawson’s true ability to show.
Why is this a big deal? Lawson, who should have a significant leash as a first-round investment and a high-character player, faces the reality that he wasn’t selected by this current regime. Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley are gone. Stepping in is a GM and coach who have shown they are willing to trade big named players to assist in salary cap and build a new culture.
They also want to build an elite defensive line to set the tone for the rest of the defense. They aren’t waiting for Shaq Lawson to be healthy. The Bills added free agent Trent Murphy this offseason, who tallied nine sacks in 2016 as a member of the Washington Redskins. Murphy was paid a large free agent deal this spring, which signals that based on dollars alone, Lawson is already being relied upon less.
In 2019, both Jerry Hughes and Lawson will be on contract years. For the long-term, only one of them will get a larger pay-day after the 2019 season. With Lawson as the younger of the two, he has the edge over Hughes for the big contract, but he has to perform. To cut either of them this year would cost the Bills a little over $6 million in dead cap. However, they have the defensive line depth to justify such a move to free up cap in 2019.
Behind Lawson is the aforementioned Murphy, and Lorenzo Alexander and Eddie Yarborough. Time is not on the side of Lawson. If he doesn’t build on his solid OTAs during camp, the Bills can move him via trade to capitalize on his value. Lawson not only has to improve, but has to take playing time from the established veterans ahead of him.
History is on the side of Lawson. In his third season at Clemson he went from 3.5 sacks his sophomore season to 12.5 sacks his junior season. The key to improving his pass rush numbers will be availability, which he’s already working to address.
Lawson will have the benefit of a stronger defensive tackle group to provide more 1-on-1 matchups, but he needs to capitalize. Lawson will either be the first big internal contract of the McDermott/Beane era, or join the list of former first-round picks Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus as ex-Bills traded away to gain cap space and draft capital.