As a former standout defensive end at Clemson, Shaq Lawson spoke with representatives of numerous teams during last week’s NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis.
He answered repeated questions from the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers about whether he would be comfortable playing as a stand-up outside linebacker in their 3-4 schemes. Yes, he told them, noting that at least half of the 12.5 sacks he had in his breakout junior season last year came while he was standing up before the snap.
Lawson didn’t have an answer for the team that, for some bizarre reason, asked him to name the fourth president of the United States (James Madison).
One Combine conversation, however, stood out above the rest. Not surprisingly, it was with Rex Ryan, whose larger-than-life persona tends to cast a shadow over his fellow head coaches.
But Ryan also has a very special place in his heart for Clemson, because his son, Seth, plays for the Tigers. He also has a crying need for a talented, pass-rushing defensive end, which is why the majority of draft analysts have the Bills selecting one with the 19th overall choice in April.
Some project Lawson as that pick. And you get the clear feeling that he would be ecstatic if the draft fell accordingly.
“Oh, man, me and Rex had a great conversation,” Lawson told me during an interview Tuesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I enjoyed talking with him. Nice coach. I was vibing with him when he was talking to me.
“It was just a great meeting. I finally get the chance to meet Rex Ryan. I always used to talk to his son about how his daddy was and stuff like that. But getting a chance to meet him … it was good getting to meet Rex Ryan.”
Judging from some of the buzz about Lawson at the Combine, the feeling was likely mutual. Teams heard about Lawson’s primary motivation for wanting to excel as a pro football player: his father dying from injuries suffered in an auto accident. They heard about the accountability and responsibility he said he developed while at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., which he attended to get his “grades right” so he’d be able to play football at Clemson.
Ryan had to especially love hearing all about Lawson’s patented inside spin move.
“I like it because it’s hard to stop,” Lawson said. “I like to bring power, but when (opposing offensive tackles) see that spin move come out, they’re shocked because they don’t believe I can really do it. I’ve been practicing that move all summer and when I first got to do it against (Notre Dame’s) Ronnie Stanley, I said, ‘It’s going to work.’”
Of course, it’s far from a lock that Lawson would be available at No. 19. In fact, after his impressive performance at the Combine, it could be argued that he might be selected several picks before the Bills’ current spot.
But it’s easy to see him fitting well into the Bills’ efforts to improve a defense that took a major backward step last season, Ryan’s first with the Bills.
“I feel like I’m the best D-end in this class,” Lawson said. “I feel like I played against the best (offensive tackles) all year and it shows on tape. So I feel like I’m the best D-end in the class.”
He did some of his best work against Stanley, widely considered the second-best tackle in the draft after Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil, and Alabama sophomore Cam Robinson, a likely high choice in 2017.
Lawson feels there’s a large segment of pundits that “sleep on” him. He thinks they doubt whether he has enough explosiveness to make a major impact in the NFL.
Perhaps that was true before the Combine. Now, the narrative seems to have changed dramatically. On Sunday, Lawson ran a 4.70-second 40-yard dash, which was fourth-best among defensive linemen and particularly impressive for someone who weighs 269 pounds. He also ran his 20-yard shuttle in an eye-opening 4.21 seconds.
It was that drill that did plenty to answer questions about whatever he might be lacking to succeed at the next level.
“I was happy about my performance,” Lawson said. “When I had to train for it, I took every day and got better. I (knew) what I wanted to do. I just wanted to show the teams how explosive I was and how (quick) I was.
“That’s what I really wanted to show people, that I was very explosive, and after I performed at the Combine, it just made me feel like I did what I needed to do. But I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I still want to have a successful Pro Day and get ready to find out where I’ll be at.”
Clemson’s Pro Day is scheduled for March 10. Lawson said he plans to do the 60-yard shuttle and position drills, allowing his Combine numbers to stand for themselves.
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was little,” Lawson said. “(As) a little boy, I used to watch the draft. So I just had to come out there and just give it my all, practice every day during training. Worked on my speed, worked on my 40 time. And everything just paid off when I was at the Combine.”
Including the chance to spend some time with Seth Ryan’s daddy.