Cam Newton was unstoppable, untouchable, dabbing his way to a storybook season until... he wasn't.
The Denver Broncos, swiftly and savagely, ruined those plans. And they did it with two — not one — dangerous pass rushers in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. Von Miller rushed from one side and DeMarcus Ware stormed in from the other to rattle the league's MVP unlike any defense all season. They sacked Newton seven times and hit him 13 times through a devastating 24-10 Super Bowl triumph that reminded everyone defenses can still win championships.
Well, Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills, a defense that could've taken a Denver-like jump in 2015, had one pass rusher going full tilt last season in Jerry Hughes and not much else. Their plan? Start Shaq Lawson Day 1 opposite Hughes for a Miller/Ware effect.
Lawson, the 19th overall pick on Friday night, may be precisely the chess piece Buffalo needs to make offensive coordinators shudder. Too often last season, they weren't.
"I can bring anything to the table," Lawson said. "Whatever the team needs me to do, I am going to be able to do it."
At Clemson, true, Lawson was a one-man wrecking crew with 12.5 sacks, 25.5 tackles for loss and two-plus quarterback pressures in five different games. Lawson anchored a Tigers defense that nearly went undefeated. He works "speed to power" as a pass rusher, GM Doug Whaley explained, in that he'll burn an offensive tackle with speed and then mix it up with strength. In this draft, one certainly lacking in edge rushers, the Bills wasted almost no time in selecting Lawson.
Whaley made it seem like there was no debate at all. One look at Lawson's film and you see why.
Of course, there is one red flag.
An ESPN report suggested that Lawson may need right shoulder surgery after next season that could sideline him for 4-6 months, a report that Lawson and the Bills both denied. Further, one scout told the Journal Sentinel that "once you get (Lawson) you’ll probably have to sew him up." So that's the gamble. While it's something he's had since his freshman year, Lawson said it's not a problem. If he can stay healthy, the Bills might've found a player who can start Day 1 and inject life into a pass rush that had 21 sacks after 54 the year prior.
And those weapons were in short supply this spring.
"We never thought we'd even have a chance to sniff the guy," Whaley said. "So when it got there, we fielded a couple calls but we said it's not worth it. This guy immediately upgrades our defense."
Maybe Paxton Lynch is a franchise quarterback down the road... he ended up going 26th overall to the Denver Broncos.
Maybe Jarran Reed would've made Marcell Dareus even better and served as a versatile force along the defensive line... he's still on the board.
Maybe Robert Nkemdiche is a rare specimen... he went 30th to Arizona.
The Bills prioritized edge rusher above all. Replay Peyton Manning's wounded ducks through the postseason to understand why. Somehow, some way in a QB-driven NFL, the Broncos won a Super Bowl with a washed-up quarterback eeking his way through drives. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware took each others' games to a different level, forcing offenses to shift protections at their own peril. Chip Miller with a tight end, a fullback and Ware could still waste his man one on one. Leave Miller alone and Mike Remmers is suddenly on virtual roller skates.
So often last season, Buffalo's coaches lamented the fact that quarterbacks were getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds. Tough. That's the reality of quarterbacks today. You need edge rushers who can get there in 2.5 seconds.
While Manny Lawson may be the smartest player on Buffalo's defense, he's not such a explosive rusher. In 10 seasons, he has eclipsed five sacks just once. So Ryan didn't give him the green light to rush upfield as often as he now will with Shaq Lawson in a more traditional 3-4 alignment.
Edge rushers change games and the Bills sorely needed one.
In truth, Leonard Floyd might've been the preferred pick. While he only had 4.5 sacks last season, Floyd actually tested better than a slew of wide receivers at the NFL scouting combine and one source indicated that Rex Ryan was very high on Floyd, who went ninth overall to the Chicago Bears. Even Whaley misspoke at the podium in calling Lawson "Floyd."
Lawson it is. The Bills are taking a calculated risk that the shoulder will hold up.
And if it does? If he's the same player who blew up games in the ACC?
Then, this risk will pay off.
Turnovers. Sacks. Pressures. That's what changes games. Hustle and overall competitiveness might've been a problem with Mario Williams last season but it won't be with Lawson, as long as he's on the field.
"If I didn't have surgery my freshman year," Lawson said, "why would I need surgery now? I can still play ball."