The Bills have made their share of unconventional, ill-advised moves on draft night during their 16-year playoff drought. But this time, there were no surprises, no reaches, no attempts to outsmart the football masses.
On an opening night generally lacking for intrigue – save for the Laremy Tunsil pot smoking video – the Bills made the predictable and necessary pick, using the 19th overall pick on Shaq Lawson, a defensive end from Clemson.
Teams love to tell you how pleased they were that their first-round pick was still there when it came time to pick. This was no exception. Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said Lawson was “sticking out there like a sore thumb” and he never imagined they would have a chance at him.
But in this case, the happy talk rang true. Lawson was rated higher than 19th on most of the national mock drafts. Mel Kiper, the ESPN draft guru, ranked Lawson 12th and said he should have an immediate impact.
Lawson was a popular choice in the Buffalo draft room for a number of reasons. Coach Rex Ryan’s son, Seth, plays for Clemson, which lost in the NCAA title game. Rex slipped away to see the Tigers on occasion last season. Ryan wore a Clemson helmet to a Bills press conference last year.
Of course, Ryan desperately needed help for a defense that badly underachieved last season in his first year with the Bills. They had a gaping hole at outside linebacker after parting ways with Mario Williams.
It was chic to suggest that losing Williams was addition by subtraction. But it wasn’t the moping Mario of 2015 the Bills needed to replace, but the dynamic pass rusher who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 and helped set sack records when he was motivated and on top of his game.
The draft board fell right for the Bills. When they picked at No. 19, three of the most talented defensive players were still available: Lawson, Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. Paxton Lynch, the third-rated quarterback, was also on the board.
Maybe they were tempted. The Bills have been searching for a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly played his final game 20 years ago. They’re still not sure about Tyrod Taylor and will likely pick a quarterback at some point – perhaps as soon as the second round on Friday.
But it would have been difficult to justify taking a quarterback with the 19th overall pick and passing up a prize from a defensive line class that has been lauded as one of the best in draft history.
This has been referred to as the Bills’ most important draft in years. They’re supposedly in win-now mode (when aren’t they?), despite a defense that has been hit hard by attrition. When Whaley said they needed a difference-maker, he wasn’t talking about a developmental quarterback.
The Bills hadn’t drafted a defensive front seven player in the first round since 2011, and hadn’t picked an edge rusher of any consequence since drafting Bruce Smith at No. 1 overall.
In Lawson, they got a 6-3, 270-pounder who blossomed as an edge rusher and run stopper in his third season at Clemson. Whaley said he will start right away as the left outside linebacker in Ryan’s base 3-4 defense – the same position that Williams played with dubious enthusiasm last year.
Lawson said he will feel no pressure to replace the one-time $100 million man, or to play as a stand-up linebacker rather than a down lineman.
“No, sir,” Lawson said. “I don’t feel a heavy responsibility. I’m just going to come in there every day and do my job, and do what I’ve been doing. Just do my job and continue to get better every day.
“I’ve got a lot of experience,” he said. “I played standup linebacker in high school and played standup at Clemson, so I’m comfortable with it. I’m ready to go.”
Challenges are nothing new for Lawson, a South Carolina native who grew up 10 miles from the Clemson campus. His father, Lawrence Lawson, a basketball coach and former college hoop player, named him after Shaquille O’Neal because he was so long when he was born on June 17, 1994.
His father was his best pal. Shaq helped him sell popcorn at Clemson football games, where he would sneak off to get autographs of Tigers players. But Lawrence Lawson was killed in an auto accident when Shaq was a high school junior.
Lawson had planned to play at Tennessee, but after spending a year at military school in Virginia to improve his grades, he decided to come home to Clemson to be close to his family.
“My brothers were very young when my dad got killed,” he said. “So I knew what I had to do. They needed a father figure in their lives, so I was going to be the man to do it. At the time, I was 16. I didn’t care. I was going to be the man for them and be a leader and example for those guys.”
At Clemson, Lawson wasn’t a full-time starter in his first two seasons. But he broke out as a junior last fall. He finished the season with 12.5 sacks, including two in the title game loss to Alabama, and had a strong Combine, where he established himself as one of the top defensive ends in the draft.
He was the ideal choice for the Bills. Whaley said there was no hesitation when Lawson was on the board at No. 19 overall. There were mock drafts that had him going 10 spots higher.
The defense regressed in Ryan’s first year.
Months later, it still staggers the mind to know they had only 21 sacks, the team’s fewest since 1977. They also finished 24th in yards allowed per rush at 4.4 a carry.
So it was high time for Whaley to go defense with his first pick. They needed a dynamic defender who could step right in and contribute – to use this year’s trendy draft expression, a “plug and play” guy. As Whaley asserted, they’ll plug Lawson right into their defensive front.
The only question is whether his right shoulder will hold up. Lawson said the shoulder has bothered him since his freshman year at college, though it never caused him to miss a game. There were reports that Lawson might need surgery after the season, though he denied it on a conference call.
Talent-wise, he’s a vital pick for the Bills, who have seen a borderline elite defense eroded by attrition. Lawson, who stayed home to play his college ball, says he’ll be comfortable in his new northern environs.
“I’m glad Buffalo picked me,” he said. “I just feel like I’m at home with them.”