This is the third in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
Although he’s no longer a rookie, training camp will still be brand new to Shaq Lawson.
The Buffalo Bills’ first-round draft pick in 2016 missed every practice last year at St. John Fisher College because of shoulder surgery. That put him behind, and when he finally did return for the final 10 games of his first professional season, results were predictably underwhelming.
So there might not be a player on the Bills more looking forward to getting on the practice field in Pittsford than Lawson, who will carry with him lofty expectations for 2017.
“It’s time to bring what I had back when I was in college,” Lawson said matter-of-factly last month. “I’m going to live up to that. That’s what they want me to do. I’m going to give them a reason why they draft me here as a first-round pick.”
Of course, he’ll be giving that reason to an entirely new front office and coaching staff. Gone is the pairing of General Manager Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan. In their place from the Carolina Panthers are Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott, respectively.
When Ryan went out the door, he took his 3-4 scheme with him. It’s safe to assume Lawson wasn’t shedding any tears about that. A former defensive end in college, the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder never got comfortable being asked to play outside linebacker.
“I had to make sure I didn’t mess up an assignment, because it was very difficult. The playbook we had last year was difficult to learn,” Lawson told reporters last month. “The" new "defense is simple. … It’s the same thing I ran at Clemson. I picked it up a lot faster, and I’m very comfortable right now and I’m ready to play ball.”
It’s not unheard of for young pass rushers to take some time to adjust to the NFL level. Khalil Mack, the University at Buffalo product who might be the best defensive player in the league today, had four sacks as a rookie, then increased that total to 15 in his second year.
There are plenty of other examples just like that: Olivier Vernon went from 3.5 sacks to 11.5 with the Miami Dolphins before landing a massive contract with the New York Giants. Chandler Jones jumped from six sacks to 11.5 with the New England Patriots in his second year before later being traded to Arizona. Robert Quinn more than doubled his output with the Rams, from five sacks as a rookie in 2011 to 10.5 in 2012.
That should give the Bills, and Lawson, hope that Year Two will be much more productive than 2016.
“I like where he is,” coach Sean McDermott said of Lawson during spring practices. “I like his skill set.”
Beane and McDermott scouted Lawson closely while he was at Clemson and they were in Carolina.
"I was familiar with his skill set and who he was as a person," the coach said.
The Bills took Lawson with the 19th overall pick in the first round. The Panthers took defensive tackle Vernon Butler with the 30th overall selection that year.
“As we all know, when you transition to the NFL, it’s a different game,” McDermott said.
Lawson’s transition didn’t even make it out of rookie minicamp before it was determined he needed shoulder surgery. That meant no workouts in the spring or summer – valuable time for any rookie. Expecting much more than what Lawson was able to give the Bills in 10 games – seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble – would have been unfair.
One year later, however, and the expectations are drastically different. He’s healthy and has been able to get an entire offseason of training under his belt. He's got an established pass rusher in Jerry Hughes who defenses will have to account for, and perhaps most important of all, he’s in a defense that better suits his style of play.
“I got my hand in the dirt all the time, not pretty much playing in space, guarding receivers and things like that,” Lawson said. “The 3-4, there’s a lot to learn with it, the 4-3 it’s just simple you know? Put your hand in the dirt, go get after the quarterback and set the edge for the run game.”
“The guys have really bought into that,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the transition to the 4-3. “We think it fits our players well.”