This is the sixth of a series on 10 key questions facing the Buffalo Bills entering training camp. Read the rest of the questions here.
Shaq Lawson is saying all the right things in the run-up to his third season with the Buffalo Bills.
“It's the third year, I'm a former first-round pick, it's time for me to show why I got drafted in the first round,” Lawson said during spring practices. “It's time to do my job and not let these Bills fans down and the coaches down."
Of course, the reason former Bills executives Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan drafted Lawson 19th overall was the belief he could be a big-time NFL edge rusher.
“I just want coach Frazier to come back and say that he's a dominant pass rusher,” Lawson said, referring to defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “That'd be great. So that's my goal, working to be a dominant pass rusher.”
Is Lawson ready to blossom now? Or never? The answer will begin to be seen when Lawson shows up for a make-or-break training camp with the Bills on July 26 in Pittsford.
Lawson is not a pure speed rusher in the Jerry Hughes mold, as Bills fans have seen the past two years. He had two sacks in a rookie season that got a late start due to shoulder surgery. He had four last season but missed the final five games with a foot injury.
However, there are plenty of successful edge rushers who get it done in the NFL without Von Miller-like edge-bending skills.
“There are other ways to generate those numbers, if you're not the swerving athletic type guy like Jerry is,” Frazier said. “Power, along with speed, can still help you if you can understand how to rush the passer.”
Lawson needs to show this year he has honed his technique to play off of the power rush, that he has developed second and third counter moves to get to the quarterback.
Keep in mind, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Lawson still is young. He just turned 23 in June. He should benefit from playing a full year in Frazier’s system, and he has had a year to adjust to the left defensive end position. Lawson played right defensive end when he racked up 12.5 sacks for the national-champion Clemson team in 2015.
“Not only him but for any of the guys who came into the system, there was an adjustment period,” Frazier said of last season. “I felt like as the year went on, he got more comfortable with his role. We see him as a left end, a guy who's going to be great for us against the run, and most offenses are right-handed. What we need to get is a little bit more production rushing the quarterback. We think he's doing some things this offseason that should help that.”
Lawson played at between 280 and 285 pounds at Clemson. He was 275 as a rookie with the Bills and about 267 last season. He worked to get to the 263-265 range this spring.
“A couple pounds lighter, faster, more explosive; the lighter I am the faster I'll be,” he said.
Lawson says he has gradually learned over the past two years how to train more effectively, which he hopes will lead to an injury-free season.
“Taking care of my body, eating right, all that falls into the same category of injury preventing,” he said. “My diet changes a little every year. Rookie year I was eating stuff. Second year I was eating a little bit better. This year I'm eating everything better. I don't count calories but I do watch what I eat. If I have a burger I feel bad.”
He also has spent some time working with retired Falcons star Chuck Smith. “That’s a technique machine, right there,” Lawson said.
Switching to the left side has been a process.
“I'm still getting used to it,” he said. “When you've been writing with your right hand all your life, it's hard to switch over to the left. Last year was kind of tough because I had to figure out the movements and how it felt. It felt different. But now I'm used to it. I've been practicing and I feel I've been doing great at it.”
“That second, third move you need to have, and by chasing a quarterback down you can get sacks,” Lawson said. “The quarterback will tend to hold the ball and that's what you've got DBs for. You've got to be able to run plays down.”
Lawson was pretty good setting the edge against the run last season.
“That's my strength, although at the end of the day you can always improve on it,” he said.
However, he probably will need to flash production early in preseason to stay on the field in passing situations because the Bills signed free-agent Trent Murphy from Washington.
If Murphy produces as the Bills expect, look for Lawson to bump inside and rush from a defensive tackle position a lot.
“We're going to put him inside sometimes as well, not just leave him outside, and that will hopefully help,” Frazier said.
The ideal scenario for the Bills is Murphy produces, Lawson blossoms and the Bills have a quality three-man rotation (or four if you want to count Lorenzo Alexander) at edge rusher.
But if Lawson starts preseason slow, he likely will have younger edge-rush candidates like Eddie Yarbrough or Owa Odighizuwa stealing snaps from him.
It’s a big summer for Lawson.