This is the next piece in a series analyzing the Bills' most significant questions entering the offseason. Part 3: What will the team do about Shaq Lawson's fifth-year option?
Shaq Lawson gave Bills General Manager Brandon Beane something to think about in the Buffalo Bills’ season finale.
Lawson, a former first-round draft pick, had his first career two-sack game. The timing couldn’t have been any better for him.
With his third professional season now in the books, the Bills face a decision on Lawson: Do they want to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract? Doing so would come with a price tag of more than $9 million.
Beane has until May 3 to make that call.
“We’ll go back and watch all of Shaq’s stuff,” Beane said the day after the 2018 season concluded. “I was super happy for him (Dec. 30) to get a couple sacks. His professionalism (grew by) leaps and bounds this year. He really worked hard, and I saw a guy putting the effort in not only on the field, but he brings juice and energy to our practice like I didn’t see a year ago. … I think we’ll continue to watch him, how he handles the offseason, how he comes back in here, but I’m happy for him and his success. He worked hard this year.”
Lawson finished 2018 with 30 tackles, a career-best four sacks, 12 quarterback hits, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. After missing six games as a rookie and five in 2017, he was able to play in 14 games this past season, missing Week 2 and Week 3 because of a hamstring injury.
“I felt like improved, but always can do better,” he said. “I'm trying to get double-digit sacks. I want to be that guy in the Pro Bowl, that guy winning a Super Bowl. One of my goals was to finish a season healthy and I largely did that. I feel like I improved a lot, kind of knew the game more this year, understood what was coming at me, what kind of situation I was in coming into this year. ... I took it one day at a time and got better.”
The “situation” Lawson is referring to is the addition last offseason of defensive end Trent Murphy.
“I mean, it's somebody to replace me. That's what I was thinking,” Lawson said of reflecting on his feelings when Murphy was signed. “They're basically bringing in a guy so they can replace me. That's what made me go harder, made me work harder, made me take it more serious. When you know you’ve got another man coming in trying to take your job, it’s real. I just stayed the course and got better every day, man.”
The fifth-year option for first-round draft picks was part of the collective bargaining agreement signed by the league and its players in 2011. It allows teams to keep their first-round draft pick under contract for a fifth season, with compensation tied to where he was drafted. For Lawson, who was picked 19th, he would be owed the average between the third- and 25th-highest salaries at his position.
“I haven't given it any thought,” Lawson said of the team’s looming decision. “I'd love to be back here. If the team's willing to do it, it would be great, but I haven't really thought about that yet. I'm trying to be the best player I can possibly be.”
If the Bills pick up Lawson’s option, it’s immediately guaranteed for injury. It becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the league year in 2020, so if Lawson stays healthy, but fails to build on a promising 2018, there would be an out for the team, although it’s one teams rarely use.
Of course, the hope is that Lawson takes the next step in his career.
“Shaq has really come along,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “He’s had a good season for us, really pleased with his production, especially in the run game. We’d love to see him get a little bit better from a pass-rush standpoint, which he’s capable of. It’s part of the maturation for him to develop moves off of the power that he has and I think that will come as he continues to play. But his run defense and his effort really energizes the rest of our defense.”
Energy is a word that’s most often associated with Lawson. He seemingly always has plenty of it. His corner of the locker room is easily the loudest during the season.
“I mean, Shaq always brings that energy to the team. Everybody knows that,” middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. “I’m happy to see him go out the way that he did for his last game this year. He’s going to continue to grow. Everybody on this team is going to continue to grow.”
Lawson’s growth could be seen through his recognition. With five passes defensed, he showed a knack for making instinctual plays.
“Down and distance comes into play,” he said. “Third and short, the ball is coming out hot. You could run up field and open up the B gap, but you might as well try to jump and defend the pass. I want to catch one so bad. I’ve been trying to catch one.”
Lawson has the speed and aggressiveness that makes it hard for quarterbacks to get outside of him on bootlegs.
"All bootlegs come to the left end, so you kind of know during the week the left defensive end is going to get a bootleg,” he said. “Depending on what type of play we’re running, it’s just about being aggressive. I really want a sack off a bootleg."
If the Bills elect not to exercise Lawson’s fifth-year option, he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019 season. Of course, if the team chooses to do that as a motivational ploy, it could use the franchise tag if Lawson puts together a successful year. For now, that hinges on what Beane decides to do between now and May.
"Just understanding the game, understanding how to pass rush, when to work certain moves. He’s made a huge leap from when he first got here to now,” fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “It’s been tremendous because he has a high motor, he has the tenacity, the nastiness that you want in a defensive lineman and now he’s putting it all together. He’s understanding when to pass rush, when to work certain moves. He’s going to be unstoppable."