The good news is, Shaq Lawson looked like a first-round draft pick in 2019.
The bad news is, it took four years for the Buffalo Bills’ defensive end to get there.
That leaves the team with a big decision to make as Lawson approaches unrestricted free agency. Can he continue to produce the way he did in helping the Bills to a 10-6 record and a second playoff berth in three seasons? Or, without the motivation of a contract year, will he more closely resemble the player he was in his first three years in Buffalo?
General Manager Brandon Beane will be tasked with trying to find that answer. A year ago at this time, Beane had doubts about Lawson’s future. The team decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, a clear message that they needed to see more from the 2016 first-round draft pick.
“I feel like that motivated me, all year,” Lawson said as the Bills cleaned out their lockers last week. “Didn’t pick it up, to me, was saying something. But I knew what I had to do. Hopefully I got team’s eyes, got the Bills’ eyes.”
That’s exactly the type of response the Bills were hoping to get.
“That can go one of two ways,” Beane said at his season-ending press conference. “He can sulk and you know, ‘I'm out of here,’ or anything like that. Shaq took it in stride and we challenged him and told him, 'Listen Shaq, us not picking up your option has nothing to do with us wanting you here, it's just where we are at this time.' We would love for you to have a great year and sign you to a long-term (contract).’
“So, I was very happy with Shaq and we'll obviously talk to his representatives.”
Lawson is used to being challenged by the Bills. The team signed Trent Murphy before the 2018 season, and he took over as the starter. That relegated Lawson, who was challenged by the coaching staff to improve his work ethic, to a rotational role. To his credit, he responded to that challenge.
Although he didn’t start once last season, Lawson appeared in 15 games (missing the meaningless regular-season finale against the Jets because of a hamstring injury) and played a career-high 483 defensive snaps, 46.6% of the team’s total. He was part of what became a three-man rotation at defensive end along with Murphy (674 snaps, 65.1%) and Jerry Hughes (662 snaps, 63.9%).
As the season went on, the split in playing time among the three nearly evened out. In the playoff loss to Houston, for example, Murphy and Hughes played 46 snaps, while Lawson played 39.
Lawson finished with a career-high 6.5 sacks, more than either Hughes (4.5) or Murphy (5).
“I’m happy with the season I had,” Lawson said. “I showed it in the run game and in the pass game I can be effective. I had a career year this year. So, yeah, I feel happy about it. Only up for me. Only gotta get better.”
Lawson’s long been a solid run defender. As a former 19th overall draft pick, though, the expectation is that he’ll get after the quarterback, which is something he did on a more consistent basis in 2019. That should set him up nicely entering free agency. At just 25 years old, his prime years are still ahead of him. There will be a healthy market for Lawson, be it in Buffalo or somewhere else.
“I’ll sit down and talk with my agent, and see how it will work out,” Lawson said of entering free agency. "Meet with Buffalo and we’ll see how things work out, but I don’t know. This is my first rodeo, so I don’t know how everything is supposed to go about this.
“I’m open to returning. But I’ve just got to see where everything falls. … I enjoy being here in Buffalo. Small city like where I’m from. Just chill. I mean, if everything works out, I’ll be back here.”
Beane’s comments would seem to indicate a mutual interest in that happening. The Bills have ample cap space to strike a deal, which would be important for a couple of reasons.
No. 1, a team can never have enough pass rushers. Even if Lawson is re-signed, an edge rusher figures to be high on the Bills’ offseason shopping list. Seattle's Jadeveon Clowney and Jacksonville's Yannick Ngakoue figure to set the market at the position, with deals that could command up to $18 million per season.
There are other options out there, including Dallas' Robert Quinn and the Los Angeles Rams' Dante Fowler Jr., both of whom had 11.5 sacks. Lawson might come in cheaper than any of them, with the added bonus that he's a known commodity.
Murphy is entering the final year of his contract and struggled with consistency in 2019. Hughes, meanwhile, is coming off playing with torn ligaments in his wrist. He’ll also be 32 before the start of next season. Given how coach Sean McDermott likes to use a rotation along the defensive line, it’s easy to see why Lawson’s return would be a high priority.
No. 2, it would send a message to the locker room. McDermott made the point more than once at his season-ending press conference that he wants to make “sure that we keep as much of this team intact as possible.” Lawson is a big part of that.
The coach has frequently referenced the “juice,” Lawson brings to the locker room, an intangible that doesn’t show up in any box score.
"He brings a lot of energy to our football team during the week," McDermott said in November. "He's one of those dogs – in a good way. He likes to hunt and I love having him on our football team."
There's no doubt Lawson loves to have fun. He keeps things loose in the locker room, but he also has learned the NFL is a business.
“I had to buy in or get out,” he said early in the 2019 season.
It’s telling that Lawson is one of just four players still on the roster who predate McDermott’s and Beane’s arrival. That number drops to three minus linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who has announced his plans to retire.
That Lawson has lasted this long in Buffalo shows he’s willing to adapt to what McDermott and Beane expect. That’s been mutually beneficial.
“When you look back and see where we were at last year this time and this year ... it’s a great season,” Lawson said. “This team is only going to get better from here. I said that at the beginning of the year, it’s going to be a special team and it was a special team. We caught a lot of people’s eyes this year and bringing the Buffalo Bills back.
“It’s a young team. It’s changing. Honestly, from the first rookie year until now, it’s a totally different change. I’d love to be back with this young group.”