The Buffalo Bills are losing defensive end Shaq Lawson to a division rival.
According to a report Monday from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Miami Dolphins are expected to sign Lawson to a three-year contract when the NFL's new league year officially starts Wednesday. The deal, according to Rapoport, has a value of $30 million that could increase to $36 million with incentives and bonuses. He is guaranteed $21 million, according to ESPN.
Lawson confirmed the deal with a note to Bills Mafia that he posted on social media.
"This decision was made based on what I thought was best for me and my family and was one of the most difficult and emotionally challenging decisions I have ever had to make," he wrote, adding "I will always have a special place in my heart for this community."
Lawson, who turns 26 in June, is coming off a career season in which he finished with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. He's ranked No. 84 on NFL.com's list of top 101 available free agents.
A first-round draft pick of the Bills in 2016 under previous General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan, Lawson never developed into the premier pass rusher the team hoped he would be coming out of Clemson. He was a reliable part of the rotation along the defensive line, however, and did a solid job defending the run. Bills coach Sean McDermott also liked the "juice" Lawson brought to the locker room. Teammates often would roll their eyes and laugh whenever Lawson's booming voice would take over the room.
Lawson's departure means that the Bills have no players who were drafted by Whaley remaining on the roster.
Although he didn't make a single start in 2019, Lawson played 46.6% of the defensive snaps as part of a three-man rotation with Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy. Given how much McDermott likes to rotate along the defensive line, Lawson's departure makes defensive end arguably the biggest need on the roster.
Bills General Manager Brandon Beane elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on Lawson's contract following the 2018 season, a move that allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent this year. A couple days after the Bills' playoff loss to the Houston Texans, Beane indicated he was open to Lawson returning.
"We didn’t pick up his option and that can go one of two ways. He can sulk and say 'I’m out of here' or anything like that," Beane said. "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 will obviously talk to his representatives."
Lawson made it clear he wanted to return, but acknowledged that it wasn't entirely up to him.
"I want to be here, but I’ve got to see how everything works out," he said the day after the 2019 season ended. "I’ll sit down and talk with my agent, and see how it will work out -- meet with Buffalo and we’ll see how things work out. This is my first rodeo, so I don’t know how everything is supposed to go about this."
It's not a total surprise that the Bills decided $10 million a year (or more) for Lawson was too much. Murphy ($9.775 million) and Hughes ($9.5 million) have two of the four highest cap hits on the team in 2020.
Earlier Monday, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, had reported the Dolphins were showing a "strong interest" in Lawson on the first day of the NFL's "legal tampering" period.
Miami Dolphins with strong interest in pass rusher Shaq Lawson on the first day of free agency, per source.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 16, 2020
The question for the Bills now becomes, how does Beane replace Lawson? The biggest name on the free-agent market is Seattle's Jadeveon Clowney, but if $10 million a year for Lawson was too much, Beane might be scared away by Clowney's demands, which figure to double that.
Tampa Bay's Jason Pierre-Paul, a more-accomplished pass rusher than Lawson, re-signed with the Buccaneers for two years and up to $27 million. If Beane elects to fill the void created by Lawson's departure through free agency, he probably won't be able to do it on the cheap.
"I think it's one of the premium positions," Beane said at the NFL scouting combine. "The elite ones get paid. After the quarterback, that's usually the next highest-paid position."