Every year as the NFL Draft nears, IDP owners undergo a hand-wringing exercise –“The Dance of the Tweener” — in which they wonder and worry whether that season’s top edge rushers will be drafted as defensive ends by 4-3 teams (which is a good thing) or by 3-4 clubs as outside linebackers (which isn’t so much.)
In 2016, there isn’t (outside possibly Ohio State’s Joey Bosa) a player inspiring more anxiety among IDP types than Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, a 6’3″, 269-pound first-round prospect who rolled up 60 tackles, an eye-popping 25.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks for the Tigers in 2015.
Lawson himself made it clear to Colleen Lawson of The Sporting News that while he played with his hand in the dirt in Death Valley, he feels like his skill-set is scheme versatile. “I’ve been working out at both,” he said. “Teams have gotten a good look at a 3-4 linebacker in me at pro day and at the combine. That really helped me out, going through those drills.”
It’s at that outside linebacker spot where one ACC coach sees Lawson plying his trade, according to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. “I see Shaq as an outside linebacker in a 3-4,” the coach said. “He’s not the guy you want to turn loose against the quarterback, but he is the guy that will make it hard for tight ends to block him in the run game. We knew we couldn’t run at him and it changed how we called plays.”
Zierlein concurs that Lawson isn’t an elite pass-rush talent, but he feels Lawson has the ability to be effective in both three- and four-man fronts at the professional level. “Lawson is built like a full-grown man and combines his instincts, toughness and power to fill up a stat sheet and set an early tone,” Zierlein said. “Lawson’s frame and game are easily translatable to the NFL, but his average athleticism and pass rush skills will likely have teams viewing him as a 3-4 edge setter or a 4-3 base end.”
If the mock draft community’s predictions are any indication, fantasy owners are in luck. Yes, there are those who forecast Lawson landing in places like Buffalo and Cleveland, but the majority of mockers have slotted him on 4-3 teams.
For Cris Collinsworth of Pro Football Focus, it was a reunion with former Clemson teammate Vic Beasley in Atlanta. “The Falcons join the Seahawks and Jaguars,” Collinsworth wrote, “as teams that play the most Cover-3 matchup zone, and in that scheme you can’t get enough pass-rushers to get pressure from your front four. Lawson is the right man for the job, and he’d get to play alongside his old Clemson teammate Vic Beasley. What I remember of that defense is how fast they played – the Tigers looked like they were running the 100-meter dash on every play. That’s the formula they have in Seattle with their Cover-3 defense, with disruptive edge rushers Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark, and it’s what I’m sure the Falcons are trying to recreate here.”
ESPN’s Mel Kiper, on the other hand, has the Detroit Lions taking Lawson one pick earlier, at No. 16. “I’d like to get an offensive tackle,” the coiffed one said, “but I’m not going to reach in Round 1 and instead get a polished defensive end who can jump into the rotation and take some pass-rushing pressure off Ziggy Ansah. Lawson was a machine creating negative plays at Clemson last season — he led the country in tackles for loss — and has the frame to hold up immediately. ”
If that’s the case — if Lawson finds himself playing defensive end just as he did in college, then it will be the usual caveats where rookie linemen are concerned. It may take a little while for Lawson to get his feet wet, but by Year 2 there could be IDP DL2 upside present — enough upside to merit a late look in dynasty formats this summer.
However, if Lawson transitions to outside linebacker as he begins his NFL career — well, there’s a reason for all that hand-wringing, now isn’t there?