Some of you may be asking, "Why do Shaq Lawson before you do Noah Spence?" Well, I'm glad you asked!
I like to have as much uniformity to my breakdowns as possible when it comes to the information I use to make my assessment. In general, I want to review no less than four games and ideally at least five. Unfortunately, my man Noah Spence only has three games up on Draft Breakdown, which isn't a knock on them. When you play at Eastern Kentucky, you don't always get on TV, which makes the TV copy of his games hard to get. I did watch those three games and was hella tempted to try to do a breakdown anyway. But, at the end of the day I was so impressed with what I saw in those three games that I didn't want to do Spence a disservice by rushing into things if there was any chance I might come up on a fourth game before the draft actually rolls around.
As for "Why Shaq Lawson?" well, I'm glad you asked me that, too!
Because I am technically an NFL writer for SB Nation and I cover the whole league, basically, I pretty much have to immerse myself into the NFL in the fall. That means i don't get to watch nearly as much college football as I used to, and even what I do watch, I'm not usually watching as closely as I used to. Unless it's my Vols, of course, but then they kept losing last year at first and I thought I was a jinx so ... look, never mind. I don't get to watch college football as much I used to, OK?
I did happen to catch a few Clemson games, and at a glance, this kid Lawson really impressed me. One thing I've learned since I started doing draft profiles, however, is that sometimes when you a look a little closer you find out you may have sorely underestimated or overestimated just how good some of these college players are. I figured with a little more scrutiny I would have a better idea of just how good Lawson was or wasn't.
In the five games I watched, Shaq Lawson showed just about everything you generally want to see from an edge player. He looked good setting the edge against the run.
He looked as almost as comfortable standing up in a two-point stance as he did with his hand in the dirt in a three-point stance.
He consistently used pretty good technique to escape off run blocks and make plays in the backfield.
He showed some good instinctive pass rush qualities including the ability to turn his hips toward the quarterback while rushing and having a feel for when he was about to rush to deep and instead countering back inside.
He also looked pretty natural out in space in his zone drops and even when playing a little bit of man to man-to-man.
The one thing he didn't always show is the one thing most edge guys really need: the ability to win around the corner consistently.
I talked about this with Joey Bosa and the same seems to apply to Lawson. Usually, you are going to have to be able to turn the corner 7-8 yards deep in order to get offensive linemen to bail out of their stances which then in turns gets them all out of whack and makes them much easier to beat. If you can't do that, you're going to get stuck a lot at the level of the quarterback, unable to continue around the corner to make the play and unable to come inside because the offensive tackle isn't over committed to stopping a wide rush.
Trust me, it's a shitty place to be, I know from experience. I just figured Lawson maybe was more quick than actually fast from his tape and that's why he wasn't the turning the corner even tighter. Even when he beat guys around the edge, it was usually around 9 or 10 yards depth or more.
Then I looked up Lawson's combine numbers and now I'm like ... something doesn't add up here.
It was apparent watching Lawson's tape that he was athletic, but his get off was inconsistent and he didn't always look that fast, whether trying to pass rush or running to the ball. Yet this guy ran a 4.7 flat 40 which, while not necessarily blazing, is a pretty good time for an edge guy and definitely faster than I thought he would run based on his film. Keep in mind while Bosa has Lawson by a couple of inches in height, they were only a pound apart when it comes to weight. Bosa ran a 4.86, but ...
Lawson's 4.21 in the short shuttle was a damned good time for him, as well. Hell, he ended up being a top combine performer in both categories, so the fact that he wasn't beating tackles around the edge more consistently was damn near baffling. I already knew he was athletic watching the film, but with these numbers I would have expected more wins with speed rushes. It bothered me enough that I went and re-watched all the games a fourth time just to be sure.
I'm still not 100 percent sure of the disconnect between his testing and his film, but I guess some of it could certainly be attributed to Lawson's inconsistent get off, especially when he was standing up in a two-point stance. When a guy runs a 1.66 in the first 10 yards of his 40, you expect to see him explode off the ball when it's snapped in the game. That just wasn't always the case with Lawson, and that split second delay can, and usually is, the difference between making a play and getting your ass blocked in the NFL.
I thought he was a little better with his get off out of a three-point stance, but it still wasn't consistently explosive enough to match up with his testing.
The good news is that get off is something that can definitely be improved with work. A lot of it has to do with learning what to key on and really emphasizing it in practice every day. My old defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, now the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, used to start every single practice with get offs and either you got better at it or you got gone.
Lawson is still pretty young coming out as a junior and only 21, so I would expect that he can improve that part of his game if he works hard at it. That can sometimes be a big "if," so anybody thinking about taking Lawson had better be sure he has a strong work ethic. We'll circle back to this later.
When it comes to his pass rush, Lawson's hand work on his edge rushes needs work, too. All too many times he didn't appear to be very precise with them when he was trying to make a move. Anybody can just swipe their hands randomly and wildly at offensive linemen to try to make it look like they're doing something, but those moves are generally dog shit with a very low probability of success. Those guys are basically hoping and praying that if they swipe with their hands hard enough they will just so happen to hit the offensive lineman's hands and come free.
It doesn't always work that way.
To be consistently effective with any hand move, you need to be able to time an offensive lineman's punch -- news flash, most good offensive linemen like to drill technique a lot so their steps and punch are always coordinated. That means, TA DAH, if you watch enough film and are coordinated enough yourself, you can time their punch in order to defeat it.
You also have to know where they like to target. Some offensive linemen punch high near the bottom of the facemask, some the shoulder, some the middle of your chest. Once you know where they are throwing their hands and when you are throwing their hands, you use your hands to intercept theirs.
That guessing shit will work from time to time against rando college left tackles, but if you can't learn how to anticipate a guy's punch and intercept his hands on edge rushes once you get to the league, as the great philosopher Bubba Sparxx once said, it's gone get uuuugly.
Lawson did win on the edge from time to time, but I definitely got the impression he was guessing with the hands most of the time. Had he been more precise with them on some of the edge rushes where he didn't make it around the corner, he would've had more success in that area.
Once again, if he is willing to work, Lawson should definitely be able to get better in that area if he gets drafted to a team with a good defensive line coach.
I wanted to be fair and point out that Lawson did win on the edge at times. I didn't want anybody to get the wrong impression. It also helps explain the success he had with some of his counter moves. Most folks would label him a speed rusher based on the five games I watched. He won enough around the edge that offensive tackles, when they weren't getting help from hating ass guards and or running backs, did feel the need to bail out at times. To his credit, Lawson was decisive enough and athletic enough to make them pay for being over extended more than a few times.
The dude had some absolutely beautiful spin moves in those five games, but for that help the offensive tackles got, he probably would've had at least five more sacks in that span. Maybe more.
I also really liked the way Lawson transitioned from some of his power rushes to a level rush inside. So many times you see a guy knock the offensive tackle back a couple steps initially, but then get stuck on the block after the tackle sits down on the rusher's power.
The reason usually comes down to not wanting to be wrong about where the quarterback is. If you come off a power rush outside then sometimes the quarterback steps up and avoids the pressure. If you come off a power rush inside, especially if your escape off the block isn't clean, there's the distinct possibility that you lose containment.
Lawson usually had a knack for feeling when the blocker was about to try to sit down on his power, and he hit his escape move in that moment to leave the blocker standing there. Even if he didn't get the sack -- which was weirdly the case on his good rushes more often than I normally like to see -- he usually got enough pressure to give one of his teammates an opportunity to take the quarterback down.
Basically, Lawson is just a good football player. Not everything was perfect, but you can see on tape that he understands the game and instinctively knows how to make plays. That's the kind of guy I usually like because all you need to do is fine-tune some technique things and they should be good to go. And when everything isn't perfect, you need those kinds of instinctive guys who can still find a way to make something happen.
That's why Lawson impressed me. However, I thought he took a few plays off. Yes, they were usually on the back side of plays he probably couldn't have made anyway, but when I see a dude who needs to work on his technique in order to be successful on the next level, it makes me nervous as hell if I see them loafing. I need to know that Lawson is a worker in order to pull the trigger on him early after watching this film. I would be open to hearing any mitigating factors that may have been at play in these cases, but I would want to talk to all of his coaches and even some teammates about how self motivated he was.
Does he do just what is asked of him, or a little more? How does he take constructive criticism? Am I going to have to drag him in or out of the weight room?
If I get good answers to all of my questions, I think Lawson is definitely a top half of the first round-type guy with his potential and the fact that he could fit into just about any scheme based on his tape and testing. If I didn't get good answers to every single one, I might not pick him in the first round at all.
It is what it is.
Since I don't have access to all-22 for college football games, I use the next best thing for my draft profiles and go to Draft Breakdown where they have the TV copy for a bunch of top prospects already cut up and ready to go. Also, their site is compatible with the new NoHuddle app, which turns your cell phone into a "cowboy clicker," which is pretty damn neat. For the purposes of this breakdown I watched Clemson outside linebacker Shaq Lawson play against Notre Dame, Miami, NC State, Florida State and North Carolina. Those represented the fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 13th games on Clemson's schedule last season, respectively.