The New York Giants picked Dexter Lawrence 17th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Here’s what Stephen White had to say about the Clemson defensive tackle ahead of the draft:
Dexter Lawrence is a mountain of a man at 6’4 and over 340 pounds. At that size you might expect him to be strictly a nose tackle.
You would be wrong.
It’s true you would never mistake Lawrence for a smaller, quicker defensive tackle like Ed Oliver because Clemson moved Lawrence around quite a bit up front. But I actually got to see him play from a nice variety of alignments. He looked comfortable no matter where he was lined up, and he showed an ability to make plays from several different defensive line positions.
Yes, Clemson even had Lawrence lined up as a five-technique on occasion. He may not be able to play out there on the edge full-time, but I wouldn’t see any problem with him lining up there every once in a while on early downs.
No matter where he lined up, the thing that jumped out at me was how powerful Lawrence is. The guy was really hard to move, and, on a pretty regular basis, he was able to jack up offensive linemen and toss them out of the way like rag dolls.
Not only was Lawrence’s superior functional strength readily apparent on tape, it was also further confirmed at the combine when he notched 36 reps on the bench press. Anybody trying to block that man had better eat their Wheaties, that’s for sure.
Lawrence didn’t just overwhelm people with his strength, however. He also had good technique and generally did an excellent job of getting good hand placement and full extension with his arms while taking on blockers. That allowed him to use those almost 35-inch long arms to keep offensive linemen off of him while he located the football.
As powerful as he is, his game is more than just that.
As a run defender, you couldn’t ask for much more than what I saw Lawrence do in those four games of his that I watched. I was particularly impressed with how often Lawrence was able to physically dominate centers when they tried to block him on counter plays away.
To briefly explain again, when a guard has to pull to the other side of the center to block on any kind of counter play, the center usually has to “block back” on the defensive lineman who was lined up in front of that guard. That is to prevent that defensive lineman from being able to follow behind the pulling guard and wrecking the play before it gets started.
Usually these are relatively easy position blocks for the center. He isn’t meant to come off and try to drive the defensive lineman off the ball, after all, but rather he just needs try to make quick contact to keep the defensive lineman from getting too much penetration. After that initial thud it’s usually just a matter of the center staying between the defender and the direction the guard is pulling.
I marveled a few weeks back about how Quinnen Williams was able to defeat some of those “back blocks” with quickness and and acceleration. Well, Lawrence was able to defeat them with power instead. It was remarkable to see him shoving those centers back and then coming off on the front side of the play to make the tackle.
He did this in different games and against different centers, so I’m going to go ahead and say he will probably be able to do that on the next level from time to time, too.
Power wasn’t the only thing Lawrence brought to the table when he was defending the run, however. His lateral quickness was also on full display in the four games I watched. Opposing offensive linemen would be so geared up to try to blunt Lawrence’s might that he was able to make quite a few of them completely whiff when he stunted sideways instead.
His success moving laterally is also something that I think will transfer well to the NFL for him. So many blockers are going to be all hyped up to try to block his power that when he runs a stunt, they will be like two ships passing in the night.
Lawrence isn’t a speedy guy, but he busts his butt out there.
Lawrence is one of the better 342-pound athletes that you will ever see. He might not be straight-line fast, but the guy’s athleticism really surprised me a few times.
I can see value in Lawrence as a run defender all up and down the defensive line, especially on early downs. In a 3-4 defense, he would be able to play the run well anywhere from a five-technique to a zero nose, and his team could move him around on any given play.
In a 4-3 base defense, he could be a strong defensive end, a three-technique, or a cocked nose on any given play, as well. Imagine being a tight end and looking across at you at Lawrence in six-technique knowing you have to base block him all by yourself.
I also want to note that even though Lawrence is a certified heavyweight, he still gets his hustle on. It was great to see him, at his size, busting his ass down field to get to the ball. His motor will certainly help him get his production up in the pros.
Lawrence can still make an impact, even if he won’t ever rack up the sacks.
Of course, where Lawrence is lacking is with his pass rush. That isn’t to say he didn’t get any pressure in four games, but I don’t think anyone who has actually watched his tape believes that pass rushing is his strong suit right now.
There were some flashes to be sure, but it just wasn’t consistent enough. He certainly had the opportunities to rush the passer from different spots, but at the end of the day he still only ended up with one sack and three hurries in four games.
I will say that his bull rush when he had one-on-one opportunities, especially against centers, was remarkable. He was definitely able to use that power of his to get push back into the pocket pretty well in those situations. Early on in his career, pushing the pocket with power moves is surely where he will make his money as a pass rusher.
With a big, strong guy like Lawrence, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Arm-overs, cross chops, and rip moves are nice, but when you can run through people, you run through people! He just needs to polish up his escape moves off of his power rushes so he can start converting those bull rushes into pressures.
I may be wrong on this, but I don’t foresee Lawrence ever being a big sack guy, anyway. With those power rushes, he could still do a great job of keeping the quarterback from being able to step up in the pocket to avoid pressure. That, in and of itself, can be a huge help to a team’s pass defense.
I did see him execute some decent arm-overs as well, and he could certainly get better with his finesse moves. I am just not sure he will ever get a lot of production out of trying to run around blockers rather than trying to run through them. Every guy has his deal, and I believe sharpening up his power rushes should be Lawrence’s main focus.
His biggest strength just isn’t as valuable in today’s NFL.
At the end of the day, while I really like all the versatility against the run that Lawrence brings to the table, his lack of potential pass-rush productivity is something I can’t overlook in his evaluation.
He definitely isn’t “just” a nose tackle, but I don’t think he will see the field much on passing downs, either. For me, two-down players, in what is now a passing league in the NFL, just aren’t as valuable as they used to be.
That doesn’t mean run stoppers aren’t still vital members of just about every team, however. It just means I wouldn’t be willing to spend a lot of money on them.
In the case of the draft, I also wouldn’t be willing to use a first-round pick on them, either.
Nothing personal, just business.
So, in closing, while I believe Lawrence to be a fine player who will probably wind up being a starter at some point in his career, I do not see him as a first-round draft pick. He may eventually come on as a pass rusher in the pros, and I hope for his sake he does, but for now I see Lawrence as primarily just a run defender.
Maybe he will make a liar out of me, get a bunch of sacks, and get a huge payday on his second contract.
For now, however, I believe Lawrence will have to wait until after the first night to hear his name called.
For the purposes of this breakdown, I watched former Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence play against Syracuse, Boston College, Duke, and Pitt. Those represented the fifth, 10th, 11th, and 13th games on Clemson’s schedule last season, respectively.