While the 2016 NFL Draft is in the rearview mirror, it’s never too soon to start thinking about next year. With that in mind we turn our eye toward a defensive end who looks to make an impact in the NFL much like DeForest Buckner hopes to. Jon Ledyard examines Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson who could be one of the first edge rushers taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.
If you’re a box score scout, you may want to avert your eyes from this piece outlining how Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson can be a top 10 player in next year’s NFL Draft despite having just one sack in seven games last season. Production matters, but it is also important to view statistical collegiate achievements (or lack thereof) within the context of the player’s performance on tape. Production is part of the assessment, but the numbers are only as valuable as the video evidence reveals it to be.
Lawson is a fantastic example of this point. There have been any number of pass rushers over the years that churned out sacks in college, but saw their dominance subside at the NFL level. Sometimes how you win matchups as a pass rusher is more important than actually winning them, at least as it projects to long-term success in the pros. NFL teams will always be enamored with elite athletes and high ceiling players, but immediate-impact, well-rounded pass rushers of Lawson’s ilk are rock solid prospects who should transition much more quickly to the next level than their flashier counterparts.
When determining a top 10-caliber edge defender, pass rush ability is obviously paramount to the equation. Lawson has a bevy of traits that allow him to be successful getting after the passer, but his dominance begins with an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage.
Instead of getting run up the arc in the play above, Lawson begins to turn and angle his hips to flatten to the quarterback in a timely fashion. This way, when the right tackle finally recovers and gives one last dying effort to save his quarterback, Lawson has already squared up to the passer and can ward off the contact from a position of strength, without having to adjust his base at the same time.
As an offensive tackle, if you are unprepared for Lawson’s burst off the edge, you’re going to have a long day. Louisville’s offensive line clearly wasn’t the stiffest test last season, but as a matter of context you want to see great prospects dominate subpar competition. Lawson was a nightmare that day before being injured and forced to sit out the second half with a hip injury.
One of the biggest differences between successful college pass rushers and successful NFL pass rushers is how they handle contact, especially at the top of the arc. Players in the league simply aren’t going to out-athlete their counterparts on a consistent basis, so they must find a way to be successful by using their hands and mind in conjunction to create pressure. This is where Lawson really sets himself apart.
Again we see the deadly first step, but this time Lawson uses his right arm to slap the left tackle’s punch away just as he reaches the contact point. Because Lawson re-positions the lineman’s hand with his swat, all the LT can do is hold the Auburn pass rusher with his left hand to keep his quarterback from taking a ferocious blindside shot.
The same technique bested the top offensive tackle in college football last season, in one of the only reps I saw Laremy Tunsil lose handily on tape.
In slow motion here, it legitimately looks like he breaks Tunsil’s arm with the violence of this blow. Lawson’s frame will get criticized throughout the pre-draft process for a “lack of length” given he stands 6’2”, but prepare yourself now to ignore these remarks. Edge defenders like Elvis Dumervil, Clay Matthews, Dwight Freeney, and James Harrison are among the players who have excelled despite having below-average arm lengths, and given Lawson’s superb technique, rocked-up frame, and myriad pass rush moves, this won’t be an issue for the Auburn defensive end moving forward.
Another sign of an NFL-ready pass rusher is the capacity to string moves together seamlessly. Not only does this take obvious physical and athletic ability, but it shows that he has thought through his attack wisely enough to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.
Lawson attempts to convert speed-to-power in his initial rush, but the Memphis left tackle is ready for it, bracing himself for contact as the Auburn defender arrives. Less-aware pass rushers might stubbornly try to bully their way through the lineman in a long-developing attack, but Lawson is simply using the bull rush to set up his next move: the arm-over or swim maneuver. The redshirt junior recognizes his opponent’s poor posture and head-drop at the point of contact, and immediately hits a smooth arm-over to work free and land a hit on Paxton Lynch. That’s professional level technique that Lawson consistently shows on tape, even when rushing from the interior.
The swat doesn’t really take here, but Lawson’s feet are so quick that he is able to get on the guard’s edge before the lineman can recover. A powerful rip move and churning lower half blast through contact, and Lawson is able to get home for his first sack of the game. Making this play even more impressive is that it occurred after Lawson was already injured. Again, context matters in evaluation.
Lawson’s ability to create disruption as a pass-rushing 3 technique isn’t an anomaly either. Auburn often deployed him as an interior rusher with excellent results, as Lawson’s power and elite hand usage made him a handful for most college guards.
That speed-to-power conversion is going to be a problem in the NFL given Lawson’s stacked build and natural leverage advantage.
While clips against Memphis and Louisville are important to exhibit the traits Lawson will win with at the NFL level, you really want to see him emerge victorious in reps against top-tier competition. He faced fifth-round pick Fahn Cooper more than he did Tunsil when Auburn battled Mississippi this past season, but both offensive tackles were beaten soundly by Lawson.
First round pick Germain Ifedi saw less of Lawson than his left tackle counterpart along the Texas A&M offensive line, but when he did, the results didn’t go in Ifedi’s favor very often.
While pass rush ability is of utmost importance to NFL teams, Lawson’s sheer brilliance as a run defender highlights just how well-rounded his game is despite minimal collegiate playing time. If you’re a coach who wants to show your outside linebackers or defensive ends how to set the edge, you may want to consider popping these beauties from Lawson’s 2015 season into your next film session.
That last play makes me want to lace ‘em up right now.
So what area of Lawson’s game needs the most improvement heading into 2016? By far his ability to finish plays. He legitimately missed out on four-five sacks in the five games I watched simply because he whiffed on the tackle (as evidenced by several of these vines). Much of that comes from playing in just seven games over the past two seasons because of injury, as Lawson has struggled to get back into form as a tackler.
That’s understandable, but accentuates the massive need for Lawson to stay healthy this season. The fourth-year defensive end was marvelous during his true freshman season at Auburn (7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks), but missed the 2014 campaign with a torn ACL, and then all but seven games in 2015 with a hip injury. Lawson has the character, technique, power, athleticism, and natural instincts to be a top-10 pick, but his unreliable health remains a legitimate concern. Should Lawson stay on the field consistently this season while building on his already impressive skill set, I expect the edge rusher to contend to be the top non-quarterback off the board in next year’s draft.