Scouting Report: Is Shaq Lawson the Answer at DE for the Miami Dolphins?
Heading into 2015, the defensive line was supposed to be a major strength for the Miami Dolphins. The team had Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake as the ends, with Ndamukong Suh and the combination of Jordan Phillips/Earl Mitchell inside. However, the projected success of the unit could not be less accurate when looking at the end result.
The Dolphins struggled mightily on the line last season and will look to reinforce that group during the draft. They allowed Olivier Vernon to walk in free agency, recognizing the absurdity of his price tag on the open market. The team brought in Andre Branch as a rotational piece and retained Cameron Wake after many felt he would be cut. Now, the Dolphins will look towards the draft to fill in the gaps.
The 2016 NFL Draft class is filled with talent on the defensive line. However, no player was more productive or impactful on the field last season than Shaq Lawson. He dominated for 13 games with the Clemson Tigers and is now rightfully making his way towards the top of draft boards.
Background & Stats:
Shaq Lawson’s story is one that allows you to see the great link between a player’s personal life and the trajectory of their career. During high school, Shaq Lawson’s father was killed in a car accident. Following an incident that would derail many young men, the four-star recruit buckled down and decided to stay close to home in college to help his family. He committed to Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. When most young men would fold, Lawson committed himself to his craft in a true display of character and toughness that transcends football.
This helped Shaq Lawson become the player that he is today, as he was able to play behind star collegiate defenders like Vic Beasley. Lawson played in all 13 games during his first two seasons, but did not start during either. He totaled 7.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss during those two seasons playing as a rotational piece.
Thanks to his relentless work ethic and motor, Swinney decided that Lawson would enter 2015 as a starter. Shaq Lawson lived up to expectations by posting 25.5 tackles for loss (NCAA leader) and 12.5 sacks. Lawson was a consensus-All American, and he helped propel the Tigers to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the CFB Playoff National Championship Game.
Shaq Lawson isn’t the type of player that immediately pops out from an athletic standpoint. He isn’t firing off the line at a ridiculous speed, or laying down highlight reel hits on quarterbacks. However, being that player isn’t a prerequisite for success in the NFL. If a player wants to find a role in the pros, they are better off sharing a skillset with players like Shaq Lawson.
One of Lawson’s best assets is his motor. He is in better shape than any of his competition, and he has a willingness to fight through blockers for 60 minutes.
On this play against Oklahoma, the Clemson defensive line collapses the pocket around Baker Mayfield. Mayfield starts to scramble and gives Lawson an opportunity to display his outstanding determination. He fights with the offensive tackle for an exorbitant amount of time, on a play that many linemen would have simply given up on. Lawson displays his relentless pursuit and excellent physical condition, and he is able to battle long enough to find an opportunity to sack the quarterback.
Here, Lawson knows that Clemson’s undefeated season is on the line. 4th & 1, trying to stop FSU from entering field goal range, Lawson sells out to make the play in remarkable fashion. He leaves his feet and catapults himself at Dalvin Cook. He isn’t going to make the tackle, but he chips Cook and prevents him from gaining the momentum needed to power through for the first down.
Regardless of how you feel about the “motor player” moniker, you want someone who fights as hard as Lawson, whether it’s 4th & 1 in the last quarter, or the very first snap of the game.
One of the things that makes Lawson so effective during these long battles is his strength. He is one of the more powerful linemen I have watched in this year’s class; he is able to take advantage of offensive linemen who are not sound in their footwork.
Grown. Man. Strength. On this play, Lawson fights through the left tackle for the sack of Miami QB Brad Kaaya. This play is not something you typically see from an edge player. Usually a defensive tackle can drive back linemen in this fashion, but it is very unique to see from an end. When Lawson has opportunities to use his strength, as he did here, he can look like a bulldozer taking out a lemonade stand.
Shaq Lawson is a very instinctive football player. When you lack explosiveness, the best quality you can possess is a high degree of instinctiveness. Lawson is capable of showing that reactionary ability, as well as a high football IQ coupled with good decision-making on the field.
On this play, Lawson’s football IQ is on full display. He sees the play develop, weaves around a would-be blocker, and manages to disrupt the progression of the play. Had the running back made the catch, one can only imagine the hurt that Lawson would have inflicted upon him.
This read option is diagnosed perfectly by Lawson. He makes sure that he is in a position to make the play either way and does not get jumpy. He reads the eyes of the quarterback and knows he has decided to hold the ball. Lawson is able to stop him in his tracks, impeding the Fighting Irish’s progress. This is exactly what you want to see from a defensive end who lacks the athleticism needed to compensate from a bad read. Shaq Lawson simply doesn’t let himself get into those uncomfortable situations.
You don’t manage to put up 25.5 tackles for loss if you aren’t able to reset your base and wrap up ball carriers in the backfield.
Here, Lawson uses a small burst of speed combined with his signature power to throw the lineman off of his base. He blows up the play, and takes the time to reset himself before making one of the most technically sound tackles you could ask for.
While Lawson doesn’t have a large arsenal of block shedding moves, he is able to use the spin very effectively.
Here, he loads Miami’s offensive tackle into a dryer and sets it to high. Yup, the spin cycle. Lawson also attempted the move, with some success, against Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley.
Stanley is one of the nation’s best left tackles, and rarely is caught holding. However, Shaq Lawson sees a window and uses the spin moves to slide off of the All-American tackle. Stanley’s only option? Grab on for dear life. This play shows just how dangerous Lawson can be, even against top competition.
The main negative when watching Shaq Lawson is that he is very stiff. Dolphins fans watch Cameron Wake hit the edge and bend to the point of being almost parallel to the group before accelerating to the quarterback. Shaq Lawson is not that type of player. He is never going to be the explosive presence on the edge that speeds around opposing tackles.
Shaq Lawson also has issues disengaging in a timely manner when the play develops on the opposite side.
Here he is late recognizing the opposing runner and you see what happens when a player who lacks explosiveness gets caught in an uncomfortable situation athletically. Luckily, the Tigers’ defensive line has enough talent that it didn’t hurt them in many cases to have Lawson struggle catching players from behind. Lawson’s struggles disengaging could be exposed in the NFL.
While players obviously should tackle using a full body wrap up technique, it is a useful skill to be able to grab hold of more slippery players and drag them down. Lawson sometimes struggles with bringing down twitchier athletes.
Here, Lawson is unable to get his arms up quickly enough to bring down the QB. He attempts to catch him, but is not a naturally explosive runner. So, he stumbles a bit, doesn’t get his hands up to slow down the scrambler, and ends up trading a sack for a throw away.
Shaq Lawson also struggles with penalties.
In this case, Lawson simply lined up offsides. This is a mental mistake that he was caught in on a few occasions during 2015. In the NFL, coaches expect the little things like where you line up to be automatic. He cannot leave question marks about elements of the game that are second nature for pro players.
Lawson also had trouble with roughing the passer calls, and he occasionally had trouble slowing down the motor that makes him so dominant. He would continue his pursuit of the quarterback and put his team in difficult situations by extending drives. Being a high motor player helps your team until you lose the ability to turn it off. That’s when you become a major liability on the field.
As is the case with most first round prospects, Lawson’s positives far outweigh the negatives. However, there is one negative that draws attention, which is somewhat concerning.
At Clemson, Lawson played with a group of All-Americans and other defenders far above the normal collegiate level. With that being said, when he struggled, he did not have to put the team on his back. With the Miami Dolphins, Lawson would be entering a talented unit. However, players are granted greater responsibility in the NFL than they are in college. So, is Lawson able to handle this, or did he rely too much on his teammates during his time at Clemson?
I am usually inclined to not blame players for being a part of strong units in college, but it does beg the question as to how much of Lawson’s production is thanks to decreased blocking attention.
How He Fits in Miami:
Shaq Lawson played in a 4-3 defense in college, and he will be able to play in a 4-3 defense in the NFL. He projects well as the 4-3 lineman that Miami can play on downs during which Cameron Wake is off of the field. If Lawson’s struggles exploding off of the edge hurt him in passing downs, Wake can substitute in off of the bench.
There is one unconventional way that Shaq Lawson could be utilized in Miami. While he doesn’t explode off of the line, Lawson builds up speed very well if given space. So, can you imagine lining up Lawson in the Wide-9 and letting him turn into a human wrecking ball? Lawson coming downhill, building up speed, and using his strength to mow down blockers is a very happy thought for Dolphins fans.
Regardless of how the team decides to implement Shaq Lawson, he is a formidable defensive lineman when rushing inside or outside. Vance Joseph will look to mix up the Dolphins’ front in 2016, and go away from the very predictable looks utilized by Kevin Coyle. So, Joseph would be happy to have a player like Shaq Lawson who can potentially be used in various sets and can play every down.
The Dolphins lack that every down presence on the defensive line, and Cameron Wake’s impending delegation to a rotational role means that a player like Shaq Lawson is even more attractive to the team. If he can contribute in a similar way to how he did at Clemson, then Lawson will be a dominant NFL defensive lineman for many, many years.