The Cincinnati Bengals drafted several players who came as big steals in the 2017 NFL Draft.
None of them fit into that category more than former Auburn Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson, a prospect who many experts expected to be selected late in the first round or early on Day 2. Somehow, he managed to fall to the 116th pick in Round 4 before Cincinnati scooped him up. The Bengals are actually planning to play Lawson at outside linebacker, but, he’s confident in his ability to make the transition.
Lingering health concerns scared enough teams off that the Bengals were able to steal him on Day 3. Adding impact pass-rushers was the Bengals’ biggest area of need heading into this draft, and rushing the passer is Lawson’s specialty.
Last season, Lawson accounted for 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Per Pro Football Focus, Lawson averaged a sack, hit or hurry once every 5.4 pass rushing attempts in 2016.
While shorter than NFL teams would prefer for an edge rusher, Lawson's compact build makes him a difficult blocking assignment for opposing linemen. He uses his smaller 6’2”, 261-pound frame to get under bigger lineman and also beat them off the edge with his great burst off the line.
Still, that smaller frame was part of why Lawson fell to the Bengals in Round 4, but that doesn’t mean draft gurus weren’t high on him. Most experts had a high grade on him.
- ESPN’s Todd McShay had Lawson ranked 87th overall coming into the draft
- Mel Kiper ranked him 52nd.
- Coming into Day 2 of the draft, Lawson was Pro Football Focus’ second-best player available, and he was their 14th-best prospect coming into the draft.
- CBS Sports had him ranked 45th.
- The Cold Omaha Consensus Big Board, which factors in every major draft ranking, had Lawson ranked as the 42nd-best prospect in this draft. That’s actually higher than Joe Mixon (48th) or Jordan Willis (51st), both of whom were drafted by the Bengals before Lawson.
It’s clear that the Bengals got a major steal in terms of Lawson’s talents and abilities. But because Lawson is undersized at 6’2”, he’ll have a tough time becoming a full-time defensive end in a 4-3 defense. That’s part of why the Bengals plan to test him out at linebacker instead.
Most experts expected him to join a 3-4 defensive team, which would have allowed him to thrive off the edge but not have his hand down on the line against far bigger offensive tackles. Bengals fans should temper expectations on him as a rookie since his true NFL position may take some time to find, but, Lawson should make an immediate impact as a pass rusher, even if he’s used in a heavy rotation.