Lawson was one of the biggest steals of the 2017 NFL Draft, as Cincinnati was able to get him in Round 4 with the 116th overall pick. The former Auburn Tigers defensive was a guy who some experts thought could go late in the first round or early on Day 2.
However, health concerns scared enough teams off that he was able to land in Day 3. even with said issues, Lawson should give the Bengals some good years during his rookie contract, and on Day 3, that’s about all you can hope for.
Adding Pass-rushers was the Bengals’ biggest priority heading into this draft, and rushing the passer is Lawson’s specialty. This past 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.
Because Lawson is undersized at 6’2” and 261 pounds, he’ll have a tough time becoming a full-time defensive end in a 4-3 defense, which may explain why the Bengals list him at linebacker right now.
Most experts expected him to join a 3-4 defensive team that would allow him to thrive off the edge but not have his hand down on the line against far bigger offensive tackles. Lawson does use his smaller frame to get under bigger lineman and also beat them off the edge with his great burst off the line. The Bengals may use Lawson at outside linebacker, to best utilize his strengths.
Lawson can also line up and rush inside, something the Bengals like their edge rushers to do occasionally. Per PFF, Lawson created pressure on 40 percent of his rushes in between the tackles. He’s also respectable enough against the run that there’s a chance he could eventually develop into a full-time defensive end in Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense, though he’ll be a situational pass-rusher early in his pro career.
I expect Lawson to get most of his rookie snaps as a nickel defensive end and occasionally get some defensive tackle snaps on obvious passing downs. He’s shown he can make an impact rushing from the tackle’s outside shoulder and on the interior against slower guards.
As long as Lawson gets the same amount of snaps that Will Clarke, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt were getting last year, he should produce more sacks and consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Even with the Bengals drafting Jordan Willis in Round 3, Lawson is too good of a pass-rusher to not have a nice role with this team in 2017. Those two could very well end up being the team’s third and fourth-best pass-rushers behind Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins during their rookie seasons.