Even though the headlines the Cincinnati Bengals made a month ago following the 2017 NFL Draft largely related to wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon—the team’s first two picks—Cincinnati may have received the most value with their selections in the middle rounds. One such pick was defensive end/outside linebacker Carl Lawson, who the team selected at the top of Round 4.
Even though he is in a bit of a transition to a 4-3 outside linebacker with the Bengals, both his teammates and coaches are noting Lawson’s tenacity in OTA sessions.
“He’s smart. A real smart guy. Picks it up. Studies. He’s always up watching tape,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, via Bengals.com. “He’s going to be good…We know he can go forward. (Dropping into coverage) he’s going to have to work on. Down the road you can do a whole bunch of things with him once he understands the schematics of the defense. It’s a whole new chess piece for us.”
Lawson rushed the passer often at Auburn, racking up 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2016. Still, early opinions of the Bengals’ move of Lawson to a more traditional linebacker role so early in his pro career were akin to the team attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole.
However, it’s good to hear he seems to be transitioning well. It isn’t just Guenther who’s noticing it, either. Fellow linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Kevin Minter like what they see out of the rookie as well.
“The dude in “The Longest Yard,” (who says), ‘you brok-ed my nose,” Burfict said, when asked who Lawson reminded him of in these early sessions. “He’s strong as hell. He’s fast as hell. He gets to the corner. Really, he can kind of be like a Von Miller off the edge type guy. He never gets tired. He has a great pass rushing ability. I’m excited to see him play in the preseason.”
Fans will drool at the Miller comparison, especially as the Bengals have looked for a different mold of an effective pass-rusher since Marvin Lewis took over as head coach 15 years ago. Experiments with guys who attempted to make a similar transition to what Lawson is currently undergoing in David Pollack and Dontay Moch didn’t work for differing reasons, but Lewis is hoping to finally re-capture the magic he used in Baltimore to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl with this year’s fourth round pick.
Minter’s simple assessment of Lawson, saying “he’s all about getting to the passer,” tells us a lot, but it will be interesting to see how the rookie plays in space when asked to do so. If you’re asking Guenther, he likes what he’s seen with Lawson’s learning curve early on.
"I think he looks great," the team’s defensive coordinator continued, via ESPN.com. "Way better than most guys that are trying to do that, that I've coached that tried to make the transition from being an every-snap going forward to now dropping back. He's way ahead of a lot of guys I've coached."
Even though Lawson was primarily an edge rusher with the Tigers, he did drop back in space at times. While he isn’t totally familiar with 4-3 concepts at the NFL level yet, his limited experience has given him a leg up, it seems. And he did play in a 4-3 defense during his first two seasons at Auburn, though, he was injured for one of those years.
A big part of the rebound process from a disappointing 2016 season for the Bengals is in getting immediate dividends from their most recent draft class. While Lawson might not be the rookie Cincinnati relies on most, he will still be a key guy on a rotational basis in the early weeks of the season. Because of that, it’s great to hear he’s making strides early in practices.