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Comparing Carl Lawson to college defensive ends who transitioned to NFL linebackers

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There’s a fairly successful history of college defensive ends with Lawson’s build transitioning to outside linebacker in the NFL.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma
Carl Lawson
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Carl Lawson is moving. But not as far as you might imagine.

Lawson, who joined the Cincinnati Bengals in Round 4 of the 2017 NFL Draft as the 116th overall pick, played defensive end during his four-year stay at Auburn. During his career, Lawson accounted for 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss, most of which came during his final season, when he racked up 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

Carl Lawson Auburn Stats

Year G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk FF
Year G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk FF
*2013 11 14 6 20 7.5 4 2
*2015 7 5 12 17 3 1 0
2016 12 16 14 30 14 9.5 1
Career 35 32 67 24.5 14.5 3

Despite his success along the defensive line, the Bengals have begun grooming Lawson as an outside linebacker in the team’s 4-3 scheme. But just what does that mean?

Cincinnati, as well as nearly half of the teams in the NFL, employs a defense that features a front line consisting of two ends on the outside and two tackles inside. Behind them are three linebackers: the MIKE, or middle linebacker, WILL, or weakside linebacker, and SAM, or strongside linebacker.

The MIKE position is the linebacker who sets up in the middle of the formation. The weak side of the field is the area with the shortest distance between the position of the football and the sideline. The strong side, then, is the longest distance. If the football is placed in the middle of the field, the strong side is, by default, the offense’s right side, since the right tackle is generally the better run blocker.

Weakside linebackers generally weigh in at under 240 pounds, while the strong side is reserved for athletic players weighing 255 pounds or more.

Other than the alignment, what are the differences between the responsibilities of a defensive end and a linebacker? A defensive end’s primary area of responsibility is rushing the passer, while the linebacker is tasked with making plays all over the field. The defensive end is usually matched up with an offensive tackle and, in addition to his pass-rushing duties, is responsible to contain the opposing team’s running back, or keep him from getting outside of the defense. A defensive end may occasionally drop back five to 10 yards from his position in an effort to help shut down the short passing game.

Linebackers may occasionally be asked to rush the passer in blitz packages, but their primary responsibility is to flow to the football and tackle the ball carrier as quickly as possible. In today’s increasingly pass-happy NFL, the linebacker is also regularly involved in pass coverage, matched up with the opposing team’s running backs or tight ends.

Because of his speed (Lawson ran a 4.67 40-yard dash at the combine), and his impressive size, Lawson has gotten looks at SAM in spring workouts with the Bengals. In addition to needing to have the strength to take on lead blockers on run plays (Lawson led all defensive linemen and linebackers with 35 repetitions at 225 pounds at the Combine), the SAM backer also has to cover tight ends in the pass game.

When Lawson’s switch to linebacker was initially announced, most people recalled a similar experiment with Michael Johnson, which proved to be an unmitigated failure and actually may have stunted his growth as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive end.

But we may be comparing apples to oranges. Johnson stands 6’7” and came out of college weighing 266 pounds. Lawson is considerable shorter at 6’2” and weighs 261 pounds.

Perhaps a better comparison might be Elvis Dumervil of the Baltimore Ravens. Dumervil stood 6’1” and weighed 257 pounds when he entered the NFL Draft in 2006. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds and completed 30 repetitions at 225 pounds. Most fans of the AFC North are familiar with Dumervil’s success. After beginning his career as a defensive end at the University of Louisville, Dumervil recorded 99 sacks over 10 seasons as an outside linebacker with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens.

Vic Beasley was a consensus All-American defensive end for the Clemson Tigers in 2013 and 2014. At 6’2” and 235 pounds, Beasley turned in a blazing 4.53-second 40 at the combine and matched Lawson’s total of 35 repetitions at 225 pounds. Beasley spent his first season with the Atlanta Falcons at defensive end and recorded four sacks in 2015. In 2016, Beasley was moved to SAM backer and led the NFL with 15.5 sacks.

Jamie Collins, at 6’3” and 250 pounds, played defensive end for his final two seasons at Southern Mississippi before moving to linebacker in the pros. Collins ran a 4.64 40 at the Combine but was not nearly as strong as either Dawson or Beasley, managing only 19 repetitions at 225 pounds. Collins has had a solid NFL career with the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns and earlier this year became one of the highest paid linebackers in the NFL.

Lawson fits the bill as a prototypical SAM or outside linebacker in the NFL. Because of his strength, he will be able to take on lead blockers and win at the point of attack in the running game. And, he has the speed to keep up with running backs and tight ends in coverage.

Lawson has all of the tools he needs to succeed at his new position. And he has the faith of the coaching staff.

“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.”