The Cincinnati Bengals were lucky enough to be able to draft Carl Lawson with their first fourth-round pick, as most draft evaluators expected him to be off the board way earlier. In fact, the Bengals even tried to trade up to get him, failed, and then still grabbed him with the 116th overall selection. The Auburn pass rusher is a tantalizing prospect and he could play an important role as early as Week 1 of his rookie season.
Cincinnati went with back-to-back pass rushers in Kansas State’s Jordan Willis (Round 3) and then Lawson (Round 4), after a season in which the Bengals were in the bottom third of the league in sacks. And that’s accounting for playing the Cleveland Browns twice. Not only did the Bengals add much-needed youth and talent to a position of need, the Bengals went with a different kind of pass rusher than they’ve chased for the last few seasons. Both Willis and Lawson are speed rushers who thrive on great take offs to take down opposing quarterbacks. Neither is a flawless prospect and they both will have to prove they belong in the NFL, but it is a refreshing change from the 6-foot-6 freaks who didn’t have obvious pass-rushing moves the Bengals were known for drafting prior to 2017.
Whereas Willis is a near lock to be an important part of the rotation at defensive end, Bengals coaches have said Lawson will get snaps at outside linebacker. The Georgia native is transitioning from being a pure pass-rusher in college to handling more duties for Paul Guenther’s defense, all part of the latest effort by Cincinnati to find the SAM linebacker of the future. A quick look at the list of former owners of that job shows Marvin Lewis and his staff like a certain type of player for the role: Dontay Moch, James Harrison, A.J. Hawk, or even the short-lasting Chris Carter. All of these guys were 3-4 outside linebackers who the Bengals thought could transition to play both with their hands in the dirt and standing up to cover tight ends in space and rush the passer. Results have been mixed so far, but Guenther thinks Lawson is bound to have a strong transition to the position. Can he become the outlier and succeed as SAM?
For starters, Lawson is one of the most explosive pass rusher from his draft class. He’s fast, has an outstanding take off, and can turn speed into power with ease. His lack of size at 6’2” was probably one of the reasons why 4-3 teams were wary of him, but somebody he’s been compared to often, Cameron Wake, isn’t that big either at 6’3” and has been great since coming over from the Canadian Football League. With that said, his primary job needs to be chasing after the quarterback. But, let’s explore why the Bengals want him dropping into coverage.
Lawson is fast, and it shows. He can overcome opposing linemen with his quick first step and I’ve seen him pull a sweet spin move from time to time. He already has a nice little swim move and he can use his hands very effectively.
That of course will have to translate at the next level, and Lawson will have to overcome his lack of size and shorter-than-ideal arms. He found a way in college, but offensive tackles are much better and much more athletic in the NFL. That might be a reason why the Bengals are trying to make him a versatile player. Think of baseball teams that will play first basemen in the outfield to give them at-bats.
I’m sure head coach Marvin Lewis and Guenther think Lawson can exploit his upper-body strength to dominate tight ends in the running game and take advantage of his speed to cover the flat.
But as good and fast as Lawson is when attacking the quarterback, he lacks fluidity and he wasn’t much of a producer against the run at Auburn. A hip injury in 2015 and a torn ACL in 2014 might be some of the reasons why he doesn’t look as explosive in the open field, and health concerns helped drive his stock down in the draft.
The Bengals appear to be willing to give him reps at both SAM linebacker and defensive end in obvious passing situations, and if they want to kick him inside, Lawson showed flashes of doing well there in college, too. A smart coach would try to fit their system to a special talent, not the way around.
The coaches know way more than me, but I think pass rushing should be Lawson’s specialty in the pros. He’s got experience as a nickel tackle, with his hand in the dirt, from a two-point stance. He can produce right away, and though the Bengals may want to develop him into a more complete player, they should also utilize his strengths right off the bat.
They failed with most of their past experiments at the SAM position, with Moch being the most recognizable bust. Just check how much of his pre-draft profile resemble’s Lawson:
"Moch's a college defensive end and lacks size to keep his hand down in the NFL but is blessed with the burst and athleticism to develop into a 4-3 outside linebacker. Has the potential to be a pass rushing specialist. Lacks experience playing standing up in space, finding the football, and in pass coverage but fluid and quick enough to develop in these areas. Relentless in pursuit. Not stout at the point of attack and also doesn't currently have a wide arsenal of pass rushing moves. It may take some time, but Moch has several redeeming qualities. Mid-round prospect".
Lawson is more ready as a pass rusher, but I haven’t seen that feel for tackling that linebackers must have to be successful in their roles from the rookie. Lawson has different moves and often played standing up, but he’s also struggled in the open field.
Opposingly, the Bengals coaching staff seems to believe he’ll be ready for the job when the time comes, and we won’t know if that is more than your typical offseason chatter until the season begins.
Carl Lawson the pass rusher has the potential to be a great player for the Bengals, but I’m not so sure about Carl Lawson the SAM linebacker. With Cincinnati going nickel more often as football evolves into an even more pass-heavy sport, it’ll be tough to see much of Lawson at the spot. Hopefully, he can work as a pass rusher full-time. I believe we’ll all enjoy it.