Carl Lawson’s football career has been one of great potential. Unfortunately, it hasn’t also translated onto the football field.
Lawson began his college career at Auburn as ESPN’s second-ranked prospect in the class of 2013. He quickly showed why with a promising rookie season that helped Auburn come within seconds of winning a national championship before falling to Florida State. Even so, it looked like Lawson was bound for stardom sooner rather than later.
It turned out later would be the case, as injuries would limit Lawson to just seven games during the next two years. Finally healthy and ready to rock in 2016, Lawson became one of the best pass-rushers in college football, racking up 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sack. That only began to tell the story of Lawson’s dominance.
Per Pro Football Focus, Lawson averaged a sack, hit or hurry once every 5.4 pass rushing attempts in 2016, one of the highest rate of any edge defender. He also created pressure on 40 percent of his rushes in between the tackles, an absurd rate that had Lawson poised to be a high pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
But the injury and health concerns with Lawson scared enough teams away until he was on the board in Round 4 for the Bengals to steal. Now, they’re looking to work the former defensive end as a hybrid outside linebacker who will upgrade the team’s enigmatic pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther knows making this transition will be a process, but he’s confident in Lawson’s ability to grow as a player, even as soon as this season.
“Maybe this is a-guy-understands-your-role-for-2017 team,” Guenther told Bengals.com. “Maybe it’s 12 snaps one week. Maybe it’s 60 the next. Or 40. Whatever it is that can help us. The way the league is a passing game now, there are a lot of hybrid guys on defense. Guys that can rush and cover. New England has a lot of guys that do a little bit of everything. You have to give a guy a niche and be multiple each and every week.
“If you’re a third-down rusher, that’s what, 12-15 snaps? Then be the best at that. Maybe you’re a first and second down defender. That’s 25 snaps and be the best in that niche. If that’s what your role is this year and things go from there. We have a lot of different abilities in the room. It depends on what team we’re playing. There may be a safety or extra corner in there against a team that runs a lot of four wides. Maybe you’ve got to play 12 snaps this week.”
It may be a process for Lawson to develop and find his best spot at the NFL level, but thus far, Guenther likes what he’s seen from his new defender.
“He looks a lot quicker in person than he shows on the tape,” Guenther said. “Explosive getting off the ball. Real good first step. We’re doing a lot pushing and shoving. Let’s see if it carries over in pads.”
Veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap knows a thing or two about taking down quarterbacks. And like Guenther, Dunlap loves what he’s seen of the rookie, especially when it comes to Lawson’s burn to learn.
“He’s relying on his natural ability so now we’re trying to cover that with the educational part,” Dunlap said. “He’s a natural edge rusher. He’s asking a lot of questions. He wants to be a sponge. I think he can help us, but let’s see what happens in pads. Everyone is dressed for the part now.”
Veteran offensive tackle Eric Winston has also seen his fair share of pass-rushers in the NFL. He, too likes what he’s seeing from the young bull wearing No. 58.
“58 has some versatility,” Winston said. “You can kind of stand him up some and put his hand on the ground. He has ability to bend and his athleticism is evident. When he gets hit consistently, let’s see if he can still do it. I’ve talked to him a couple of times and he seems to have the right demeanor, the right attitude. It’s just a matter of him doing it.”
We shouldn’t expect Lawson to have a big role in this defense right out of the gate in Week 1. With so many other capable linebackers, Lawson may even be a regular scratch on the inactives list until the Bengals feel ready to deploy him into his new role. But, if Guenther is to be believed, his role could steadily increase during the course of the season.
When that time comes, expect Lawson to thrive in Cincinnati.