It wasn’t too long ago that the Bengals drafted a massive defensive end out of Southern Methodist University. That was, of course, the 6’8”, 298 pound Margus Hunt; the Bengals’ second round pick back in 2013.
This year there are two more defensive ends coming out of SMU and one has received quite a few comparisons to the Estonian giant who is entering his second year with the Colts. That’s Justin Lawler who weighs in at 6’4”, 262 pounds and isn’t as athletic as Hunt but has the same impressive ability to block kicks as Hunt and boasts some similar defensive abilities, too.
“Without a doubt, I’ve been compared to Margus,” Lawler said in an interview with Cincy Jungle. “Me and Margus have different playing styles but he’s definitely a great player so it’s a comparison that I can’t complain about.”
Lawler isn’t expected to be drafted nearly as early as Hunt; he’s more in play for Round 7 after a productive college career that saw him pulling starter duties for three seasons. Lawler leaves SMU with 226 tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 20.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery. That combined with a great attitude and character should be enough to get him looks from NFL teams, like the Bengals who have three picks in the seventh round of the draft.
Lawler is having official visits with the Saints, Buccaneers and Rams and attended the Cowboys’ local pro day in the lead up to the draft. He was also one of the stars of the East-West Shrine game as he put up two tackles for loss, one of which was a sack on former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
“I’m hoping to show I’m a reliable player, which you see on film from college,” Lawler said. “What you see in college is what you’re going to get in the NFL. I got some questions about moving laterally and I think I answered those and have done a good job with that.”
Lawler has already had a crazy and wonderful year, getting married on January 6 to his wife Denver, who he met in third grade. He also has a four-year-old daughter Blakely who he enjoys spending time with.
“Having a family, it kind of helps you come in with a team-first mindset,” said Lawler, a self-described family man. “I always tell my wife we’re a team and that really helps you out on the field, too. NFL teams should know with me, they’re going to get a solid player and we’re going to win a championship. That’s my main goal, main focus.”
Above all else, Lawler is just excited about the draft process. His average day currently includes working out, spending time with his family, staying healthy and trying to find something productive to do each day to better his chances at the NFL level.
“My whole family is excited and it’s just a fun process,” Lawler said. “A Lot of people said it would be stressful and overwhelming and it hasn't been a whole lot of that. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”
One thing that’s making the pre-draft process fun for Lawler is training with SMU teammates who are also preparing for life in the NFL.
“I think the best part about training with the guys is you get to compete,” Lawler said. “Me and Mason did play generally the same position as inside guys, so working out in college, he was a little stronger than I was and I was a little faster than he was. So we push each other and the competition makes you a better player.”
Lawler is talking about Mason Gentry, an interesting prospect who is looking to make a transition from playing defensive line in college to offensive line in the NFL. He’s never played a snap of football on offense, but he believes his best chance in the NFL will come with a move to that side of the ball. Gentry finished his defensive line college career with 107 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 4 passes defensed in four seasons for the Mustangs.
“It’s something people have told me since I’ve been at SMU and the coaches and I talked about it but it never really worked out because we weren’t too deep at defensive line, so I was doing what was best for the team,” Gentry told Cincy Jungle, explaining his transition. “But when the season was over and I discussed it with family, coaches and people who knew me, it seemed like the natural thing to do. The more people I talked with the more comfortable I got.
Interestingly, Gentry has found a great offensive line coach to work with to help out with his transition to the position. That’s none other than former Bengals great Willie Anderson, who runs an offensive line training program in Atlanta.
“It’s awesome working with him,” Gentry said of Anderson. “He’s super knowledgable and I had worked with another offensive line coach, so seeing two different systems has been really neat. Willie worked a lot on my footwork, being able to be aware of where I am, not going too far to go past defenders. He worked a lot on drills that I didn't do as much with other trainers. The knowledge he can spit out when I was working with him can’t be topped.”
Switching positions makes Gentry a project in the NFL and it’s unlikely he’ll be drafted later this month, but he’s just looking to prove that he can learn quickly and do what NFL teams will request of him. His best chance is likely to be signed as a college free agent following the draft.
“I’m trying to show I’m a quick learner, I’m athletic and I have the ability to play at the next level,” Gentry said. “It’s not always going to be easy but the more I work at it every day, getting better and better, a big part is them seeing my athleticism at this size and showing them that and my ability to pick things up quickly.”
Gentry has certainly impressed Anderson, who couldn’t speak highly enough about the young lineman.
“He’s gonna be a steal,” Anderson said. “He’s a former pitcher and nose guard who’s really more athletic than guys who’ve been lineman and one sport guys all their lives. He has the body of an NFL tackle with long arms, 6’7”, 315 pounds. He can run and is a natural slider in pass protection.”
As Anderson alludes to, Gentry was a baseball player in high school and didn’t actually start playing football until his senior year in Texas. But since then, he’s never looked back and NFL teams like the 49ers and Cowboys are among those taking notice.
The path to the NFL and sticking on a roster this fall won’t be an easy one for these SMU linemen but both Lawler and Gentry are ready to tackle the process and do whatever they can to achieve their NFL dreams.