Carl Lawson was one of the biggest bright spots for the 2017 Bengals.
For 2018, the hope is Lawson will be one of the team’s biggest strengths, figuratively and literally.
Appearing in all 16 games as a rookie, Lawson recorded 8.5 sacks, one shy of the Bengals rookie record previously set by Carlos Dunlap (9.5). The former Auburn Tiger finished 2017 with the 20th-best pass-rushing grade (83.9) among edge defenders (4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers).
But while Lawson had a great set of pass-rushing moves, he didn’t have quite enough strength to hold up against the run. His PFF run defense grade (44.9) was among the worst of any edge defender in 2017.
To be fair, PFF charted only 72 snaps for Lawson in run defense, so we rarely got a chance to see how well he could hold up against the run.
Still, getting stronger and becoming a full-time defensive end has been one of the biggest offseason goals for Lawson and the Bengals.
In an interview with The Athletic, Lawson talked about his offseason training regime, which has mainly focused on gaining muscle, as evidenced by this photo of him during OTAs by Nick Graham of Journal-News:
It’s clear whatever plan Lawson has been on is working in a big way.
“It just happened,” said Lawson. “Just working out. I never did curls, really, so I started to do curls this offseason. This is really the first time I started doing some upper-body work — not that serious, 50-pound dumbbells. Just some beach muscle-type stuff.”
Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Lawson was someone hyped up as a second-round prospect that could possibly sneak into the end of Round 1. However, Lawson’s injury history in college, along with his tweener frame, led to him slipping all the way into Round 4.
That’s where the Bengals got arguably the biggest steal of that draft, as they got a first-round talent who showcased that as a rookie. But while Lawson had a nice rookie season, he’ll need to keep getting stronger to become a full-time defensive end in a 4-3 defense.
Lawson is also making sure to not lose any of his speed and quickness as he packs on more muscle.
“I’m still fast, just as fast. A lot stronger though,” he said. “Last season I wasn’t lifting like that, I was doing more stretching and flexibility. Now I have that plus my upper body.”
Now, Lawson is preparing to be a guy who’s on the field in more of a full-time role in 2018, as he doesn’t want to just be a role player who rushed the passer on third downs like last season.
“I’m not just third downs this year, so I need to have a more complete body and a more complete game,” Lawson said. “Been playing the run, I feel like I’m doing really well actually. Playing good 6-technique (lining up outside the offensive tackle), playing with a stance that’s comfortable for run and pass.”
Using Lawson in a base defense as a 4-3 defensive end is something the Bengals absolutely need to do going forward. For most of his rookie season, Lawson was more of a situational player that was used primarily on passing downs, though he did get more work in as a full-time defensive end as the season wore on.
With Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap both set to become free agents in 2019, it’s ‘very possible Lawson becomes one of the full-time ends very soon.