After an exceptional rookie season last year, there are big expectations for defensive end Carl Lawson in 2018.
A fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Lawson had 8.5 sacks in his first year with the Bengals. Many would expect that after having that kind of year, the coaching staff would be looking to get him more involved in the defense, but that is not the case according to his head coach.
“The biggest thing that was true for Carl from Auburn, and that is still true after his first season, is that by limiting his exposure we are going to get more production,” Marvin Lewis said in his August 14th press conference. “He’s not that big of a person to go out and bang with the big guys all the time. It won’t be beneficial to him, and to what he’s going to get done at the end of the game when you need him to.”
At 6’2” 260, Lawson is smaller that the team’s starting defensive ends Carlos Dunlap who is 6’6” 280 and Michael Johnson who is 6’7” 280, and Johnson is still the team’s starter opposite of Dunlap at base defensive end. The bigger issue with Lawson is his lack of length. He possesses just 31.5” arms, and got swallowed up at times in run defense last year because of it.
As a rookie Lawson played on 41.62% of the team’s defensive snaps and was second in sacks to defensive tackle Geno Atkins who had 9 while playing on 65.79% of defensive snaps. Dunlap was third on the team with 7.5 sacks while playing 76.44% of the time and Johnson had 5 sacks on 59.77% of defensive snaps.
Obviously, an effort was made to put the young sack-artist on the field in passing situations, which skews his numbers in comparison to Dunlap and Johnson.
Lewis may have a point though. The NFL season is long and it is most important to have a team’s best players at full capacity late in games and late in the season. While Lawson’s performance does seem to warrant a larger share of playing time, doubling his playing time certainly will not result in doubling his sacks and could end up hurting him in the long run.
Not every snap has an equal impact on the outcome of a game, and the Bengals need Lawson to be able to get to the quarterback in key situations where it really matters.
Fellow second-year defensive end Jordan Willis (6’4” 260) played on 31.41% of defensive snaps in 2017, and he is likely to see an upswing in year two. Rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard is likely to get his share as well.
With experience playing inside on passing downs at Ohio State, Hubbard may fall into Chris Smith’s role. Smith played on 34.99% of defensive snaps in 2017, before leaving in free agency.
While making sure Lawson is fresh in key situations and rotating keeping pass rushers in general is a good idea, it is clear that everyone wants to see more of Lawson in 2018. It may not be wise to give him as many snaps as Dunlap, but after posting 8.5 sacks in 2017, giving him over 50% of the snaps in a passing league would be a good idea.
There is a happy medium and hopefully the Bengals will look to increase his playing time a little while continuing to manage his snaps so he can make plays in the biggest moments of the game.