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SI 50, No. 15: Clemson’s Shaq Lawson

Shaq Lawson, a pass rusher who has developed into an every-down force, comes in at No. 15 on our list of the top 50 NFL prospects of 2016. 

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With the 2016 NFL draft just a few weeks away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.

As we move through the top 16, we’ll be doing more comprehensive single player reports, and we’ll continue with a pass rusher who has developed into an every-down force, and could be even better with some specific NFL coaching.

Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 269

Bio: It took Lawson some time to become a true starter on Clemson’s defensive line, but that speaks more to how stacked that line is than anything else. The 2015 season was his first as a down-to-down concern for opposing offenses, and he made the most of it with 35 solo tackles, 12.5 sacks, and an eye-popping 24.5 tackles for loss. He started just one game in ’14, but still amassed 16 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, and he racked up 16 solo tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in ’13. That sack total tied William Perry and Ricky Sapp for the most in Clemson history for a first-year freshman.

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Then again, Lawson shouldered heavy expectations coming into Clemson from Hargrave Military Academy after a very successful stint at D.W. Daniel High in South Carolina. He was a major factor in Clemson’s 2015 season, when the Tigers came within one game of a BCS championship, and even in that final loss to Alabama, Lawson stood out with two sacks. And with a ton of good tape against some of the best blockers in the nation (including a fascinating battle with Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley that should be required viewing for any football fan), Lawson decided to forego his senior season and declare for the NFL.

“I bring a lot of different moves to the pass rush,” he said at the combine. “People say I’m mostly a power guy, I don’t see myself as just a power guy—I can spin, beat you off the edge, run past you, everything.”

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That’s true to a degree, but Lawson’s power and versatility will make him a prized prospect. He’ll most likely join former teammate Vic Beasley, who was selected with the eighth overall pick in 2015, as a high first-round talent.

Strengths: Generates power and push out of two- and three-point stances. Can play outside and at five-tech. At the snap, Lawson consistently uses his hands and arms. Has a nice spin move that he uses to shoot up in the pocket, past blockers to their inside shoulder. Very strong upper body for his size—when he gets low off the snap, Lawson can tie up tackles and guards, bending them back and getting a good push. Challenges tackles through the arc. An aggressive, controlled run defender who eyes gaps skillfully and closes to the ballcarrier quickly. Can slip gaps against slide protection. Very persistent in the backfield: will work through multiple blocks and is able to keep his eyes on the ball. Uses his strength effectively against double teams. Has the feet and backpedal to work in short coverage, sticking with tight ends on crossing routes and running backs on screens. Occasionally uses a basic inside counter with an arm-over move to great effect. Does a nice job of mush-rushing at the line to keep mobile quarterbacks in check. Outstanding run defender who wrap-tackles quickly and ends plays in the backfield as well as any defender in this draft class. Closes to the quarterback in a flash. Displays the ability to punch blockers out of the way and move past them to the quarterback.Sideline-to-sideline chase defender. Very hard to fool on fakes and quarterback motion—Lawson is highly aware, and that shows up on tape over and over again. Truly a scheme-versatile player.

FARRAR: Counting down the top 50 NFL draft prospects of 2016

Weaknesses: Lawson has edge potential in the NFL, but he’s not a traditional arc-bender; he doesn’t have the flexibility to dip-and-rip. Could stand to be more explosive out of the gate, as he’s often too hesitant with his first step. Leans into blocks too often when he has the strength to stack and shed. Has an occasional penchant for jumping quickly and lining up in the neutral zone to offset speed disadvantage. Tends to wear out in high-rep games. Lawson will need to develop more and better pass-rush moves. At this point, he’s got a couple of basic steps, but he’s not going to be able to bull his way through NFL tackles for the most part. He needs to be more opportunistic with his power, especially to and around the edge.

Conclusion: 4–3 teams may see Lawson as a pass-rushing and run-stopping end who can kick inside to tackle on passing downs—that’s a more frequent conceit in the NFL these days, and Lawson certainly has the strength to pull that off. For 3–4 and hybrid base teams, he has a legitimate shot as disrupting everywhere from the tackle’s outside shoulder to end and tackle in some situations. In many ways, he projects well as a prototype of the modern multi-gap defensive lineman who can do a lot of different things to a fairly high level. Some may downgrade Lawson because he isn’t an obvious pass rusher, but he has the potential, with a few obvious technique fixes and a greater sense of urgency, to be an asset all along the line, in coverage and in advanced front concepts. With his on-field power and diagnostic skills, he’s got a strong head start.

Pro Comparison: Derrick Morgan, Titans (first round, 2010, Georgia Tech)