I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can. Read all about the Draft Project Here.
Shaq Lawson, Edge, Clemson - 6'3, 270 - Junior
Last night with the whole world watching, Shaq Lawson played hurt and played well against Alabama to continue his surge up draft lists and into the mix in the 1st round and higher. He is a player that led the nation in tackles for loss and finished (with the benefit of an extra game) 2nd in the nation in sacks. This type of explosive production is rare and worth paying top dollar for in the draft, although, for every productive college pass rush type who succeeds and is just as successful at the next level (Von Miller is a good example), there are a half dozen or more who are never close to duplicating that elite production on Sundays. Conversely, some of the more productive players on Sundays (JJ Watt, for instance - who has had 17.5 sacks in a season 3 times already in 5 NFL seasons, never had more than 7 sacks at Wisconsin), never showed us this consistent production in the college game. Therefore, finding the edge rusher who is what we think he is complicated business in scouting rooms, but vital to avoid the cautionary tale of the blown top pick.
Lawson is part of a loaded Clemson defensive front that populated the NFL draft in the spring of 2015, but may have been even more dominant this season. They have many big and athletic players who thrive on penetration and swarming in packs to devour running plays and creating pass pressure. I used mainly the Clemson games against Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, as well as the Alabama game to examine him closely.
What I liked: You cannot help but appreciate Lawson's emotional streak and his motor that make him very attractive and in the middle of many big plays as part of that Clemson scheme. There is no question he has a knack for knowing where the play is coming and figuring out how to cut it off at the pass. He has very long arms which are able to create space and control over the lineman he is locked up against and with that he can move him around to free himself to make a play. He has an inside spin move that sometimes works very well. He is good against the run and funnels plays back inside like you might prefer from an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He also stands as a LB or can get in the 3-point stance of a DE without any dropoff in performance. Very strong at penetrating gaps at the snap. Has a fine bulrush with strength. Finds plays and then makes them on against all levels of competition.
What I did not like:He seems to not quite have the type of NFL burst you want from an edge rusher. There is not tons of juice to chase down plays or have a twitched up burst through traffic. He seems to tire as the game goes on -perhaps from playing so hard every snap- but by the end of the game, he often looks drained. The questions for him are going to be about that 1st step ability and quickness off the snap. Some might even theorize that he flirts with lining up offsides to compensate and get a quicker jump. He occasionally will get overpowered against runs right at him, but generally holds up pretty well. It is also worth noting that he spent a good part of 2015 trying to play through various knocks and bruises. He is tough, but those accumulate and can slow a man down.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys:There is no doubt Lawson is a fine prospect and his value is going to be greatly determined by his testing scores at the Combine. His tape passes the tests as does his production. The question will be whether he can demonstrate to teams that his quickness and burst are in the proper range, because those traits don't improve with age. Then, for me, the question becomes in a 4-3 like Dallas runs, would he fit the role of a DeMarcus Ware/DeMarcus Lawrence type (weak side RDE) or is he more of an Anthony Spencer? Obviously, those are three exceptional football players, but Ware is the type of guy you would value in the top half of Round 1, whereas Spencer might be in that next group from 20-50 as a strong-side defensive end who is much more of a complete defensive end than an elite pass rusher. There is nothing wrong with that prototype because jack-of-all-trades defensive ends are always needed and useful. But, if you think you are getting DeMarcus Ware or Von Miller, then 12-15 sacks a year in the NFL is a reasonable hope and expectation. I just don't think Lawson will ultimately be near that ceiling when forced to play against NFL left tackles.
He is a heck of a player and some team will draft him on Day 1 of the draft and make him an opening day starter, most likely in a 4-3. It will be interesting to see how he does this spring to cement his status in this upcoming draft. There is much work for Lawson to do this spring.