The Future Lessons of Shaq Lawson & Prospect Evaluation


Two analysts, a FBS coach, and a scout debate Shaq Lawson and it’s a great lesson on evaluation and evaluation process.  

Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson is the most polarizing first-round defensive talent in this draft. One side believes Lawson is an explosive, top-notch athlete who didn’t get to display all that he’s capable of doing as an edge rusher because of the Clemson scheme. The other side believes Lawson is a good, but not great, athlete who wasn’t asked to be a pure passing rushing force because he’s not that kind of player.

Lawson presents a terrific learning opportunity for the evaluation community. All analysts want to be right about their analysis, but the ones I enjoy following the most want to learn. This is the motivation behind this post.

You have to be a student of the game to become a competent evaluator of talent. You also have to become a student of your process.

Sound scouting requires constant evaluation of the methodology. Your work should yield  firm conclusions about players a vast majority of the time. I only have a handful of players each year where I feel uncertain about who they are on the field.

Even when you’re confident in your analysis, you should know where there are potential flaws in your methodology and how your results could be different if the characteristics of that player exploits the cracks in your process.

This is what I admire about the analysts I’ve spoken with about Lawson. They’re knowledgeable about the position, they understand they’re processes aren’t infallible, and they respect each other.  I want to document the discussions I’ve had about Lawson and defensive end evaluation with these individuals–Justis  Mosqueda, Scott Bischoff and John Owning–for us to learn from it.

There’s a difference between first-round talent and talent that goes in the top half of the first round. Scott Bischoff makes this argument with Shaq Lawson. A smart run defender with the power to collapse the edge in the passing game, Bischoff has concerns about Lawson’s get-off, the flexibility of Lawson’s hips and ankles, and the closing speed of the Clemson star.

Bischoff makes the case that Lawson, and the other top 4-3 defensive ends are getting pushed up draft boards based on need. After watching three games of Lawson before this viewing and studying this fourth game with Bischoff, I have a difficult time making a good opposing argument.

Bischoff, likes Lawson’s hands and the potential for him to get better using them. He sees a smart, disciplined player who maintains his responsibilities as a run defender. And Bischoff loves the spin move that works in either direction. Bischoff sees Lawson as a solid contributor in the mold of a Courtney Upshaw, but not a force in the passing game.

John Owning saw our show on Lawson and shared commentary with me on Twitter about Lawson’s slow get-off that raised more questions than I could muster with Bischoff on our show.

johnowning's avatar

Hey Matt, watching your film room on Shaq Lawson and you guys were wondering why he was late off the ball so much. I think I may have an answer as to why he is really late sometimes. My theory is that he is coached to react to the movement of the players across from him rather than the ball being snapped, which would cause him to be later than what you normally see. Randy Gregory did the same thing in Nebraska.

MattWaldman's avatar

Why would they do that with Lawson, but not Beasley?

johnowning's avatar

I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I would say because Beasley wasn’t very adept against the run, they altered their approach with him to fit his strengths. Since Lawson is much better against the run and more well-rounded, they went to how they wanted.

johnowning's avatar

The Clemson DC Brent Venables was brought up under Stoops at Oklahoma and they do a similar thing with their DL as they usually read the movement of man across instead of the ball.

Justis Mosqueda was on the RSP Film Room the following week and we discussed Lawson. As a response what what I shared with him and what was broached about the Clemson defender while watching Tyrone Holmes, Mosqueda wrote an excellent piece on these coaching methods for linemen called “Ball Reads/Tackle Reads.”

Mosqueda, like Owning, explains that it’s easy to misjudge a player’s get-off as a slow if he’s coached to do tackle reads. Mosqueda cites Gregory and Danielle Hunter as examples.

He adds Lawson to the list:

Another player who seems to fall victim to ball reads is Shaq Lawson. Earlier this month, I noted that the only first-round edge defenders selected over the last decade who are clearly better athletes than Lawson are Von Miller, Melvin Ingram and Bruce Irvin. Despite that, some, like ESPN’s Todd McShay, have said Lawson is limited athletically.

On paper, based on the numbers off of the NFL’s combine “master recording sheet,” which is sent to every franchise, Lawson is Ezekiel Ansah.

Ansah, on a per year basis, is one of the top 10 edge defenders drafted in the last decade. Interestingly enough, Ansah was viewed as “just an athlete” coming out of BYU. Lawson is being discussed as solely a technical edge-setter, when his upside says he has 10-sack potential. If you happen to rewatch Lawson between now and the draft,  with the different types of get-off reads in mind, you might have a moment of clarity, avoiding a potential misevaluation.

[Note: The 40-time is off an actual NFL Combine sheet and not]

It’s a compelling comparison that Bischoff appreciates because he values Mosqueda’s work . Likes the rest of these guys, he knows his thoughts on Lawson could be flawed. Bischoff is still looking for tape where Lawson has shown a similar get-off as Beasley in the same scheme or a quality bend of the edge. Until then, Bischoff offers equally compelling counter points:

 Bischoff_Scott's avatar

Had a long conversation today with a D line coach at a Div-I school. I promised I would not share his name or school anywhere. We talked about the difficulty of diagnosing explosiveness at the power end position in a 4-3.

Bischoff_Scott's avatar

He said that he’s had super explosive players and guys that were less athletic, and that you have to put them in situations where they can win, and he thought the Clemson D-line coach was fantastic.

Bischoff_Scott's avatar

He thought that while they’ve shown the ability to unleash guys like Beasley, they’d also shown the ability to allow guys like Dodd and Lawson to be effective.

Bischoff_Scott's avatar

He thinks Clemson uses Lawson the way that they do because they don’t think he’s all that athletic. He noted that Lawson’s tendencies to pressure outside and wide, and then stop his path was all about Clemson knowing that Lawson can’t get home. The coach feels Lawson deserves credit for learning to put effort into going back inside to clean up plays.

Bischoff_Scott's avatar

The coach didn’t particularly care for Lawson’s build. Although the times listed by Justis Mosqueda appear comparable on paper to Ansah, Lawson’s build made it super hard for Lawson to show bend. He sent me to a video of Shilique Calhoun as a means to show bend, and how it’s much easier to see bend with a more linear body.

 Bischoff_Scott's avatar

He thinks Lawson is an average to above-average athlete on film, and that there was no way he was playing below 270 pounds his season because of his lower body bulk.  The coach likes Lawson as a player but doesn’t love him. He gives Lawson more credit than I do athletically, but isn’t the type to look at combine numbers and be wowed by them if that stuff doesn’t show on film.

His overall belief is that Clemson’s coaching staff knows their players well enough that if Lawson was as athletic as Ansah, they would have unleashed Lawson like they did Beasley.

As far as Beasley’s concerned, he has run-defending skill. When he wanted to set an edge, he had the power in his punch and the ability to do it. Clemson knew what they had in Beasley and wanted him attacking off the edge.

What I Think

What I think should take secondary importance. I’m still in the early stages of my education with studying edge talent, which is why I’m doing RSP Film Rooms and learning from my guests. I’ve heard four names in this conversation: Lawson, Beasley, Ansah, and Hunter. It only makes sense to watch each get off the line when it’s a known pass rushing situation.

Here’s Hunter against Alabama. He’s watching the ball and reasonably quick. He’s even quicker making a lateral cut across the body of the left tackle.

In a two-point stance working the corner, Hunter and his teammates are reading the ball and Hunter is once again quick enough to get the edge easily even if he doesn’t know how to use his hands and bend through contact.

There’s evidence of Hunter’s burst and flexibility to bend an edge on this play despite a complete absence of technique.

Hunter often has run responsibilities to protect the edge and getting off the ball fast wasn’t the top priority. But when it was a clear pass rush situation, he’s often the first off the line at the snap.

Beasley (top of the formation) looks like a sprinter when the gun goes off:

Now what about Lawson in the same game? Look at him at the top of the screen over the left tackle and judge for yourself:

Doesn’t look like a bad get-off to me, but it’s the only play I’ve seen when Beasley and Lawson on the field at the same time where the get-off is about even.

Here’s another from that game paired with Beasley on the other side. Beasley is tighter in the box off the right tackle, Lawson wide-9 to the left tackle.

Beasley and Lawson’s burst off the line looks similar on this play and Lawson’s spin move is pretty nasty in its own right. But Lawson is still a fraction of a second slower. If you value 10-yard splits, this difference is the the gap between getting pressure and not getting pressure.

A Scout’s Take

I spoke with one of my favorite evaluators in the league about Lawson. He has a better grasp of analytics and film that anyone I’ve met. He appreciates Mosqueda’s work with Force Players. When I told him about this ongoing debate about Lawson, here’s what he had to say:

Lawson is a good football player. He’s better versus the run than as a rusher, which limits his upside. He’s good enough to create some push, but I don’t see the flexibility and burst to consistently threaten the edge against good NFL offensive tackles. But I think he could really give you something sliding inside on rush downs.

Lawson could become a solid starter for a lot of teams because he will give them a run anchor where ever he plays. He has a good work ethic and the physical skills are good enough for him to find a way to be effective in the NFL. He just not likely to do it as an explosive pass rusher.

It’s interesting that Mosqueda has him as a force player, because Lawson played dinged up quite a bit in 2015. I still don’t see traits of an explosive, game-changing rusher.

At this point, I bring up what I saw from the Oklahoma game above.

That’s a big tell to me if he didn’t light it up as a sub-package/spot guy with all the attention to Beasley. Lawson is also a vastly different body type than Ansah, who had much longer arms, less lower body tightness and is a legit, 6’5″. Lawson is 6’3″, average length to his arms, and he is wound very tight through the hips.

Lawson looks more like Will Smith (rest in peace) than Ansah. It’s not like Smith was a slouch. He was a quality starter for many years and had a Pro Bowl appearance. But he wasn’t a dynamic edge threat.

My expectation of Lawson running to +1 standard deviation is a career like Smith’s. If he really has a big up-tick and ends up a +2 standard deviation player, great, but it’s not common.

Mosqueda’s Final Thoughts

I showed this post to Mosqueda and Bischoff before running it to make sure I represented them accurately and for final thoughts. Mosqueda had some excellent ones that provide additional insight to his process:

Bischoff, the coach, and the scout all have fair points. Their points about Lawson’s build probably matters, although I personally don’t place an incredible amount of importance to arm length for pass rushers.

Lawson already shows the ability to set the edge by pinning dudes with one arm. Lawson’s age versus Ansah’s age makes him compelling because the only first-round players as young and athletic as Lawson to play their first season under 23 years of age are Von Miller and Melvin Ingram. Both Ansah and Irvin entered the league at age 24 and Lawson will be 22.

My thoughts on Lawson’s get-off are also based on what I’ve seen him do when he made tackles for losses (TFL). You don’t get TFLs without explosion, which is why I think TFLs for college prospects are better watch-list items for college prospects than sacks. Lawson lead FBS in TFLs.

That said, it 100 percent wouldn’t surprise me if Lawson kicked inside to a 3-tech in a role and style of Michael Bennett in the NFL. It also appears this is the plan for Seahawks defender Frank Clark, who was my comparison for Lawson in September. Clark, like Lawson was a Force Player at Michigan who racked up far more TFLs than sacks.

I agree with all the comps other than the one for Upshaw, who has five total sacks in four seasons [Waldman: Bischoff understands that he might be underselling Lawson’s athletic ability a little bit with this comp.]. I think Lawson will reach at least five total sacks per season during the first three seasons of his rookie contract.

For those of you keeping score on Lawson, the range of expectations and reasons why looks like this:

  • Mosqueda:  A force player capable of bending the edge and showing more explosion than what we saw at Clemson. A prospect closer to Ezekiel Ansah who will at worst kick inside to a Michael Bennett role.
  • Bischoff: A solid first-round pick in the back half of the round who is closer to Courtney Upshaw in style.
  • Scout: A Will Smith-like prospect, which is a more athletic than Upshaw, but not at Ansah’s level.
  • Owning: I didn’t really get his take on Lawson, but his thoughts and theories on Lawson’s get-off were helpful.

Thanks to all four analysts for their willingness to entertain my questions and to contribute to this post for the sake of educating readers on tricky evaluations. I’m looking forward to what we’ll see from Lawson in the next few years.

One response to “The Future Lessons of Shaq Lawson & Prospect Evaluation”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: