When you think of Auburn’s Carl Lawson what immediately comes to mind? Is it: disappointment, overrated, injury prone and lack of production? Or is it: relentlessness, speed, power and unlucky with health?
The SEC is loaded with elite edge-rushers. Myles Garrett headlines the list for many, but Charles Harris, Tim Williams and Derek Barnett all have solid cases for the title of best individual pass-rusher.
When it comes to Lawson though, the case gets more difficult, more detailed, more nuanced. It becomes a process-vs.-production discussion.
Do you judge a pass-rusher by the number of sacks and quarterback hits? Or do you judge him by his impact on the entire offense, the number of battles he win and how he wins them?
That’s the discussion surrounding Lawson; a heralded prospect, with an arsenal of pass-rushing moves, a prototypical frame and questionable numerical production that has led many to deem him overrated and unworthy of mention alongside those at the top of the conference.
And while he doesn’t have the freakish length of Garrett, the production of Barnett, the first-step quickness of Williams or the schematic and positional versatility of Harris, Lawson may be the best of them all, and is a great example of believing in process and technique over past production as an indication of future performance.
To start with, Lawson has been unlucky.
Coming off an outstanding true freshman year in 2013 he missed all of the 2014 season with a knee injury and played in just seven games last year due to a lingering hip concern. Remaining healthy is no skill, particularly when it comes to knee and hip injuries. And while it’s fair to wonder if those injuries will lead to future health worries, that remains unknown going into the season.
Yet despite those injury concerns there has been no noticeable decline in Lawson’s play or athleticism. He remains a quality athlete with good first-step quickness and he converts speed to power as well as, if not better than, any pass-rusher in the nation.
Most of the SEC’s premier pass-rushers win with their first step — beating offensive tackles before they’re set, bending the edge and running the arc to the quarterback. Lawson has his fair share of “I’m a better athlete than you” plays, as he dips and rips outside against inferior tackles.
But his power and intelligence is what makes him special.
Let’s start with the power. Few, if any, players in the nation create the same kind of surge Lawson does when he engages with linemen. In both the run and the pass game, against single and double-teams, he dominates opponents at the point of attack, slamming them back toward the quarterback.
And this isn’t against poor opposition. In 2015 Lawson consistently went one-on-one with three future NFL draft picks: Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper and Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi. Cooper and Tunsil both told NFL draft analyst Dan Brugler that Lawson was the best defensive lineman they have faced, and he beat up on Ifedi so badly that Texas A&M began chipping him with a running back while Ifedi held on for dear life.
His battle with Tunsil — widely regarded as the best tackle in America in 2015 — might be the best example yet of Lawson’s abilities. It showed off all his athletic qualities, but more importantly it showed his intelligence as a pass-rusher at such a young age and having played a limited number of games.
Lawson already has a great understanding of sequencing — stringing different pass-rush moves together — playing with leverage and utilizing counter-moves when his initial attempt is halted.
Watch below as he sets Tunsil up for an outside move, maintains leverage and keeps Tunsil’s hands off his pads, then counters with a rip back toward the quarterback as Tunsil drops anchor.
Here’s a second example. First, Lawson starts with a bull rush, engages, then counters with a swim move and forces the ball out of the quarterback’s hands.
Those examples show an intelligent pass-rusher winning in a repeatable way, and although they don’t show up on the stat sheet, they’re a solid indication of what he can produce in 2016.
Beyond his individual skills, it’s fascinating how Lawson fits into the structure of the Auburn defense. Last year, in games without Lawson, Auburn’s opponents averaged 55 more yards per game and eight more points per game, and the Tigers defense averaged a half a sack less per game.
The reason is simple: with Lawson on the field opponents are forced to double-team him on nearly every play — unless they have a star at a tackle spot — freeing up everyone else to generate one-on-one opportunities and for the defensive staff to get more creative.
Moreover, like most modern-day pass-rushers, Lawson moves all across the Tigers’ front, playing at either end spot, standing up and kicking inside in obvious passing situations. That can create confusion for the offense as it fails to identify him pre-snap and blows its blocking assignments. The sack below against Ole Miss doesn’t go into the box score for Lawson, but it’s created by his presence and Ole Miss’ fear of leaving him one-on-one vs. its right tackle.
The impact goes further though. With Lawson on the field teams are forced to alter their entire game plan: get the ball out quicker and use more screen plays and zone-read concepts that have Lawson as the unblocked/read defender. The result was a big drop in third-down completion percentage — from 48.1 percent without Lawson to 43 percent with him — as opponents ran a more horizontal offense.
So while Lawson may not have put up superstar numbers, he is having a superstar-like impact whenever he is on the field. Expect those performances to continue into 2016, with an increase in individual production and numbers as Lawson dominates the way Auburn had anticipated when he signed in 2013.