It’s easier to notice Shaq Lawson these days, first, because of the decreased volume coming from his cubicle in the Buffalo Bills’ dressing room.
It’s easier to notice the defensive end on the field, too, because of his contributions to a pair of mostly strong showings by the Bills’ D. Working in a reserve role, Lawson had a sack and a pass breakup in the season-opening victory against the New York Jets and was credited with a hit on Eli Manning in Sunday’s win against the Giants.
There’s a connection. Lawson has committed himself to being more serious in his approach to his craft, because he knows that’s what coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane demand from their players.
“I had to buy in or get out,” Lawson said.
Since joining the Bills as a first-round draft pick from Clemson University in 2016, Lawson was known for his fun-loving, approachable nature. He was someone you routinely heard before you saw, clowning with teammates in a running commentary delivered in a booming voice that gave ear drums all they could handle.
Lawson could make it difficult for others who weren’t even part of what he was saying to hear each other. In fact, at one point last season, safety Micah Hyde actually paused during a media interview to turn toward Lawson and yell, “Shaq!” Lawson promptly got the message and turned down the noise. Hyde smiled as he resumed talking, making it clear it was simply a case of Shaq just being Shaq.
But the perception, at least from the outside, was that Lawson was too much about drawing attention to himself. It seemed he was still following the low-accountability, anything-goes atmosphere of his previous coach, Rex Ryan, rather than fully embracing the team-first mantra of McDermott and Beane.
Although Lawson was solid in 2018, finishing with 30 tackles, four sacks and 12 quarterback hits, he failed to convince the Bills’ decision-makers to pick up his fifth-year option that would have paid him $10 million in 2020. Now, Lawson is due to become a free agent after this season. He got that message, too.
“Yeah, it hit me,” Lawson said. “It hit me hard. But then I sat back and thought, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ I knew, after they didn’t pick up my fifth-year option, how very important this year was for me, knowing it was going to be my last year on my contract and I knew what I had to do and prove people wrong.”
The fact all of the other six members of the Bills’ 2016 draft (second-round linebacker Reggie Ragland, third-round defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, fourth-round QB Cardale Jones, fifth-round running back Jonathan Williams, sixth-round wide receiver Kolby Listenbee and sixth-round cornerback Kevon Seymour) are no longer on the team resonated with Lawson as well.
“I’ve seen the rest of my draft class get out the door fast,” he said. “So seeing those guys leaving and (the Bills are) giving me an opportunity to do this right, I had to buy in or be out the door.”
To Lawson, buying in means treating McDermott’s “one-eleventh” motto as gospel.
“On and off the field,” the defensive end said. “Details. Go by his rules every day and get better. That one-eleventh is a big role.”
Lawson played 22 snaps (31%) against the Jets. He played 29 (41%) against the Giants.
He said he made a conscious effort during offseason workouts and training camp to be less of a jokester. Since then, he said, he has been more serious.
To the outside observer, it appears to be the case. During a recent conversation with a reporter, Lawson held back from engaging when wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie – also known for his verbosity – made a wisecrack pertaining to his alma mater, Georgia, and Clemson.
“See, that guy right here makes me want to crack jokes on him,” Lawson said. “See, that’s a prime example right there. I would have said a joke then, but I just let it go out the ear.
“I know what time it is. Like, this ain’t no joke.”
Fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes, in his 10th NFL season, has seen a noticeable difference in the way Lawson carries himself. Hughes has always been a fan of Lawson’s outgoing personality and always wants teammates to be as loud and energetic as possible on the field.
However, Hughes also understood that Lawson was at a crossroads entering this season. He has been pleased by Lawson’s willingness to respond accordingly.
“He’s certainly grown and we can see that,” Hughes said. “It just comes with the current regime now that’s in place versus the one when he first got here. It was a little bit more of a circus, a little bit more loose. Now, he’s understanding what it takes to be a pro, how to get up every day, come to work, take care of your body. And we’re getting that lesson with the current coaches, especially the way they set things up now.
“He’s become a lot better aware of being a better pro, what he needs to do to go out there and perform on Sundays. You see him taking the necessary steps coming in throughout the week, getting into the hot tub and cold tub just to kind of contrast, to kind of take care of his body. He’s coming in on Tuesdays, watching film with us, trying to really understand how teams plan on attacking us so he can go out there and play fast and just be ahead of the curve.”
When the Bills drafted Lawson, Hughes and 13th-year veteran outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, were among the first new teammates to reach out to him. With a combined 23 years of NFL experience, they’ve since served as mentors that Lawson believes have been vital to his sticking around as long as he has.
“They’ve had a big part in why I’m still here, because I’m buying in by following those guys,” Lawson said. “They’re leading by example. They’ve been helping me develop what I need to work on in rush (and be) more of a smart player. Play smart. You can play aggressive, but also play smart.”
Hughes has helped educate Lawson on the finer points of rushing the passer. He shows him the type of angles to take and certain moves to help set up blockers so that they’re going in one direction while he goes in another to get a clearer path to the quarterback.
“He’s always asking questions, as far as what I see out there on the field, what am I getting for pass/run reads … wanting to understand the game and go out there and play faster,” Hughes said. “It’s all part of the maturity level being in this league. It’s never going to come overnight, but to see him make those giant leaps now has been great.”
“I’ve just got to continue to get better,” Lawson said. “I’ve got to work on what I didn’t get done (in the previous game) and try to get better each game, and see where that takes me.”