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A popular saying in NFL training camps is that players "can't make the club in the tub."
While catchy, the expression is also cold. It reflects the fact that in the NFL it simply doesn't matter how talented a player might be. If he is unable to stay healthy, he cannot help the team win and therefore is a liability most teams are unwilling to keep on a 53-man roster.
That is among the reasons why scouts were thrilled when Lawson was able to remain healthy throughout 2016 after missing much of the past two seasons with serious hip and knee injuries.
When healthy, the power-packed Lawson is a force to be reckoned with. Starting all 13 games in 2016, he was recognized as a First Team All-SEC pick by conference coaches, leading the Tigers with a career-high 13.5 tackles for loss, including nine sacks among his 30 overall stops. It was a reminder of the form he showed back in 2013, when he was voted a Freshman All-American.
Lawson signed with the Tigers amid great fanfare, being ranked the top overall defensive end prospect by some recruiting experts. He steadily rose up the Tigers' depth chart as a true freshman, emerging as a legitimate disruptive presence by the end of his first season with 7.5 of his 20 tackles on the year coming behind the line of scrimmage, including four sacks. Some close to the Auburn program, in fact, believe that he and not teammate Dee Ford -- a 2014 first round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs -- was the team's best pass rusher.
Lawson was expected to carry on for Ford in 2014 but his sophomore season ended abruptly after tearing the ACL in his left knee during spring practices, earning him a redshirt instead. Lawson drew raves from Auburn coaches and players for his passionate rehabilitation heading into 2015 but he cracked his hip in the season-opener win over Louisville (collecting four tackles, including two for loss and a sack) and missed the next six games. Despite posting only 17 tackles (including three for loss and the one sack) over the seven games in which he did play, rival coaches still acknowledged his impact, naming him Third Team All-SEC.
Lawson's medical grade is not the only concern scouts have about him. He comes with size and perhaps scheme restrictions, as well. He possesses the initial burst and power to be a threat off the edge as a pass rusher, however, and unlike many defenders, Lawson plays with the same tenacity against the run. There is no denying that Lawson is a gamble but if teams are confident that his medical woes are over, his impactful plays warrant first round consideration.
STRENGTHS: While shorter than scouts would prefer for an edge rusher, Lawson's compact, powerful build makes him a difficult draw for opposing linemen. He possesses the explosive burst to challenge the corner and can overwhelm would-be blockers with strength as a bull-rusher once he senses them leaning. Lawson is quicker to the quarterback than his five career sacks would suggest, accelerating smoothly when he has a clear lane. Lawson's power and balance show up in the running game, where he's often able to lock-out against bigger opponents because of his knee bend, proper arm extension and core strength. He is a powerful tackler, selling out and leaving his feet to explode into ballcarriers. Lawson shows good hand-eye coordination and grip to rip at the ball as when other defenders are in position to make the tackle, forcing three fumbles over his career. He was voted a team captain in 2015 and 2016 and is highly regarded by the Auburn coaching staff for his commitment on and off the field.
WEAKNESSES: While powerfully-built, Lawson lacks ideal height and length, limiting his potential to impact passing lanes, as his zero career passes defensed and blocked kicks suggest. Further, while swift in a straight-line, Lawson does not show ideal flexibility when turning the corner or changing directions. He is able to do so in part because his height allows him to dip under the reach of tackles but Lawson shows some stiffness in his hips (as many players with his bulked-up build do), raising some question as to whether how well he'd be able to handle a stand-up edge rusher role or drop into coverage. Comes with significant medical questions, including a torn ACL in 2014 and hip injury in 2015 that each required surgery and forced Lawson to miss 19 of 26 games over those two seasons.
IN OUR VIEW: Lawson is perhaps this year's greatest litmus test for each team's durability threshold. When healthy, he is a proven difference-maker, showing the initial quickness and power every team is looking for as an edge rusher.
COMPARES TO: Dwight Freeney, Atlanta Falcons -- The fact that Freeney has lasted 15 seasons in the NFL is a testament to the value clubs place on explosive edge rushers, as well as his own ability to stay healthy. That, of course, is the biggest concern with Lawson, who possesses a similar combination of burst and power as the 6-1, 268 pound former 2002 first round pick by the Colts.