The 2019 NFL Draft class is filled with some excellent defensive tackle prospects, most notably Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Houston’s Ed Oliver, both projected top-10 picks. More than 10 DTs could go in the first two rounds, yet some are being overshadowed and underrated, such as Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence.
Because of his 6’4″ 342lbs frame and the production of his partner-in-crime Christian Wilkins (another likely first-rounder), many have written off Lawrence as a traditional nose tackle similar to the likes of Danny Shelton, and therefore not worth a high pick. But Lawrence is so much more than just a run plugger, and has the potential to be one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL.
Lawrence has been one of the largest football players on the planet since he arrived at Clemson. His massive size allows him to eat up a large amount of space on the defensive line, and all but forces teams to double-team him on every play, whether he’s rushing the passer or stopping the run. It is true that NFL teams are more concerned with slowing down an offense’s air attack, but if a defense is being gashed up the middle on the ground, they cannot win games.
With Lawrence’s size comes immense strength. His 36 bench press reps led all DTs at the Combine and placed him second among all participants. Lawrence’s strength shows up on tape, as he can power through any offensive lineman. Against Florida State during his freshman season, he put the right guard on skates two separate times.
His anchor in the run game is strong, and he is able to make plays consistently even when double-teamed, which happens quite often.
What makes Lawrence special is that he moves like he’s three inches shorter and 50lbs lighter. His athleticism for his size is rare, and isn’t talked about nearly enough. Despite injuring his quad during the process, Lawrence ran the 40-yard dash in 5.05 seconds, and would have likely finished under 5.0 if he hadn’t hurt himself. Lawrence’s time beat was nearly identical to his teammate Wilkins’ 5.04 finish, as was his 10-yard split (the time it takes a prospect to run the first 10 yards of the dash) 1.76 for Lawrence to 1.77 for Wilkins. Lawrence is an inch taller and 27lbs heavier than Wilkins.
Lawrence’s athleticism is evident on tape. He shows good burst and closing speed, as well as a surprising ability to bend around offensive lineman, a trait usually reserved for only the most athletic of edge rushers.
So if Lawrence is such a great DT prospect from a physical standpoint, why is Wilkins receiving more hype as a pass-rusher? Many point to statistics, in particular sacks. In 55 career games, Wilkins has 16 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss. In 38 contests, Lawrence finished with 10 sacks and 18 TFLs. On paper, it would certainly seem as if Wilkins was the more disruptive player.
However, sacks aren’t the best way to judge a defender’s effectiveness. With how quickly quarterbacks can get rid of the ball, QBs rolling away from defenders, and other reasons (such as uncalled holding penalties) for why lineman don’t get sacks, it’s better to look at “advanced” stats like QB hits and hurries/pressures. While not as good as getting the sack, if a defender can at least hit the QB or force him to throw the ball earlier than he was planning to, the defender has done his job. And of course, the more often a player rushes the passer, the more sacks he is likely to have.
According to Pro Football Focus, Christian Wilkins played 1,269 pass-rushing snaps in his career. He logged 29 QB hits and 77 hurries. That comes to 0.023 QB hits per snap and 0.061 hurries per snap.
Lawrence rushed the passer 766 times in his three seasons at Clemson, finishing with 22 QB hits and 64 hurries, or 0.029 QB hits per snap and 0.084 hurries per snap. How interesting. The run stopper has a significantly higher percentage of impactful pass-rushing snaps than the penetrative rusher.
Also according to PFF’s rankings system, Wilkins finished second in the country in pass-rush productivity and 52nd in snaps per inside pressure. Lawrence ranked fourth and 32nd in those two categories. Wilkins should be a fine player in the NFL, but Lawrence’s ceiling is so much higher.
Lawrence may never be a double-digit sack guy on the line, but he should still be an extremely impactful pass-rusher, in addition to bringing his top-tier run stopping ability. If he isn’t getting the sack or pressure he’s allowing his teammates to do that with the attention he commands. He pushes the pocket extremely well, even when double-teamed, which is a requirement, because not only can he overpower any lineman, he can beat slower ones with his finesse and athleticism. If Lawrence is coached up well in the pros, he will be a sensational player. Adding a good club-and-swim move will be very beneficial, and he needs to keep his pad level low for longer; no one can stop him when he is correctly translating his burst and speed to power.
Lawrence is getting late first round to mid-second buzz currently, but with his athletic profile and performance on film, he is a legitimate top 20 player in this class, and years from now fans will be asking “why didn’t my team draft him when we had the chance?”