ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — With Rex Ryan making regular visits to Clemson to watch his son play, Tigers defensive end Shaq Lawson had already established a friendly rapport with the Buffalo Bills coach.
Lawson hopes to use that to his advantage now that he’ll be given an opportunity to earn a starting role in Ryan’s defense.
After cutting high-priced defensive end Mario Williams last month, the Bills addressed their pass-rushing need by selecting Lawson with the 19th pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night.
“I’m glad I got Buffalo picking me. I just feel like I’m home,” Lawson said, noting that he and Ryan’s son, Seth, both major in parks, recreation and tourism management.
Lawson said he occasionally talked to Seth about the possibility of playing for the Bills, and also noted the Tigers use much of the same terminology as Buffalo’s defense.
The comfort level was also apparent when he met with Ryan and team officials at the scouting combine at Indianapolis in February.
“It was the best pre-draft meeting I had,” Lawson said. “Everybody else’s meetings were uptight and asking me who the fourth president was. And when I went in their meeting room, I just felt laidback. They were talking to me about football.”
General manager Doug Whaley said the Bills already have Lawson pegged as a starter opposite defensive end/linebacker Jerry Hughes. Whaley also noted Lawson can be a three-down player because of his versatility to play both end and linebacker.
“Very few times that you go into a draft and have a really big need, and that guy there is standing out like a sore thumb and is the guy you want and the guy that fills that need,” Whaley said. “I know coach is ecstatic about it because of what he brings. First day, coming off the bus he’s starting. And (Ryan’s) mind is going crazy on different ways he can use him.”
The Bills are scheduled to have seven more selections through the next five rounds, starting with No. 49 on Friday.
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 269 pounds, Lawson was a consensus All-American last season in which he led the nation with 25 1/2 tackles for a loss and had 12 1/2 sacks, including two sacks in Clemson’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in the National Championship game in January. Overall, he had 46 1/2 tackles for a loss and 20 sacks in 41 games, including 16 starts, split over three seasons.
An NFL draft scouting report referred to Lawson as being “built like a tank.”
Lawson and the Bills both discounted concerns regarding an injury to the player’s right shoulder.
Lawson said he won’t require surgery and has been playing with the injury since his freshman year. Whaley said, team doctors evaluated Lawson and signed off on his ability to play.
Lawson becomes the latest Clemson player to join the Bills after Buffalo selected receiver Sammy Watkins in the first round of the 2014 draft. The Bills also used their first-round pick in 2010 to select Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, who is now playing for New Orleans.
The Bills are coming off an 8-8 finish in which they extended the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 16 seasons. They particularly need help on defense after their high-priced unit underperformed in Ryan’s first season as coach last year.
Despite returning mostly intact, the defense dropped 15 spots from the previous season in finishing 19th in yards allowed, and managed just 21 sacks — a franchise low in a 16-game season. Williams led a chorus of public complaints emerging from the locker room by saying the team’s personnel didn’t fit Ryan’s system.
Ryan has accepted some of the blame by saying he made the mistake of attempting to meld his system with the one the Bills used under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014. Ryan vows the unit will be much improved this year despite the loss of talent.
Whaley has said there’s a good possibility the Bills will draft a quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is already pegged as the starter after he went 8-6 last year, but his future in Buffalo is uncertain. Taylor is entering the final year of his contract and the two sides have so far failed in an attempt to negotiate an extension.