The New England Patriots will look drastically different on the defensive side of the trenches this year: gone are 2018 core players such as Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, Malcom Brown and possibly Danny Shelton. And while the reigning world champions invested in the group by acquiring Michael Bennett via trade and signing free agent Mike Pennel, an additional infusion of young, cheap talent certainly would be welcome.
Enter Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence. Ranking 25th and 45th, respectively, on the latest big boards by NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and The Draft Network, the 21-year-old is expected to come off the board either in the late first or the early second round — right where the Patriots are situated with their 32nd overall selection. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Dexter Lawrence
Position: Defensive tackle
2018 stats: 13 games, 471 snaps (239 vs pass; 205 vs run), 30 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2 hurries, 10 hits
Size: 6045, 342 lbs, 10 4/8 hand size, 34 6/8 arm length
Combine numbers: 5.05 40-yard dash, 36 bench press reps
Opening day age: 21
Expected Round: Late 1st/Early 2nd
Strengths: The first thing that stands out about Lawrence is his enormous size: at 6’4, 342 pounds, he is a rare specimen at defensive tackle — one perfectly built to control the line of scrimmage as a space-eating, two-gapping lineman. “How many 330-pound guys are there? There’s just not that many of them. They’re always hard to find,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during the 2018 regular season when speaking about a similarly built player, New England free agency acquisition Mike Pennel.
Lawrence certainly falls into the category Belichick was speaking about, which alone makes him a potential target for the Patriots — that and his tremendous potential of course. After all, the Clemson product sure knows how to use his frame to be disruptive and challenge offensive linemen with his strength in combination with a very good anchor, sound hand-usage beyond initial contact, and generally good balance against both one-on-one blockers and double teams.
Furthermore, Lawrence displays a great awareness of the snap which in turn helps him quickly attack offensive linemen and take advantage of them rushing through their motions. While he is not quite able to take advantage of that versus the pass, it does allow him to control his gaps in the running game and close lanes before they ever really develop. As such, his upside as a run and short-yardage defender at the next level is outstanding.
Weaknesses: While his first step is very good due to a natural feel for the snap and his keys, Lawrence is inconsistent in following through on his upfield push. As such, he might be limited to more of a line-controller than an actual upfield penetrator at the next level. His sheer size probably contributes to this, and it will be interesting to see how he develops if he tries to get his playing weight down to around 325-330 pounds.
In general, his upside as a pass rusher appears to be more limited than his abilities to stop the run. Lawrence also lacks the short-area shiftiness and bend to attack around the edge and is oftentimes more reliant on his brute strength and bull rush to attack the pocket. Furthermore, he needs to become a bit more consistent when it comes to his pad level: while he has a good balance, he tends to get too low at times when trying to work up the field.
What would be his role? Lawrence would primarily serve as a run-stuffer in the middle of the Patriots’ defense with upside against the pass as well. Playing the nose in three-man fronts and both 1-technique and 3-technique in four-man alignments, he would be a space-eating two-gapper in the mold of ex-Patriot Vince Wilfork — not just because of his size but also because of his potential to possibly play more than 70% of New England’s defensive snaps.
How many downs can he play? Despite his comparatively limited upside as a pass rusher, Lawrence could contribute on all four downs: he should become a fixture on early downs to help out against the run, and due to his combination of size and quickness also be a viable option on certain third and fourth down packages. Furthermore, he could serve as an interior penetrator on field goals and extra point attempts.
What is his special teams value? Like the aforementioned Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton, Lawrence should be expected to see regular snaps on special teams in New England. Playing on field goals and extra point attempts, he will likely play between 10% and 15% of the Patriots’ kicking game snaps.
Does he have positional versatility? Given his size, Lawrence will play almost exclusively on the interior of the defensive line. He can, however, seamlessly switch between the role of a nose tackle and a shade-technique defender.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? Lawrence will likely see significant snaps from day one onward as a rotational player alongside the Patriots’ defensive tackle trio of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and the aforementioned Mike Pennel. In year two, the Clemson product would likely successfully challenge Pennel and maybe even Guy for more playing time.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Given his status as a projected early-round selection, Lawrence would be a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster if drafted by them. When it comes to getting onto the field, his main competition will be Pennel — both in years one and two, although the battle should go to the younger player especially after his rookie campaign.
Why the Patriots? While a rotation of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Mike Pennel would certainly be solid, the Patriots would benefit from adding another young, cheap, and developmental option to the group — Lawrence would be just that and given his build and strengths could develop into the player Malcom Brown never quite turned out to be: the successor to Vince Wilfork as the anchor of New England’s defensive line.
In that sense, Lawrence would probably be a terrific addition to the Patriots’ front: he has an intriguing combination of size and strength that would make him perfec to serve as a two-gap controlling defensive tackle, is already fairly polished when it comes to his technique and hand usage, and has the upside to grow even further, particularly against the pass. All in all, he appears to be tailor-made for New England’s defensive scheme.
Why not the Patriots? Lawrence is as polished as they come, but still does not come without questions. For one, his development seemed to plateau a bit at Georgia: he had a tremendous 2016 season but did not show significant growth over the remaining two years of his college career. How the Patriots evaluate this in regards to him taking a next-level step into the NFL could very well be a deciding factor when it comes to the grade they attach to him.
Furthermore, Lawrence missed the 2019 playoffs due to suspension under the NCAA’s drug policy: he was one of three Clemson players who all tested positive for the same anabolic performance-enhancing drug, ostarine. Both Lawrence himself and his coach, Dabo Sweeney, expressed any wrongdoing on the player’s part but the whole saga certainly could have an impact on how teams view the defensive lineman.
Verdict: While the Patriots addressed their need for a big-bodied defensive tackle by adding Mike Pennel in free agency, Dexter Lawrence would be an intriguing prospect if available at or around the 32nd selection of the draft. Ultimately, his positives clearly outweigh his question marks as he possesses the potential and upside to become the space-eating anchor at the heart of New England’s defensive line that neither Malcom Brown nor Danny Shelton quite turned out to be on a consistent basis.