The New England Patriots’ defensive tackle position performed well in 2019 using a three-man rotation led by Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton. That said, there are still some uncertainties surrounding the group heading into the next season — especially considering that a) it did have some ups and downs in the running game, and b) Shelton was lost in free agency and essentially replaced by outside acquisition Beau Allen.
While the Patriots could very well opt to enter 2020 with Guy, Butler and Allen as the top defensive tackles on their roster (with youngsters Byron Cowart and Nick Thurman as the next men down the depth chart), it would also not be a surprise to see the team take to the draft to add more youth and developmental upside. LSU’s Rashard Lawrence would offer both, even though he would likely not make too big an impact right away.
That said, his potential in New England’s scheme could make him a possible target on Day Three. Let’s therefore take a closer look at him.
Name: Rashard Lawrence
Position: Defensive tackle
School: LSU (senior)
Opening day age: 21
2019 stats: 14 games; 475 snaps; 28 tackles (6.0 tackles for loss; 9 missed tackles); 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery; 18.0 quarterback pressures (2.0 sacks, 2 hits, 14 hurries); 3 pass breakups
Size: 6020, 308 lbs, 11.0 hand size, 34.13 arm length
Workout numbers: 5.07 40-yard dash, 8.03 three-cone drill, 22 bench press
Expected round: 5th-6th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
Strengths: While he might benefit from adding a bit more mass to his frame, Lawrence’s size is certainly adequate to work as an interior lineman at the next level. He plays a high-motor game with a good burst out of his stance, as well as a disciplined pad level and anchor. The three-time team captain — a noted leader on LSU’s championship squad last year — also is capable of serving as a two-gap defender even though he needs to get more comfortable and experienced when it comes to regularly taking on double teams.
Nevertheless, his raw power and good initial push and hand aggressiveness will allow him to move the line of scrimmage in passing situations and collapse potential running lanes. The 21-year-old also has experience lining up in various spots: according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide, he played 60 snaps over the A-gap during his 2019 senior season, 198 over the B-Gap, 185 over the offensive tackle, as well as 32 outside the tackle. He does project more favorably on the inside, but versatility is never a bad thing.
Weaknesses: Lawrence has some positive traits but he is not a particularly impressive athlete overall. His quickness and agility are nothing to write home about, and his leverage is a work in progress as he too often gets too high and essentially eliminates himself from the play. This appears to be tied to some raw processing skills: he often is caught peeking into the backfield and in turn forgets to concentrate on his fundamentals. He needs to clean up his technique to have a consistent impact against NFL-caliber offensive linemen.
Lawrence also is no real threat in the passing game: his lack of pass rushing moves and ability to build on an otherwise solid first step is an issue that limits his upside in this area. He mostly wins through strength rather than discipline and technique. Furthermore, his injury history — he has battled ankle and knee injuries in 2017 and 2019, respectively — and the rotational usage he saw with the Tigers also could scare some teams away looking for more than just a developmental role player with a somewhat stagnant growth over the years.
What would be his role? New England, as noted above, primarily used a three-player rotation at defensive tackle in 2019 with Guy as an all-around player, Shelton serving primarily as a run defender, and Butler being used as an interior pass rusher that also saw occasional run-game looks as well. Given his strengths, Lawrence would probably compete with Allen for the right to take over some of Shelton’s former snaps as a bog-bodied presence up front.
How many downs can he play? Lawrence should not be expected to contribute much outside of specific run-first packages and short-area/goal-line looks on the defensive side of the ball in 2020: he has the frame and physicality to perform in this setting but is too raw from a technical perspective to see regular action on passing downs or in up-tempo situations. Realistically, he will therefore play a maximum of one to three downs per series, including special teams.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots like to use their interior defensive linemen in the kicking game as well: Guy, Butler and Shelton all saw regular snaps on field goal and extra point teams, both from the offensive and the defensive perspective. A similar usage could be in the cards for Lawrence too, potentially as early as his first season in the league.
Does he have positional versatility? While Lawrence has the burst out of his stance to perform as a gap-shooter, he might be better suited to work in a two-gap scheme like the one used by the Patriots. His relative scheme-flexibility is not the only versatility he offers, though: he has lined up primarily as an end in LSU’s 3-4 defense — a role he should be able to fill in the NFL as well — but should be capable of playing anywhere from the 0- to the 3-technique no matter the front. He also has experiencing playing 4- and 5-tech alignments as well and, as noted above, was regularly moved around in college.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? With Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler both scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in 2021, and with Beau Allen no lock to return on a $3.95 million salary cap number (including only $850,000 in remaining guarantees), the Patriots’ defensive tackle position could look drastically difference next year. If there is personnel turnover, Lawrence might be one of the profiteers: his role could grow from a complementary one to look similar to Danny Shelton’s in 2019, meaning that he might be on the field for up to 40-50% of defensive snaps as a prominent run-stuffer.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Guy, Butler and Allen should be considered locks to make the team in 2020 — something that can neither be said about the other defensive tackles on the roster nor about Lawrence if he gets drafted by New England where he is expected to come off the board. The rookie would therefore compete with second-year man Byron Cowart and former practice squad member Nick Thurman for what likely is the fourth and final interior line spot.
Why the Patriots? New England’s run defense had its ups and downs in 2019, and adding a developmental player that brings upside in this area to the table might be the way to go to improve the position as a whole — especially with Shelton gone and Allen no lock to offer the same level of play in the Patriots’ system. While Lawrence needs some development and will likely only have a limited impact as an interior pass rusher, his skillset as a whole might allow him to carve out a rotational role along the team’s defensive front rather early in his career and develop into a core early-down tackle later on.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots’ defensive tackle spot is relatively well set at the top, and Byron Cowart offers some upside entering his second year in the system as well. The team might therefore decide not to invest one of its draft picks in the position and instead address more pressing needs elsewhere — especially when it comes to a rather one-dimensional player such as Lawrence — or use its resources to move around the board. While the LSU product could fill a valuable role as a big-bodied run stuffer in the middle, the free agency acquisition of Allen very much already has that spot filled.
Verdict: Lawrence’s positive traits — size, leadership, high motor — make him an interesting target for the Patriots in this year’s draft, even though he may not offer the highest ceiling. That said, bringing him on board on Day Three might be a good move due to the natural fit he is in New England’s two-gap scheme and that fact that he would at the very least compete with Cowart and to a lesser degree Thurman for a spot on the team. Add some upside as a run-stuffer and you get a player who might be on the team’s radar.