Daily Focus: Shaq Lawson injury means Bills may reach into free-agent market

Sam Monson takes a look at the latest NFL news through the lens of PFF grades, starting with yesterday's injury misfortunes in Buffalo.

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Daily Focus: Shaq Lawson injury means Bills may reach into free-agent market

Editor’s note: In this edition of “Daily Focus,” Senior Analyst Sam Monson took the latest NFL news and translated what it really means for each team involved. Like what you see or have suggestions for improvements? Let us know in the comments.

Bills’ first-round pick Shaq Lawson to undergo surgery: No sooner do NFL players step foot on the field that some wind up getting injured; that is the way of the world, and things went from bad to worse for the Buffalo Bills yesterday, with news that both WR Sammy Watkins and first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson went down hurt.

Watkins broke a bone in his foot and is not expected to miss any significant time, but things are not so rosy for Lawson, who is heading under the surgeon’s knife and could miss a significant portion of his rookie season.

With Mario Williams departing in the offseason, the Bills have 909 defensive snaps to replace at DE and a starter to find. Lawson was supposed to fill the bulk of that void from day one, and was one of the highest-graded pass-rushers in the nation last season in college.

Lawson played 760 snaps for Clemson and notched 50 total pressures, but also had the second-best run grade in the draft class behind only Joey Bosa. Among all of the top-level edge rushers (outside of Bosa) in this draft class, Lawson was the most balanced, and therefore the most likely to provide a solid starting position from the get-go, as he can defend both the run and pass.

With Lawson down, the Bills are looking to players like IK Enemkpali to start games. Enemkpali played 149 snaps last season, and is best known for throwing the punch that broke Geno Smith’s jaw and sparked the QB switch with the Jets.

In fact, the situation is so dire behind Lawson that if the Bills are to be without him for any extended period of time, they may need to consider dipping into the free-agent marketplace. The free-agent market in May is usually a pretty desolate place, but it does feature one high-level pass rusher, albeit one that comes with a metric ton of baggage: Greg Hardy.

Tyrann Mathieu likely to earn monster safety contract: The Arizona Cardinals see Mathieu as a cornerstone of their defense, and whether he is listed as a safety or a cornerback, there is little doubt they are right about that.

But where exactly does Mathieu—No. 10 on our recently-released Top 101 of 2015 list—play?

In truth, Mathieu lines up all over the defense, and though he is listed as a safety, as soon as the Cardinals go to any kind of sub-package defense, he is primarily playing slot corner—and Arizona moves to sub-packages quickly. Though the Cardinals are ostensibly a base 3-4 defense, they actually play their nickel 2-4-5 package far more often (51 percent of snaps last season), and only actually played base on 30 percent of their snaps.

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Arizona played at least five defensive backs on 64.4 percent of their defensive snaps last season, and when they move to those sub-packages, Mathieu is primarily a slot corner, not counting the snaps where he lines up to cover a TE in base defenses.

His position distribution matches that personnel package distribution pretty closely, as he played slot corner on 61.8 percent of his snaps and some form of safety on only 32.5 percent of his snaps. This is why PFF lists Mathieu as a cornerback and not a safety, but regardless of where he plays, he is a dominant force. Despite missing the final two games of the 2015 season due to injury, he ended the year as our top-graded cornerback, with a 91.6 overall grade.

The Cardinals want to make Mathieu the highest-paid safety in the game, and while we might quibble on the position designation, there is no doubt he is worth that kind of money.

How Danny Amendola’s recovery timetable affects Patriots’ camp: The Patriots have an interesting camp battle brewing at wide receiver, with Danny Amendola recovering from multiple surgeries this offseason that could throw his Week 1 availability into question. Even if he is ready to go on opening day, that leaves the rest of the roster battling all camp for position without Amendola taking up reps, giving opportunities to new acquisitions Chris Hogan, brought over from Buffalo, as well as draft picks Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.

Hogan stylistically looks the part, but in truth, his greatest NFL achievement may have been acquiring the nickname “7-Eleven” for being “always open” on Hard Knocks. His career to date has shown little to suggest he can carve out the kind of role that Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Amendola have been able to in New England, though we’ll see what effect an offense already tailored to that niche has on his game.

Chris Hogan’s career grades

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The interesting competition comes between draft picks Mitchell and Lucien. Neither was a high enough selection to earn the job on status over the other (fourth-round draft choice versus seventh-round, respectively), so we might see an interesting battle between two receivers that each graded very well in college last season.

Devin Lucien and Malcolm Mitchell’s 2015 season grades and statistics

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In fact, the two finished within a single grading point of each other, and played almost the same number of snaps. Lucien may have the best hands of the draft, and despite an inaccurate quarterback throwing him the ball, he caught 67.2 percent of targets compared to Mitchell’s 61.7 percent. However, Mitchell was a touch shiftier with the ball in his hands, forcing 13 missed tackles on 58 catches compared to Lucien’s nine on 66 receptions.

Both appeared to do a lot of the little things well, so it will be an interesting battle to watch unfold as the two rookies look to hold off a series of veteran receivers on that roster throughout camp.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • cka2nd

    The expression is “set foot,” not “step foot.”