By Eric Sprott
After having his fifth-year option declined by the Buffalo Bills last summer, Shaq Lawson said he was facing a “do-or-die” season in western New York.
Those were the former Daniel High School and Clemson star’s words while back in Central for his annual alumni football camp at Singleton Field along with Jarvis Jenkins and DeShawn Williams, who, like Lawson, starred at both Daniel and Clemson before reaching football’s highest level.
Facing such a pivotal season early in his career, Lawson ended up not starting a single game for the Bills last season, but that didn’t keep him from enjoying a career year.
Lawson posted career-highs in both games played (15) and snaps (483), helping him finish with 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback hits — all career-best figures for the 6’3”, 267-pound defensive end in the final year of his rookie contract that he signed after being taken in the first round with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Fast-forward to this weekend, and Lawson was back in the Upstate signing a new 3-year, $30 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, as he made a splash in free agency after coming through in the clutch when he needed it the most. He’ll be expected to be a starter for the Dolphins — who have been on a spending spree in free agency to bolster a defense that struggled mightily last season — but Lawson knows it won’t be handed to him as he looks to keep the edge that led to his new deal.
“It feels great to be back in a starting role, but I have to earn it,” he said. “Nothing will be given to me, and I have to go out and earn it.
“Last season determined if I was signing a one-year deal or not, and I had a chip on my shoulder. I knew what I had to do, and I had to outplay people in front me, and I knew if I stayed healthy, everything else would take care of itself.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lawson took his team-mandated physical and signed his paperwork in the Upstate rather than in Miami. He’ll soon head back to continue offseason training at Performance Enhancement Professionals in Scottsdale, Ariz., then look to make the move to Miami as soon as possible.
In Miami, Lawson will not only reunite with former Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins — who played with Lawson in 2015 at Clemson and was a first-round pick by the Dolphins last year — but also defensive line coach Marion Hobby, who’s entering his second season with the Dolphins and was at Clemson from 2011-16.
Under Hobby, Lawson registered 123 tackles, 45 tackles for loss and 20 sacks from 2013-15, earning All-American honors in his only season as a starter as a junior in 2015.
“He played a big part in that decision, and that made it easy for me,” Lawson said of Hobby. “I had great relationships in Buffalo and had a great four years, but I had to sit back and think about the pros and cons of both sides of the situation, and that’s why I ended up with the Dolphins.
“Then with Christian, it’s great, and it’s another chance to play with one of my brothers I had a great relationship with at Clemson.”
Lawson is hoping to lead a renaissance with the Dolphins, who have totaled just five winning seasons and appeared in the postseason just twice since 2002. Over the past three seasons, Miami has gone a combined 18-30, while it hasn’t been to the postseason since 2016.
Last season, the Dolphins finished just 5-11 and used an NFL-record 84 players while battling accusations of tanking. Defensively, they gave up an NFL-high 494 points and finished with a league-low 23 sacks, but they entered this offseason with the most salary-cap space of any team in the NFL.
They’ve spent big money in free agency not only on Lawson, but Byron Jones — now the NFL’s highest paid cornerback with a five-year, $82.5 million deal — and former New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, among others, as Lawson is optimistic change is coming in Miami.
“They’re improving the defense big time,” he said. “It’s guys who’ve played a lot of football and have invested their time in this league, and we’re all going to come together and make a special team. We’re really hoping to bring something special and bring the juice back there to Miami to turn things around.”
Even more help is on the way for Lawson and the Dolphins, as the team owns 14 draft picks — including three in the first round, and two in the second round — in next month’s NFL draft.
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