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Dexter Lawrence: The Steal of the 1st Round

By Jim Johnson
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The New York Giants may have just pulled off the NFL Draft’s biggest first round coup with their selection of Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence at #17 overall.

The New York Giants may have just pulled off the NFL Draft’s biggest first round coup with their selection of Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence at #17 overall.

Regarded by many analysts as a back half of the first round talent, rather inexplicably, this pick won’t be appreciated for what it is until much later on. However, those people are wrong. This is the sort of heist that would make Danny Ocean proud.

From an athleticism standpoint, a production perspective, or a potential outlook, no matter which way you spin it, Lawrence is a special player.

Measuring in at a monstrous 6’4.5”, 342 pounds at the combine, Lawrence’s mockdraftable profile is basically just a bright green circle, filled at every edge. He put up 36 reps on the bench, made ever more impressive by his 84 inch wingspan that is as long as Joel Embiid is tall, ranking in the 96th percentile among defensive tackles, dating back to 2000, a good ten reps and change above the positional mean.

The only measurable aspect in which he wasn’t above the 75th percentile was his 40 time. Of course, that may have something to do with his weighing about the same as an average adult lion. And yet, at the lion-esque mass, Lawrence still managed to run 40 yards in 5.05 seconds. That should be impossible.

Everyone loses their minds when someone who weighs 190 pounds runs in the 4.3’s. This is infinitely more impressive than that. It’s remarkable that this wasn’t all anyone was talking about for a month. I mean, scientists should be studying the tape of Lawrence’s run to see whether or not it’s proof of alien life.

Over the last decade, the only guy at even 325 pounds or more to run as fast as Lawrence did is former pro bowler Dontari Poe. Two other athletes among his top eight athletic comps, according to Mockdraftable, are another former pro bowler, Linval Joseph, and Haloti Ngata, a five time All-Pro. Neither were as fast as Lawrence, or as big, for that matter.

I recently wrote about the phenomenon of assuming a player’s last year in college is most indicative of the player they’ll become; the naivete in the belief that a decent career capped off by an elite final campaign is better than an otherwise elite career marked by a modest step back.

Lawrence fits into neither of those categories. It would stand to reason, logically, that the most sure things are those that were elite from the day they stepped foot on campus until the day they entered the draft. Lawrence, like only a few others in this class, or any class ever, fits that bill.

No one has ever doubted that he has been one of the best run stoppers in college football, and that he will continue to dominate in that capacity in the NFL. Nor should they, as he posted run defense grades of 89.7, 86.5, and 87.7 during his three seasons at Clemson. For context, only once did his teammate Christian Wilkins, a great player in his own right who actually went four slots ahead of Lawrence, grade out as highly as Lawrence in run defense.

In fact, last year was the first time that Wilkins graded out higher than Lawrence, overall. That’s because the idea that Lawrence isn’t an upper echelon pass rusher, too, is a myth.

In 2016, his seven sacks broke Clemson’s school record for freshmen. Yet, with just 2.5 sacks the next year, and 1.5 a season ago, it’s easy to see how one could superficially chalk that up as a relative weakness. It’s not. His overall grades of 90.6, 86.6, and 89.8 didn’t just come from run defense. He graded out above an 81, both as a freshman and a junior, as a pass rusher. Sure, his sack conversion rate was below the mean, but that may in part be due to having so many opportunities -- or pressures, if you will.

Factoring that in, his pass rush productivity, according to PFF, last year, was good for 4th amongst interior defenders in the draft class, and his grade itself was 12th.

The scary thing is that he may have only scratched the surface of his potential in college. In a lot of ways, raw athleticism equates to upside. At his size, freakier physical specimen are few and far between.

At Clemson, he was able to get away with using said size and athleticism as a crutch. He was so physically superior, at a certain point, sound technique was superfluous. And frankly, he’ll still be able to overpower a lot of NFL offensive linemen with his sheer power and burst. His continued development will only make him more dangerous. He might be limited to early downs for a year or two. Maybe. But, eventually, he could be not only be the elite run stopper that he’s sure to be, but a devastating pass rusher, just like he was in college. Sacks matter, but, historically, pressures have been far more indicative of pass rushing prowess. If that holds true in this case, Lawrence has got it in spades.

Dexter Lawrence is a giant with arms to his ankles and hands the size of Peyton Manning’s forehead. He’ll be one of the best interior run defenders in the league from day one, with the potential to develop into a pass rusher, the likes of which come along only once or twice in a generation.

With the proliferation of more collegiate offenses in the NFL, and quarterbacks getting the ball out faster than ever, interior pass rushers are at a premium. Lawrence can wreck a pocket like nobody’s business already, forcing passers to improvise or try to find a pass catcher under duress, and he’s still got so much room to grow. He’s got it all. From the measurables to the production to the potential, there are no holes to poke in Dexter Lawrence’s game. From the start of his college career to the end, he was elite. There’s no reason to expect that to change.

He’s big and quick and big and strong and big and big. And did I mention how big he is?

This pick won’t be talked about for what it is until long after the fact, but mark it down now: Dexter Lawrence to the Giants at #17 was the steal of the first round.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP