+Good strength for his size
+Great fundamentals when it comes to shedding blocks
+Great against the run
-Bit of a tweener in coverage; too slow to cover backs, not tall enough to cover tight ends
-Drag down tackler (it works pretty well, oddly)
-An inside linebacker long term unless he goes back to 233lbs (he was a lot more athletic at that weight)
Is there anyone in the world who can tell me how a linebacker with two 120+ tackle seasons under his belt for an 8 win SEC team doesn’t deserve an invite to the NFL combine? Anyone? Stats aren’t everything, but Mississippi State outside linebacker Cameron Lawrence deserves a lot more respect than he current gets. His tape suggests he definitely should have gotten and invite to the combine. The guy knows how to play football.
Lawrence has mediocre measurables. One of the surprising aspects of Lawrence’s omission from the combine is that he isn’t physically inept. If a productive player isn’t invited to the combine, it’s usually because he’s either really slow or undersized, but, from a measurables standpoint, you’d have a tough time telling him apart from Manti Te’o. According to NFLDraftScout.com, Lawrence has average height at 6’2, average bulk at 239lbs, and mediocre speed with a 4.78 40 yard dash. Simply put, he’s pretty average.
Lawrence has excellent stats. In 2012, he had 120 tackles, 10 TFL’s, and 4 sacks in 13 games. In 2011, he had 123 tackles, 6 TFL’s, and 2 sacks in 13 games. That’s Khaseem Greene territory right there, and he did it against SEC competition nonetheless. He’s always been a very productive player.
Lawrence is decent in coverage, but he’s in a bit of an awkward area right now. He’s 6’2, which is simply average for a linebacker, but it probably makes him just a bit too short to cover tight ends. On the other hand, he runs a 4.78 40, which isn’t terrible for a guy 239lbs, but does make him a bit slow to cover running backs. Subjectively, he also doesn’t have much lateral range. So what’s his natural 3rd down role? He doesn’t really have one, although he is capable in zone coverage. Guys who don’t have a natural role in man coverage usually play inside linebacker, but that’s a tough pill to swallow, because he has such great instincts at outside linebacker. Messing with a guys instincts is playing with fire. Just ask Luke Kuechly and the Panthers. Like Lawrence, Kuechly relies on his off the charts instincts, and, coming out of college, he had a mastery of the middle linebacker position. However, the Panthers started him off at outside linebacker in 2012, and he initially struggled mightily. Eventually, the Panthers realized their mistake and moved him back to inside linebacker, where he went onto have an excellent rookie season. Lawrence already has all but mastered the outside linebacker position from a football IQ perspective and it would be risky to move him to inside linebacker. So what’s the best option? Well, he added weight from his junior to senior year, and, although he did add strength, I’m wondering if it was worth it, because it came at a huge cost in athleticism. Even as a junior, he really excelled at 233lbs, a weight at which he has above average range and enough athleticism for weakside linebacker, plus he has very good strength for a guy his size, so he rarely had problems tackling guys at that weight. In addition, he didn’t have any problems at the point of attack since his fundamentals were so good. It sounds a bit odd, but I think Lawrence’s best chance to start at the NFL level is if his playing weight is under 235lbs. You watch the tape from his junior season, it’s tough to argue with the film. Also, he has good instincts in coverage, though his fluidity is simply average.
Lawrence is a solid tackler. He has a reputation as a guy who is a drag down tackler that doesn’t really have a ton of strength. Honestly, it’s not the worst description in the world. He is a drag down tackler who isn’t always that powerful. But all I will say in Lawrence’s defense is, well, look at the results. Drag down tackling is usually a big no-no for linebackers, but if you can find film of him missing a tackle or even yielding significant yardage after contact, I’d love to see it. The common assumption is that it won’t work in the NFL, but, it works extremely well in the SEC, and that’s good enough for me. Again, this is part of the reason why I think he can play the game under 235lbs: he had absolutely no problems tackling as a skinny junior. He also has excellent toughness (see: bruising tackle on Michael Dyer on 4th and 1 in the 2011 Auburn game) and very good body control, making him tough to shake in the open field.
Lawrence is terrific against the run. He’s right up there with Khaseem Greene for the title of most instinctive outside linebacker of this class. His football IQ is amazing, he’s very disciplined in cutback pursuit, he takes perfect angles in pursuit, he can find holes in the blocking scheme and attack ball carriers, and he makes very quick reads. He’s also surprisingly good at shedding blocks, thanks to terrific fundamentals. This is one of the reasons I think sub 235lbs is really feasible for him. Most guys that skinny are simply overpowered at the point of attack against offensive linemen, but Lawrence is as crafty with his hand placement as any linebacker in this draft class, getting surprising leverage and doing a very good job of using his hands to control the arms of offensive linemen in blocks. To be frank, he’s about 100 times harder to block than you would expect. Combine that with excellent football IQ and tons of tackles, and you’ve got a terrific run stopper.
Lawrence is an underrated player. I think he’s going to make and NFL team very happy that they got him, for special teams, if nothing else.
NFL Comparison: Not a lot of great ones, but maybe Chad Greenway, except Lawrence is a bit slower, and a tad smaller
Grade: 77 (worthy of an early 3rd round pick)
Projection: 31 (will be a late 7th round pick, with a good shot of not being drafted)