Manny Lawson’s role with the Buffalo Bills is less complicated this year. He hopes it will not be less significant.
The nine-year NFL veteran is switching from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end in the scheme of new Bills coordinator Jim Schwartz.
It’s a position Lawson played exclusively in college at North Carolina State, and he says he’s eager to embrace it again.
“It feels really good to be a defensive end again,” Lawson said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “It’s really see ball, go get ball. You don’t really have to worry about dropping too much into coverage and covering people man to man. I really like the engage with somebody immediately and make a play from there, as opposed to having to read and then see if you need to engage. … To be a defensive end again and be with these guys again is fun. We’re going to have fun doing it.”
Lawson played 62 percent of the defensive snaps last season, coming off the field on a lot of third-down situations.
Can Lawson be a first-down end, or a situational rush man or a little of both this year?
The Bills have a quality edge-rusher in Jerry Hughes who had 10 sacks last year while playing 52 percent of the snaps. Buffalo will need to spell Hughes on some first downs and obvious running situations.
Lawson has the most experience for the job but figures to be pushed for the role, in particular, by unheralded free-agent acquisition Jarius Wynn, signed from the Dallas Cowboys. Wynn, who weighs 277, has a lot more heft to play the run. Lawson played at 240 last year.
Lawson, however, has a chance to earn some snaps in pass downs, too. The Bills aren’t deep in edge rushers behind the two starters, Mario Williams and Hughes. In fact, Lawson and Wynn are the only other edge rushers on the roster with an NFL sack. Lawson had four last year and has 22 for his career. Wynn has 8.5 in five years. The Bills need one or both of them to show some pass-rush skill in training camp.
As he did last year, Lawson skipped the voluntary spring workouts. He has had two days of minicamp practices this week to get a feel for his new spot. He has not had a chance to play much 4-3 end in the NFL. He played in the 4-3 for two seasons in Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012, but he was a linebacker in that scheme. The three years before that he was in a 3-4 scheme in San Francisco.
How does Schwartz see Lawson fitting in?
“Yet to be seen,” the coach said. “Just like everybody out there, how guys fall into roles will be depending on how well they do in training camp. Our job defensively is to try to put our guys in good position and try to accentuate the talents that our guys have.”
“Manny is an experienced player,” Schwartz said. “He’s played some down, he’s played linebacker, little bit like Hughes. There’s a lot of different things we can use him in, and we’re just getting started on that.”
Lawson admits there was uncertainty on his mind when the Bills lost last year’s defensive chief, Mike Pettine, to Cleveland.
“What’s next? We just had a new coaching staff, we’re going to have another one,” Lawson said. “How much is going to change? Will we still be here? Will they like us? All that goes through our minds. It’s just the nature of the business.”
He says he was happy the Bills hired a highly credentialed replacement in Schwartz, the former Detroit head coach.
“You’re playing with somebody who you know comes down from a lineage, the Belichick lineage,” Lawson said, referring to Schwartz’s past association with Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You expect good things. You know he knows what he’s talking about.”
Lawson sees this season as a better chance to show what he can do in the 4-3 than he had in Cincinnati.
“In Cincinnati I played off-the-ball linebacker,” he said. “Now I’m a defensive end, that’s where I came in at as a defensive end in college. At Cincinnati it was a whole lot of reading, trying to fit up, doing something I hadn’t really done before. Now I get to do something that got me into this position, what got me into the NFL.”
Lawson knows he will have to prove he’s a good fit on the field.
“As a competitor you always want to be on the field,” Lawson said. “We have very talented guys on the D-front. It’s going to be whoever is more productive at that position. There is no just because you’re name is such-and-such you’re guaranteed a place. My mentality is the same. I want to be on the field, I have to produce.”
Cornerback Nickell Robey made the best play on the second day of minicamp practice Wednesday. Robey leaped high in the air while covering Robert Woods in the back of the end zone and intercepted a hurried pass from EJ Manuel. He landed hard on the ground and took a couple minutes to get up.
The Bills hold their final minicamp practice today.