Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn made a surprising move last offseason when he elected to retain cornerback Nevin Lawson on a two-year deal worth over $9 million. The corner had been one of the team's primary starters in the defensive backfield since 2015 but had disappointed in the role for the most part. Lawson entered 2018 without a single career interception. Detroit had already plans to move on from him as well, drafting Teez Tabor in the second round of the 2017 draft.
The failures of Tabor, among other factors, led to Detroit holding on to their 2014 fourth-round selection. Lawson started 14 games in 2018. He had an up and down year and was even benched for Tabor early in the season.
Lawson may not be perfect, but he does have a very clear strength. He is a very physical corner and he excels at bumping receivers off of routes and jamming them at the line. The corner is not afraid to body his opposition despite his 5-foot-9 frame.
On this play against the Packers he jams the Green Bay receiver at the line of scrimmage and never really lets him get free to run a route.
This works especially well in the red zone, where the condensed space gives his opposition less space to free themselves from him. On this play near the goal line he throws around the Miami Dolphins receiver and keeps him out of the play.
While Lawson is great when he jams the receiver at the line of scrimmage, he has trouble when he gives up a free release.
Lawson does not have the burst or agility to keep up with a majority of receivers when they take off on their routes free. The corner struggles when he lets the opposing receiver get a step on him and he generally can not keep up.
Part of this is because of his poor footwork. Lawson struggles to mirror the receiver and occasionally will get turned in the wrong direction for no reason at all. He bites on fakes and double moves way too easily and plays himself out of position.
Once a corner has his back entirely turned to a receiver he is all but beaten. The receiver can get a few steps on him, and once Lawson is even slightly beaten he does not stand a chance.
Plays where he either gets turned around or rubbed off of a route highlight another weakness in his game. The corner does not have very good recovery speed. He does not accelerate well, making it hard for him to track his way back into plays.
This touchdown from Week 1 against the New York Jets is a good example:
One of the most publicized problems Lawson has are his struggles at the point of the catch. The corner does not track the ball well and often does not get his head around to make a play in time. A lot of this may fall on his physical play style, as it seems that Lawson occasionally gets preoccupied with hand fighting his opponent downfield and does not even realize that the ball is in the air. This also explains the many defensive pass interference and defensive holding calls he has gotten in his career.
Does Lawson have a future in Detroit?
The Lions have a chance to save around $4 million this offseason if they move on from Lawson. It is hard to imagine a world where he is not a cap casualty this spring.
Restructuring Lawson’s deal is always a possibility for the team, though. With Quandre Diggs set to make a permanent move out to safety, the team will once again need a reliable nickel corner. While he is not perfect, Lawson’s physical play style makes him exactly what the team may need inside.
Paying what will be, at best, the team’s third corner next season $5 million is steep, though, especially with so many needs on the Lions roster at the moment. If Lawson’s deal was cheaper, then holding onto him as a depth piece or nickel guy would make sense, but unfortunately he may be a victim of his own contract.
Lawson will definitely be on an NFL roster somewhere, though. If Detroit moves on from him, there will be many other teams willing to sign the veteran corner for at least the league minimum and put his physicality and experience to use.