Shaq Lawson was awakened on a Sunday morning from a deep sleep during his Colorado vacation in March to the sound of a ringing phone.
It was an important business call.
Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores was on the line and informed the veteran pass rusher he had been traded to the Texans in exchange for former Pro Bowl linebacker Benardrick McKinney in a deal cut between Flores and Texans general manager Nick Caserio, his former New England Patriots colleague.
Months after that career-changing day, Lawson is determined to justify the Texans’ investment in him. Reflecting on his adjustment to a new NFL city and a new position, moving from outside linebacker in Miami to defensive end in defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s 4-3 scheme, Lawson is embracing the change.
Upon learning he was headed to Houston, Lawson’s emotions shifted quickly from surprise to anticipation.
“For the Texans to come get me, it means a lot,” Lawson said in a telephone interview days prior to the start of training camp. “They trust me as a player. They want me to come in and be that guy. That says a lot. You never know when you’re going to be traded, but this situation, I think it worked out for both teams.
“I want to win. I want to get to the playoffs. As far as personal goals, it’s time for me to take my game to the Pro Bowl.”
The Texans needed lots of pass rushing help after cutting three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, at his request. They’re not looking for Lawson to replace Watt as much as they view him as a key piece in their defensive overhaul as they hope to send waves of pass rushers after the quarterback.
With 140 career tackles, 20½ sacks, 56 quarterback hits and one touchdown on a fumble recovery, the former Buffalo Bills first-round draft pick from Clemson, Lawson should fit in well as a key piece of an overhauled 30th-ranked defense transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
“Yes sir, that’s perfect for me,” Lawson said. “I don’t got to do too much thinking. I just go play ball. I’m not covering receivers. I’m just playing ball and creating a new line of scrimmage. It’s great.
“I want the fans to know they’re going to get a guy who will work hard every day. On gameday, they’re going to feel my energy from a crowd standpoint. I’m a great community guy and I’m going to give back.”
Lawson is big, strong and fast at 6-foot-3, 267 pounds. He had four sacks and 18 quarterback hits last season for the Dolphins after signing a three-year, $30 million contract.
“That quick twitch, that first step, it’s basically a race,” Lawson said. The first 10 yards is important for my position, working to get that down pat, my get-off. It’s all about being fast.”
When Lawson was in Buffalo, he played for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in a scheme akin to Smith’s signature 4-3 alignment.
“When I found out it was Houston, it was great to hear because I know what their scheme is, and that’s what coach Smith was bringing back: what I did in Buffalo,” Lawson said. “It’s perfect for me, so it’s definitely a win-win. I’ll put my hand down in the dirt and play.”
That has been Lawson’s desire ever since he declared for the NFL draft after a consensus All-America junior season at Clemson in 2015. Cut him loose, and let him do his thing.
As a hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end, Lawson provides a blend of athleticism and power. Capable of bull-rushing offensive tackles or darting around blockers, Lawson is confident that he’s entering the prime of his career.
NFL executives believe in Lawson, too.
“Shaq is definitely a good player with the arrow pointing up,” an NFL executive said. “Shaq has some really good juice coming off the edge. He’s instinctive. He hustles. He finds the football fast and he’s tough. I know he’s played hurt before and he doesn’t let that stop him.
“This guy cares a lot about the game and his teammates. I like that move by Nick. Shaq gives the Texans someone they can count on for some production on the outside. I think Shaq can make them better.”
The Texans restructured his traded contract to create $5.285 million in salary cap savings. The Texans lowered his salary-cap figure to $3.242 million for 2021 from $8.5 million.
He's still due $8 million this year, through a $990,000 fully guaranteed base salary for skill, injury and salary cap, plus a $6.91 million bonus and $100,000 of his workout bonus and added voidable years in 2023 and 2024 for salary-cap accounting reasons. He has an additional $1.5 million in incentives he can earn for sacks and team performance.
In 2022, Lawson is due a $8.9 million base salary, a $100,000 workout bonus and has a $10.752 million salary-cap figure. He can make another $2 million through incentives for sacks and team performance.
“They’re getting the best Shaq Lawson,” he said. “They’re getting the best, the best version of me. I’m going to work hard every day and take pride in everything I do. I’m a young player whose best ball is yet to come, a guy who’s going to bring the energy every day.”
Health is an important element surrounding Lawson. He underwent shoulder surgery as a rookie and missed the first six games of the season. Unlike previous seasons, Lawson said he’s completely healthy heading into this offseason.
“Yeah, I’m feeling great,” Lawson said.
With the Texans coming off a 4-12 season in which former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start, Lawson arrives at a time of change in Houston.
The new regime led by Caserio and new coach David Culley has made significant changes to the defensive strategy and added a lot of new faces, including Lawson, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, linebackers Christian Kirksey, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Jordan Jenkins and cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Desmond King.
“We’ve got a bunch of dogs,” Lawson said.
When Lawson came to Houston to take his physical, he met with Caserio and Culley.
“Coach Culley was in Buffalo with me, so he used to hear my mouth talking junk at practice,” Lawson said. “I’ve got a great relationship with those guys, man. I’m glad they wanted me to be here. I’m happy they did. We’ve just got to build trust and get to know each other. Everything is gonna work itself out. I’m not a guy to make predictions and stuff. You just gotta put your head down and work.
“This is another situation for me with a new coach, a new reveal. I experienced that in Buffalo and Miami because they brought in a lot of new guys. With new guys, you meet another new face and get to know new people. You will have your ups and downs together. Every team has adversity. It’s about how you overcome that adversity.”
Lawson grew up in Central. S.C. excelling as a high school state champion basketball player. Named after basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, Lawson would throw down thunderous alley-oop slam dunks off arcing passes delivered by DeAndre Hopkins, the former Texans All-Pro wide receiver now with the Arizona Cardinals who was his high school and Clemson teammate.
“We were just more talented than everybody else,” Lawson said. “We didn’t even have no offensive plays. Hop was in the point guard. I’m in the post. We was like Shaq and Kobe. Nobody could stop us. He would throw it up me and I would slam it home.”
Lawson took exception with gloomy predictions surrounding the Texans, including some saying the team won’t win a game and another rating them as having the worst roster in the NFL.
“I ain’t even going to speak on what we’re going to do because you never know,” Lawson said. “I don’t pay attention to the media, but I’ve seen a lot of disrespect. One said we had the least talented roster. How are you going to tell that’s somebody is the least talented. “That’s from a bunch of nerds watching on computers. You gotta play the games, and the film never lies.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.