Monday morning, ESPN NFL Nation reporters published their choices for the biggest acquisition made by each team this offseason. For the Buffalo Bills, my decision wasn't hard: it was first-round pick Shaq Lawson.
Now the outside linebacker's status for the start for the first half of the regular season is in doubt, setting back what coach Rex Ryan was hoping would be a job-saving remodel of his defense that so badly disappointed last season.
The Bills announced Monday afternoon that Lawson will undergo surgery Tuesday on his right shoulder after having "an occurrence of [a pre-existing] condition" last week, presumably during offseason workouts. The team added that a "timetable for his return is still being established."
This shouldn't come as a shock. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported shortly after Lawson was selected 19th overall last month that at least six NFL teams believed Lawson needed surgery on his shoulder. The belief, Schefter reported, was that Lawson would undergo the procedure after the season and that his timetable for recovery would be four to six months.
It's that predicted recovery period that will not only sting for beaten-down Bills fans used to bad news, but also put Ryan back to the drawing board on how to stimulate a pass rush that managed just 21 sacks and a run defense that ranked 30th in DVOA last season.
Lawson and fellow rookie linebacker Reggie Ragland, whom the Bills traded up to select in the second round, were supposed to be the youth movement at the center of a Ryan revival in Buffalo. In particular, the Bills were counting on Lawson to be a younger, more motivated replacement for Mario Williams, the disgruntled veteran pass-rusher whose performance and effort slipped last season before he was released this March.
Now the Bills will likely turn to another Lawson -- veteran Manny Lawson -- to fill the outside linebacker spot where Shaq Lawson was expected to start Day 1. The elder Lawson was a reliable and knowledgeable leader for Ryan on the field last season, but at 31, he offers little upside as a pass-rusher. Ryan will likely talk up Manny Lawson over the coming weeks and months, but the reality is that Ryan didn't think twice before naming Shaq Lawson a starter after the draft.
No matter how much time Shaq Lawson misses -- whether he has to sit for just training camp and the preseason or whether his absence stretches into midseason -- the news of his surgery Monday brings back reminders of the team's announcement in July 2014 that promising second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso had suffered a season-ending knee injury while working out. That was an unexpected blow to the gut before the first crack of the pads in training camp, and so is this.
But what makes Lawson's surgery feel like a Rougned Odor punch to the face to Bills fans is that Lawson denied Schefter's report that he would need surgery, while Whaley brushed off the issue because his medical staff green-lighted Lawson's shoulder.
"[Our] medical staff cleared him, said he can play," Whaley said April 29. "Now, if something happens, it's going to happen. But it's nothing that we're real worried about or we wouldn't have taken him. We got complete faith in our medical staff and they signed off on him, so we're excited to have him."
Given the Bills' statement, that Lawson's shoulder acted up last week, it took less than two weeks for "something [to] happen," to use Whaley's words. That either means that Whaley was giving a more positive outlook on Lawson the public than what he knew privately, or it means the Bills' medical staff sold Whaley on the idea that Lawson would be available to play without surgery.
Either way, the Bills could have tempered fans' expectations by being more realistic about Lawson's shoulder, both internally and to the public. Had the medical staff, Whaley and Lawson not raised hopes by swatting away talk of surgery, the positive development from Monday's news -- that Lawson is having a much-needed procedure to keep him healthy long term -- wouldn't be lost.
It's a bad look for Whaley, a bad look for the Bills' medical staff, a bad look for Lawson and just a downright bad day for Ryan and Bills fans.