ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Shaq Lawson would have this message for his younger self: "When you get in the league, attack it. Don't matter if you're 1st round or not, time don't wait for no man so once you get in the league you got to make everything count."
You could argue it took Lawson until his fourth season in the NFL to learn that lesson.
His first three produced a total of 10 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, and 20 quarterback hits.
He finally looked like the guy worthy of his 19th overall selection in 2019, posting a career-year with 6.5 sacks, 13 TFLs, and 18 QB hits.
Lawson parlayed the breakout season into a 3-year, $30 million deal with the Dolphins.
"At the time I thought that was the best decision for me," Lawson said. "Looking back...I'd probably say that's probably the worst decision I made."
Lawson had 4 sacks, 4 TFLs, and 18 QB hits in 14 games with 7 starts in what would be his only season with Miami.
They traded him to Houston the following offseason.
Lawson never played a regular season game for the Texans, getting traded to the Jets before the 2021 campaign even began.
His production dipped with New York to just one sack, 5 TFLs, and 5 QB hits in 14 games with 7 starts before being released prior to their regular season finale.
"It was a humbling two years," Lawson admits. "This year I consider a humbling year for me trying to get my career back."
It wasn't just what Lawson looked like on the field that was different.
"If you would have seen me the last two years you'd be like 'This is Shaq?'" Lawson said. "I'm quiet. I'm not talking. I'm just strictly about ball. Not joking and things like that. And that's not me. I like to have fun. Like to joke. I still take the game serious, but me I got to be interacting and cracking jokes. So that was my biggest part. I couldn't be myself."
So, as Lawson found himself once again a free agent this past offseason, his preferred destination was clear.
It also was the only team that showed interested - the Bills.
"It's home," Lawson said with a smile. "Coach McDermott let me be my dog. That's big with me. Let me be myself. Me, I can't fake it. If I got to fake it for you it's going to be hard for me. McDermott just let me be myself. Once he came to me when I signed back and said 'Be yourself. Be that dog you used to be.' Once I got that, that okay to say so, it just opened my game up and made me feel more comfortable. I still got it. I haven't lost it yet."
Lawson signed a one-year deal in mid-March to return, one of many additions to the Bills defensive line.
"Like everyone, we have certain expectations, but try and give guys the space they need to be the best version of themselves," head coach Sean McDermott said. "You can only be the best version of yourself when you're being yourself and I think that's extremely powerful."
While it felt great to be back home, Lawson was not coming in as if he'd never left.
"Me personally, I'm thinking whatever I did in Buffalo before I got paid, throw that out," Lawson said. "It's a fresh start. They got to see what I can do now. You got to think about it, that was three years ago. I'm year seven. At the time I was year four. So a lot changed. Me, I needed to re-find what I did best here. It's me setting the edges, playing the run very well."
Gaining confidence back wasn't instant. Lawson had to see it first to believe it.
"Preseason I started feeling it back, but then again I'm thinking, okay, that's preseason," Lawson said. "I want to see when we play the Kansas City Chiefs, those guys, I want to see how I play. I think it might have been that Kansas City game or the Ravens game, I start finding my little mojo getting back to myself. I said, okay, I feel good. Feeling like myself, making plays."
"He's playing his best football again," McDermott said. "Just the energy he gives us. He's just got so much physical and mental toughness. You watch him out at practice and he's taped together out there and running around and then game day he looks totally different. Just the competitor in him just shows a lot about who he is and how much this game means to him."
Playing well is nothing new for Lawson in this Bills defense, who has 1.5 sacks, 2 TFLs, and 6 QB hits while playing just 42% of the defensive snaps through 10 games this season.
How he's getting those results this time around is, though.
"The way he views football, he looks at it every single snap like this might be my last snap and I'm not so sure that was the case when he was here before," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "So his attitude and his approach is a little bit different in that way and it shows on the field. He plays hard every single down as if this is my last down playing and that's good for us."
"I told myself, if I get another opportunity, this might [be my last]," Lawson agreed. "You know how the league works. The older you get they're basically pushing you out the door, so I got to separate myself from the younger guys. It's me running and playing every play like it's my last because you never know."
Lawson is likely in line for more snaps with the unknown timeline for Von Miller to return from a knee injury. But more opportunity won't change his approach.
"There's a key phrase: stay ready and you don't have to get ready," Lawson said. "I think that's always been in my head. Prepare every day like you're the starter. Prepare like the coach is going to call on you when the game is on the line."
Above all else, Lawson is just happy to be playing the game back home with the Bills.