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Once an afterthought, Devaroe Lawrence turning heads in pursuit of roster spot

The Browns' vaunted front four sent much of the football world into a brief tizzy Friday night when it sacked Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston on consecutive plays.

Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon teamed up to record three sacks during their time on the field, while linebacker Christian Kirksey and cornerback Denzel Ward were also credited with sacks while playing with the starting defense. The two defensive linemen's sacks came seemingly with ease, like a hot knife through butter, and spawned plenty of recordings of television screens that spread quickly on Twitter.

The attention is warranted. The Browns' starting front four is very good and has been during this entire preseason process. If healthy, it should be one of the league's best.

But it's also a deep group, thanks to the presence and steady improvement of reserves like Devaroe Lawrence. He also recorded two sacks in Friday's 13-12 loss and finally grabbed some deserved attention.

The performance is the latest and perhaps greatest step in a long, convoluted path for Lawrence, the former Auburn standout who came from a rough background as a teen, underwent two knee surgeries since he tore his ACL as a senior and was traded to the Browns for a seventh-round pick on cut-down day last season.

Simply, he's seen -- and cleared -- plenty of hurdles to get to this point. And his case to make an NFL roster is stronger than ever.

Lawrence has been a disruptive, borderline manic force on the defensive line during this camp. When highly physical inside run periods of training camp -- ones in which Lawrence should thrive -- began during practices, Sheck Wes' "Mo Bamba" would blare out of nearby speakers, signaling a need to turn up the intensity. But during a rare afternoon practice, the opening song changed to Lil Boosie's "Set It Off," a hard-hitting track laced with emphatic violins and punctuated by deep bass lines and the same bell tone that precedes third downs in many NFL stadiums.

Ten of the defenders awaiting the offense swayed in similarly subdued fashion. In front of them was Lawrence, the 11th defender who was dancing around, arms flailing and head bobbing violently with each Boosie line.

To his teammates, that's just Lawrence, who's always been a little crazy.

"Have you not seen Devaroe?" Larry Ogunjobi replied when asked in May who he'd want on his side in a street fight. ... "Devaroe will hold it down. If I'm with Devaroe and we in a back alley, I'm scared for the people in the back alley."

Lawrence brings the same intensity to each defensive play, occasionally running down an offensive player 30 yards downfield well after the action is over just to prove a point. He does it because he feels a need to prove himself, in part because he's considered to be undersized (even if, at 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, he doesn't eat like it).

"Some are a little taller, some are 6-7, some 6-6, 6-5. I might be 6-2, maybe 6-3, but you know, I take my approach as the little man syndrome," Lawrence explained. "Just be a firecracker. Yeah, you think you bigger than me, you gonna push me around? You ain't finna push me around. Got that little man syndrome. Get mad and knock them around a little bit, and the look on their face, when you get them to move then around a little bit ... They feel the strength a little bit. That weight room."

Lawrence is also very much in tune with the fleeting nature of his opportunity.

Two weeks ago, the Browns were in the midst of their first joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts in Westfield, Indiana, and Lawrence was again having a productive day when he suddenly confronted his football mortality. He left practice with what he thought was a significant knee injury to the same joint that had caused him so many issues in the past. Head coach Freddie Kitchens had a private talk with Lawrence before the lineman was taken off the field on the back of a cart, towel draped over his head.

The scene looked much like that of players who had suffered season-ending injuries. But Lawrence received good news a day later and was able to return quickly, avoiding serious injury.

"I thought it was something, and I was trippin' and I was just like 'I don't like how I feel.' And then when I found out it was nothing, it's just like 'all right, it ain't nothing, so let's go,'" Lawrence recalled. "And that's just from my mind. I feel like that's all players with injuries, the first battle you've got to beat is the mental battle with it and then the second part is physical, so once they told me it was nothing it was like *snaps* all right, let's go again."

Since then, Lawrence has played with even more energy than what was flowing out of him when "Set It Off" started playing. He's made a noticeable impact on the defensive line, working well when paired with starters and also with fellow reserves. His chances of making the Browns are starting to look somewhat good with less than a week to go before cut-down day.

Check out photos from practice on August 26, 2019 by team photographer Matt Starkey

The key? He's finally started playing without letting his brain get in the way.

"Yeah, just stopped thinking about it so much," Lawrence explained Monday. "It is football. It is what I have been doing my whole life. Just go out there, apply the right techniques and the proper skills and do what I supposed to do."

Doing what he's supposed to do has earned Lawrence 3.0 sacks in three games and 6 total tackles. It's also earned praise from his head coach, who forced Lawrence to raise his hand during a camp practice while criticizing his offensive linemen for not being able to block Lawrence.

"Devaroe is a good example of somebody who does not worry about his surroundings," Kitchens said Monday, "and just worried about himself and stayed focused on what he had to do to get better and I think you are seeing the results of that. Did he surprise us? I would not say he surprised us because any time you trade for someone, your expectation level for them is up there, but he has definitely made good on his opportunities."

Lawrence has taken advantage of playing alongside multiple Pro Bowlers, heeding their advice and mixing it with his seemingly unstoppable energy. He's also shown what bulk reps can do for a talented player's development. Should he make the team, though, those reps won't be as easy to come by. 

His answer to such a conundrum? His chances will come. No one can run forever.

"I mean, they're good players, but you know, uh, they run out of oxygen, too," Lawrence said with a laugh. "They're going to get tired, so when they tap on that helmet, I'm gone."

Perhaps Lawrence is the perfect symbol of identity for a defensive line that is incredibly talented, but not all that loud. Garrett and Vernon are more subdued than they are John Randle, and while Richardson has jokes for days, Ogunjobi isn't the loudest player either. Their play -- and Lawrence's energy -- can speak for itself.

That, Lawrence says, is what will drive this team's identity.

"The team is going to go as far as the offensive line takes us and as far as the defensive line takes us," Lawrence said. "If your big boys are not leading your team, then what you got? ... At the end of the day, (it's) your big boys, because your receiver and your quarterback ain't gonna walk up on nobody and scare them, but when your D-line or your O-line walk up, it's like 'yeah boys, we finna have a fight today.'"