The New York Jets badly need a threatening 5-technique defensive end, and Carl Lawson may be the best solution on the free agent market.
Elite pass rush production in 2020
Despite a measly total of 5.5 sacks that will not catch the eye of the casual observer, Carl Lawson was actually one of the NFL’s most disruptive pass rushers in 2020, highlighting the misleading nature of sack totals.
Lawson racked up a tremendous total of 32 quarterback hits, second-most in the league behind only T.J. Watt‘s 41.
In total, Lawson was credited with 64 pressures, sixth-most among all players and fourth-most among edge defenders. Racking up those 64 pressures across 437 pass-rush snaps, Lawson recorded a pressure rate of 14.6%, which ranked sixth-best among the 91 edge defenders with at least 200 pass-rush snaps. Pro Football Focus scored Lawson with a pass-rush grade of 84.9 that ranked 10th-best at the position among all 201 edge defenders to appear in a game (96th percentile).
Particularly, Lawson was the NFL’s most omnipresent force from the defense’s right side, where he was tasked with battling the opponent’s left tackle on a down-to-down basis. Lawson led the NFL with 63 pressures from the right side of the defensive line. Among edge rushers, the next-closest player (Trey Hendrickson) had 48 pressures from the right side.
Consistent top-tier efficiency throughout career
Lawson’s elite efficiency this past season was nothing new. On a per-play basis, he has been performing at this level since day one. The 2020 season simply marked the first time that Lawson got enough playing time to convert his high-level efficiency into high-volume production. A breakout of this magnitude always seemed to be on the horizon if he could just get enough opportunities.
Entering 2020, Lawson had collected 119 pressures over 841 pass-rush snaps, an elite rate of 14.1% that falls just shy of his 2020 mark. He was well above the typical EDGE average (the 2020 positional average was 9.7%) in each of his first three seasons, recording a 13.1% rate in 2019, a 13.6% rate in 2018, and a 15.2% rate in 2017.
Due to both injuries and a criminally low amount of playing time afforded to him by Cincinnati’s coaching staff, Lawson never got enough chances to extrapolate his efficiency. Over his first three seasons, Lawson averaged only 386.3 snaps per year, barely more than half of his career-high 723 snaps in 2020, which beat his previous career-high of 477 (set as a rookie in 2017). Lawson played a career-high 45.2 snaps per game in 2020 after averaging 33.1 over his first three seasons. His total of 723 snaps was a starter-level number, ranking 27th at his position.
Finally getting a full season’s worth of playing time thanks to his improved health and a boost to his snap count, Lawson impressively maintained the same top-notch efficiency he had always been posting and had a dominant year.
Lawson’s consistent track record of efficiency should massively increase his value on the free agent market. Teams can feel comfortable that his 2020 season was no fluke.
Robert Saleh’s 4-3 base defense calls for a pair of hand-in-the-dirt, 5-technique defensive ends on the edges, contrary to the defense that the Jets ran under Gregg Williams, which called for stand-up outside linebackers such as Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins to primarily man the edge.
In 2020, Saleh’s starting defensive ends were Arik Armstead and Kerry Hyder. Armstead played 94.7% of his snaps with his hand in the dirt. Hyder’s rate was 95.8%.
Guys like Basham (7.4% of 2020 snaps with hand in the dirt) and Jenkins (29.5%) just won’t cut it as edge defenders in this scheme.
Lawson fits the bill for Saleh. He played 79.0% of his snaps in 2020 with his hand in the dirt, primarily lining up as the outside right defensive end (73.6% of snaps).
While Lawson is primarily a defensive end, he offers the ability to stand up and play some outside linebacker every now and then. Weighing in at 265 pounds, Lawson played outside linebacker on 21.0% of his snaps in 2020. In 2019, Lawson played linebacker on 30.9% of his snaps.
You’ll want to keep Lawson in a 3 or 4-point stance most of the time, but it’s a nice plus to know he can stand up if you need him to.
Lawson will turn 26 years old in June, making him the youngest player among the 43 impending unrestricted free agent edge rushers who played at least 200 snaps last year (a handful of UFA edge rushers who did not play enough to qualify, namely Takkarist McKinley and Solomon Thomas, are a few months younger than Lawson).
In 2020, Lawson was one of only four players aged 25-or-younger to post 20+ quarterback hits, joining Joey Bosa (25 years old – 27 hits), Brian Burns (22 years old – 21 hits), and Montez Sweat (24 years old – 20 hits).
Sandwiched between complete 16-game seasons in his rookie year and in 2020, Lawson played only 19 of 32 possible games from 2018-19.
In 2018, Lawson played seven games until a torn ACL ended his season. In 2019, Lawson missed four games due to a hamstring injury, missing two separate pairs of games.
Lawson remained sturdy in 2020 as he never even appeared on the injury report prior to a game.
Lawson is not necessarily terrible against the run, but his track record in this phase is not nearly as impressive as his play in the passing game. Over the past three seasons, Lawson has posted PFF run defense grades of 61.1, 61.0, and 60.8 – about dead-on average for the position. The 2020 positional average was 61.4.
The Bengals used Lawson almost exclusively on passing downs over his first two seasons. From 2017-18, only 15.8% of Lawson’s snaps came on running plays. He has seen that portion jump to a more typical level over the past two seasons. From 2019-20, Lawson faced a running play on 36.5% of his snaps. That’s almost identical to the average rate among the league’s top-64 edge defenders in total snaps played in 2020 (36.4%).
It seems the Bengals became increasingly confident in Lawson’s ability to hold up against the run, playing a big part in his jump to a starting role in 2020.
Lack of coverage ability
While Lawson has his moments as a rusher from a stand-up position (2-point stance), he hasn’t shown that he can be trusted to drop into coverage. Lawson has dropped into coverage just 1.2 times per game in his career. Over 62 coverage snaps, he has allowed 12-of-13 passing in his direction for 164 yards, atrocious averages of 12.6 yards per target and 2.65 yards per cover snap.
Lawson has been penalty-prone in his career. He has been called for 19 penalties over 1,882 career snaps, an average of 10.0 penalties per 1,000 snaps. That’s brutal, more than double the 2020 EDGE average of 4.5. His most common offense has been offsides, being called for six of those. He has also been hit with four neutral zone infractions and four roughing the passer calls, although he had no roughing penalties in 2020.
Lawson showcases excellent explosion from a hand-in-the-dirt stance, building a ton of acceleration as he works into his power moves. As the wide-9 on this play, Lawson fires out of his 4-point stance and bulls the left tackle into Deshaun Watson‘s lap to force an incompletion, topping it off with a strong finish to the ground on Watson.
Working from a 3-point stance as the wide 5-tech, Lawson works the upfield shoulder of veteran left tackle Jason Peters before extending his inside arm into Peters’ inside shoulder, working the long-arm move. Lawson re-angles his hips towards the pocket, plowing Peters back before tossing him out of the way, finishing with a sack on Carson Wentz.
Again as a wide 5-tech but this time in a 4-point stance, Lawson wastes no time getting into his move. Off the snap, he goes straight at the left tackle (longtime starter Alejandro Villanueva). He gets his inside hand into Villanueva’s chest and completely overpowers him, doing so with that inside half of his body alone, as his right hand is caught by Villanueva. Lawson sheds and gets a hit on Ben Roethlisberger, forcing an errant throw that lands in the dirt.
Lawson isn’t just a power guy. He has plenty of speed in his toolbox as well. Once again in a wide-9 alignment, Lawson sells hard upfield to get Villanueva to open his hips to the outside. Once Villanueva commits to the outside, Lawson slices inside, swatting away Villanueva’s hands in the process. Lawson fends off the helping left guard and takes down Ben Roethlisberger for a sack, knocking the football out as well.
Game-winning play here for Lawson, who comes up big on fourth-and-10 with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Bengals leading by seven. This time, he wins to the outside. Lawson subtly flashes his inside hand, getting Villanueva to throw his hands. Lawson then chops the outside arm and rips through with his inside arm to win the edge, bending the corner and hitting Roethlisberger’s arm to force an inaccurate throw.
Here’s Lawson again using the chop-rip to bend the edge and pick up a big hit.
Here’s an example of shaky run defense from Lawson. Standing up as the wide-9 outside of the tight end (former Jet Eric Tomlinson), Lawson initially does his job of setting the edge, but as Gus Edwards bounces the run outside, Lawson pursues inside and loses sight of Edwards, allowing Edwards to run straight by him and reach the edge. Lawson hustles and brings Edwards down, but a play that should’ve been stuffed results in nine yards due to his mishap.
As a side note, this play exemplifies why it is so misleading to use tackles as a stat to evaluate performance quality. Lawson got credit for a tackle even though he was at fault for allowing a successful play. This is the case on a very large portion of tackles in football – oftentimes, the tackler is actually the culprit for yielding quality production. This is why a tackle means nothing in a vacuum. Context is necessary to know whether a tackle was actually a valuable play by the player who made it.
Here’s another poor rep against the run by Lawson as he gets pinned inside by the pulling center on an end-around, compromising the edge and yielding a 42-yard rush to Devin Duvernay.
Lawson grades out at an average level (rather than terrible) against the run for a reason. He balances his shaky reps with moments of brilliance.
Against this jet sweep by Pittsburgh, Lawson is all over it. The C-gap is vacated as the tight end kicks outside and the tackle works inside, leaving Lawson with a free shot at the full-speed Chase Claypool. Lawson takes a great angle and makes a beautiful finish as he snatches Claypool by the hips takes him down for a six-yard loss.
Lined up head-up against the outermost of two tight ends, Lawson angles inside and holds his ground against the tight ends’ double-team. When the inside tight end works to the second level, Lawson already has the leverage through the D-gap thanks to his initial positioning off the snap. Lawson extends his outside arm to fend off the outside tight end and shoots into the backfield, making a fantastic diving tackle to limit Miles Sanders to one yard.
Don’t count on too much from Lawson in coverage. He can be dropped every once in a while to mix things up, but he isn’t stopping anyone out in space.
Here, Lawson gives up a first down in zone coverage as he spot-drops, meaning he simply drops to a specific location on the field rather than feeling out and adjusting to the threat(s) in his area. Blake Bell sits right beside Lawson and Andy Dalton zips the ball by his ears for an 11-yard pickup.
Lawson attempts to cover Nick Chubb out of the backfield here, giving up space to the sideline after being rubbed by the tight end. He overcompensates to try and make up the ground, resulting in a missed tackle that gives Chubb a few more extra yards and a first down.
With a combined 10 offsides and neutral-zone penalties in his four-year career, Lawson can be a bit jumpy pre-snap. Here’s a neutral zone infraction against Baltimore this year, a complete misjudging of the snap count as his jump is incited by hardly any movement at all from the Ravens’ offensive line.
Lawson jumps just a tad early on this play against the Cowboys for an offsides call. He doesn’t quit on the play, though, throwing a nasty swipe-swim move on the left tackle (Brandon Knight) for a hit on Andy Dalton that limits the damage of the penalty.
In 2020, the most comparable free agent to Lawson was Dante Fowler, who entered the open market in a similar position to Lawson. Fowler had just enjoyed a breakout season at 25 years old, ranking 11th among edge defenders with 67 pressures. He ended up receiving a three-year, $45 million deal from the Falcons with $29 million guaranteed. Outside of Fowler, there weren’t any edge rushers who performed comparably enough to Lawson for us to use them as a comparison.
In 2019, Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith were the premier names at outside linebacker after a 2018 season in which they ranked 23rd and 17th among edge rushers in pressures, respectively. They were both entering their age-27 season. Za’Darius signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Packers ($20M guaranteed), while Preston also signed with the Packers at a cost of four years and $52 million ($16M guaranteed).
Trey Flowers was the third top-tier EDGE and the only elite defensive end on the market in 2019. He posted 64 pressures for the Patriots in 2018 (identical to Lawson in 2019), 10th-most among edge defenders. Also akin to Lawson, Flowers became a free agent as he entered his age-26 season. Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Lions, featuring $56 million in guarantees. This might be the best comparison for Lawson’s earning potential.
The average deal of the four comparisons above: four years, $63.3 million ($15.8M per year), and $30.3 million guaranteed. This seems like a fair ballpark estimate for Lawson if he hits the market.
Projecting Jets’ pursuit
Not only has the EDGE spot been one of the Jets’ weakest positions for a countless number of years, but it is also a spot that needs major stylistic retooling to match the schematic changes that will be coming alongside a new coaching staff. For that reason, there seems to be a high likelihood that the Jets make aggressive offers for the position’s biggest available names who also fit what they are trying to do schematically.
Should the Bengals decide not to place the franchise tag on Lawson, allowing him to dip into the open waters of free agency, it would be hard to imagine that Joe Douglas and the Jets would not have a high degree of interest. Lawson is in his prime, is one of the most talented pass rushers in football (legitimized by consistent career-long efficiency), and fits the scheme that Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich project to run. Injuries are a concern, but not enough so to cancel out the positives he offers. He’s a top-tier free agent who is going to get a hefty payday.
A huge deal for Lawson – even to the tune of over $15 million per year – appears to be a wise allocation of the Jets’ abundant cap space given their desperate need at the EDGE position.
Will the Jets pursue Lawson? It would be surprising if not, but signing him is obviously another story. Plenty of teams will chase Lawson feverishly, and if his price gets out of hand, Douglas could fold his hand and move to the next table. In 2020, Douglas’ body of work strongly suggested that he is a “draw a line in the sand” type of negotiator. Will he break that mold and go all-in to ensure his team can get Lawson (or someone of his caliber) and fill a gargantuan hole? Time will tell.
Rather than adhering themselves to one ideology that they refuse to move off of, great general managers are capable of operating conservatively and aggressively, feeling out their team’s current situation and modifying their approach to fit whatever is best for their franchise at the given moment. For this iteration of the Jets, the time is right to make a few splurges. The team’s cap space is as abundant as the roster is porous, and more importantly, new pieces will be needed to accommodate the transition to a new coaching staff, both schematically and from a cultural standpoint.
It’s time for Douglas to go on a little shopping spree – and Carl Lawson is one of the shiniest items on the shelf.
This is the first of many comprehensive free agent profiles on prospective Jets targets to come over the next month-plus. To ensure access to all of them, subscribe to Jets X-Factor today (first month free + portion of proceeds donated to COVID-19 relief in NYC).
What separates Lawson from some of the other Edge defenders is his consistency and versatility of his pass rush, but for Saleh it’s his run defense