The New York Jets need more from Shaq Lawson
After losing edge rushers Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry for the entire season in August, New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas attempted to keep the EDGE unit afloat by trading for Houston Texans edge rusher Shaq Lawson. Douglas sent a 2022 sixth-round pick to Houston for the services of the lesser-talented Lawson.
It was a trade that made a lot of sense. The edge rushers are extremely important in New York’s attacking 4-3 defense. Head coach Robert Saleh wanted to build a defensive front that could create pressure without the blitz, taking pressure off of the team’s young cornerbacks and linebackers in coverage. Trading for Lawson helped to keep that plan on track in the wake of losing two projected starters.
Lawson came to New York with a track record of above-average production as both a pass rusher and run defender.
As a member of the Dolphins in 2020, Lawson created pressure on 11.1% of his pass-rush snaps, ranking at the 73rd percentile among qualified edge rushers. With the Bills in 2019, Lawson’s pressure rate was 13.6%, ranking at the 81st percentile.
In the run game, Lawson had a solid Pro Football Focus run-defense grade of 70.6 from 2017-20. For reference, the 2020 league average was 61.4.
The Jets appeared to be getting a good two-way player who could hold the fort down for a year with Carl Lawson sidelined.
Plus, considering that Shaq is under contract for the 2022 season with a projected cap hit of $9 million (although the Jets can cut him while taking on zero dead money), the possibility existed that Shaq could play his way into sticking around on that contract in 2022 as the team’s second starting edge rusher opposite Carl.
As we sit here today, six games into the Jets’ 2021 season, Shaq Lawson has been nowhere near the player he was in Miami and Buffalo. In fact, he has been one of the biggest liabilities on the Jets’ defense.
Lawson has zero sacks, two quarterback hits, and 12 tackles through six games despite playing 39.5 snaps per game. His averages of 0.3 quarterback hits per game and 2.0 tackles per game are his worst since he played a minimal role as a rookie in 2016.
The off-the-stat-sheet impact has not been there, either. Lawson has only seven pressures over 127 pass-rush snaps. That’s a pressure rate of 5.5%, which ranks 75th out of 81 qualified edge rushers in the NFL.
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Against the run, Lawson started off hot with a run-defense grade of 86.0 at PFF through two games, but over the last four games, his grade in that phase has dipped to 54.7. On the season, he is tied for third among edge rushers with four missed tackles in the run game.
To top it all off, Lawson has already tied his career-high with three penalties. Two of those were roughing the passer calls on second-down plays that the Jets held shy of the first-down marker.
Joe Douglas doesn’t necessarily deserve harsh criticism for this trade. His two intended starters suffered season-ending injuries (blood clot in Curry’s case) so he responded by using a measly sixth-round pick to try and mitigate the losses as best he could. The risk is low as Lawson can be cut with no financial loss after the season.
Perhaps the only criticism that can be levied upon Douglas regarding this trade is the fact that Lawson showed signs in the preseason that this decline may be coming. Lawson got extended action in all three of Houston’s preseason games and struggled mightily, picking up zero pressures over 50 pass-rush snaps.
With that in mind, it could be argued that Douglas should have looked elsewhere for his stopgap replacement, but that is something that can only be said with the benefit of hindsight. At the time of the trade, which would be wiser to value: Lawson’s three preseason games of poor play in 2021 or his 29 regular-season games of solid play from 2019-20?
Obviously, it’s the latter, and based on what Lawson showed over that sample, getting him for a sixth-round pick was a no-brainer for Douglas.
Regardless, the bottom line is that Lawson’s lackluster output has been one of the Jets’ biggest defensive issues this season. The defense’s potential would rise significantly if he could get back to his previous levels of performance.
Or, with Kyle Phillips on the way back, perhaps Lawson could soon see his snap count reduced if he does not return to form.