Shaq Lawson, Sheldon Rankins’ rough 2021 seasons could get them cut
Entering the final week of the 2021 regular season, the New York Jets have the NFL’s worst defense based on both points allowed (29.8 per game) and yards allowed (396.0 per game).
Many of the unit’s woes have been attributed to injuries and a roster that is exceedingly young and inexperienced on the whole.
However, when a unit is the worst in the NFL, the struggles cannot merely be pinned on one group of people. Everyone is at fault.
That includes the veterans.
Each possessing a contract that the Jets can easily escape in the 2022 offseason, Lawson and Rankins are far from locks to remain with the Jets despite being under contract through next season.
Let’s dig into the 2021 seasons of Lawson and Rankins to figure out whether the Jets would be wise to keep them around going forward.
Shaq Lawson’s 2021 season
General manager Joe Douglas acquired Shaq Lawson in late August, shortly after the team learned that starting edge rushers Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry would miss the entire regular season. Douglas sent a 2022 sixth-round pick to Houston for Shaq’s services.
Lawson was meant to be a short-term band-aid for the Jets at the EDGE spot. It is a crucial position in Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s 4-3 defense, so the team understandably felt compelled to plug the sudden hole in an effort to help the rest of the defense operate effectively.
All the Jets needed from Lawson was some decent starter-quality production to help the defense stay afloat after the losses of Carl Lawson and Curry. Considering his solid track record of performance as a member of the Dolphins and Bills over the previous two seasons, it seemed like he had a good chance of giving them just that.
Unfortunately, Lawson gave the Jets nowhere near “decent” production.
Lawson was one of the worst pass-rushing edge rushers in football this year. Across 14 games for the Jets, including seven starts, Lawson logged 534 total defensive snaps but could only muster up one sack and five quarterback hits. He tied for 87th among edge rushers with 17 total pressures despite playing 288 pass-rush snaps, which ranked 60th.
With 17 pressures on 288 pass-rush snaps, Lawson had a pressure rate of 5.9%. That ranked second-worst out of the 69 edge rushers to play at least 250 pass-rush snaps. For reference, the NFL average for edge rushers this season is 10.1%.
Lawson has been fine in the run game, but nowhere near good enough to make up for his nonexistent pass-rushing.
Making matters worse, Lawson has been called for six penalties, tied for the fifth-most among defensive ends this season.
Lawson is on the hook for a $9 million cap hit next year, which is the final season of the three-year, $30 million deal he signed with Miami in 2020. The Jets can release or trade Lawson to clear all of that money off the books while taking on no dead money.
It seems very likely the Jets decide to part ways with Lawson considering the disparity between his price tag and his production.
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Sheldon Rankins’ 2021 season
The Jets signed pass-rush-centric defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in March with the hope that he could add even more juice to an attacking 4-3 defensive front that already had the makings of a dominant pass-rushing unit. Rankins battled injuries over five years in New Orleans but was always an effective pass-rusher on a per-snap basis, making up for his mediocre run defense.
In 2021, Rankins’ pass-rushing impact stooped well below his usual standards while his run defense became an even larger liability than usual.
Rankins has played 382 pass-rush snaps, which ranks 31st among interior defensive linemen, but he has only collected 22 pressures, which ranks 53rd.
Those totals give Rankins a pressure rate of 5.8%, which ranks 62nd out of the 71 interior defensive linemen with at least 250 pass-rush snaps. It is Rankins’ worst mark since his 2016 rookie season.
Comparatively, Rankins’ pressure rate over his previous four seasons prior to this year was an impressive 9.2%. For reference, the 2021 league average pressure rate for interior defensive linemen is 7.3%.
As for the other phase of the game, Rankins is quietly one of the biggest culprits for the Jets’ abysmal run defense.
Rankins’ Pro Football Focus run-defense grade of 30.5 is the worst of any defensive lineman (EDGE or IDL) on the Jets’ roster this season. It is also the worst among the league’s 63 interior defensive linemen who have played at least 500 defensive snaps. If you knock the qualifier down to 200 snaps, which increases the sample to 143 players, Rankins’ run-defense grade ranks sixth-worst.
When watching the film of the Jets’ defense, Rankins can be seen getting moved off the line of scrimmage quite easily throughout the year, allowing ample running room for the opponent. He also struggles to finish plays, as he owns the third-highest missed tackle rate on run plays (18.2%) out of 63 qualified interior defensive linemen.
Rankins flat-out does not make many stops in the run game. He made a tackle on just 8.3% of his snaps against the run, the second-worst rate among 63 qualifiers.
It’s okay for a defensive tackle to contribute a low number of on-ball plays in the run game if he is making a great off-the-stat-sheet impact through his penetration and gap-filling. But as evidenced by Rankins’ run-defense grade, he’s not doing those things, either. He routinely gets moved around.
While Rankins was never great at stopping the run in New Orleans, he was never this bad. He has struggled to anchor down and plug holes as a one-gapping defensive tackle in New York’s 4-3 scheme, often flying up the field with reckless abandon as teams use simple draw and trap plays to punish him and his teammates for their aggression.
Rankins is set to have a cap hit of $6.25 million next season – the second year of the two-year, $11 million he signed last March – but the Jets can cut or trade him to save $5.5 million in cap space while taking on only $750,000 in dead money. However, $1.5 million of his 2022 salary becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2022 league year (March 20), so the Jets must move quickly.
Did Rankins’ performance this season warrant a return at $6.25 million or would those dollars be put to better use elsewhere? That is the question the Jets will have to answer this offseason. Rankins has a stronger case to return than Lawson, but it still might not be strong enough of a case to warrant keeping him at his current price tag.
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