Jeff Ulbrich, NY Jets, Defensive Coordinator
Jeff Ulbrich, New York Jets, Getty Images

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.

In particular, there are two veteran players on coordinator Jeff Ulbrich‘s defense that vastly underperformed in 2021: defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

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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Jets X-Factor Offseason Simulator

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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Michael Nania is the best analytical New York Jets mind in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania@jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania

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Psi
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Psi

Lawson looks like a total waste to me. Other than 1 interception he has done nothing. Cut him. This team needs at least 3 new Edge players for next year. In addition to Carl Lawson, they need at least one more veteran and one stud from the draft. Good news is I believe the draft offers many options in the first two rounds. One I personally like Jermaine Johnson from Florida State.

JetOrange
Member
JetOrange

Lawson could be cut next Monday, nine million CAP hit , please. Rankins requires some consideration, Foley is unsigned, FA pickings are slim, and there is a question whether Sheldon can still adapt to the scheme. The Draft may offer a solution, with the very versatile DT DeMarvin Leal , Drafted with one of the Jets first round picks. This is a draft very deep in Edge Rushers, and Saleh seems very willing to invest in Defensive Lineman. Second round Edge coupled with Leal

Jets71
Member
Jets71

I haven’t seen Leal, so I’m not sure he will be worth pick 4 or even 9 or so…I prefer a LB/CB and WR in round one. They need to use those picks on playmakers. There are a bunch of OL they could take in round 2 to add talent to the OL. You couldn’t be more right about Lawson, that’s easy.

JetOrange
Member
JetOrange

The Defensive Tackle situation needs to get sorted out. Want to re-sign Foley & “ Q “. Cut Shepherd. Would like to split the first four premium picks, between Offense and Defense. The last five picks governed by value. At least one TE and one Safety need to be obtained in FA to keep a level of Flexibility in this draft. Looking at both a premier LB or a top receiver, the middle of the first round seems to be the ideal spot. Certainly would like a team to overpay with the Jets trading down. JD will take partial trade… Read more »

JetOrange
Member
JetOrange

Georgia LB Nakobi Dean, Alabama WR Jamison Williams

Jets71
Member
Jets71

Either Dean and Williams/Burks is my 1st round goal at this point. I’d like to see more on Burks but he’s interesting. I also like Lloyd. The DL needs more, so does the secondary and LB. The more I watch and consider I’d like to get a playmaking WR and TE with the first 4 picks. Offense rules the league and Zach can never have too many weapons. I also consider the return of Lawson is like adding a draft pick.

JetOrange
Member
JetOrange

Like to see comparisons of Burks and Deebo Samuels, and how they fit in this Offense. FA needs to fill some of these holes, the FA TE looks promising. Moore showed us the value of weapons this year, changes a game in aheart beat

Jets71
Member
Jets71

I wouldn’t be surprised if this FA cycle is a replica of last season. I think they plan to go young. I do this this is the off season we see a couple of “Saleh guys” added to the roster. I think for sure one of the SF RB’s.

JetOrange
Member
JetOrange

Jets signed 10 players last year in FA, this year Because of higher prices I expect 5-6 Free agents, The good news is that the Jets are in the top eight teams with CAP space, also there are about 10 -12 teams in CAP Hell . Opportunity. Money goes quick in Free. Agency