The New York Jets have 4 primary candidates to lead the team in sacks in 2022
The New York Jets have languished in a decade and a half of below-average pass rush from their front four. Even in the heyday of the Rex Ryan defenses, there was an overemphasis on pressure through exotic and disguised blitzes. Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson had their flashes, but there was never a consistent, dominant presence upfront. The last time the Jets had that was back in 2005 when John Abraham manned the outside.
For a franchise proud of its pass rushers, most notably The Sack Exchange of the ’80s, this deficit has been particularly painful.
Unlike Mike Maccagnan’s supreme focus on inside rushers, Joe Douglas recognized this glaring hole and assembled an intriguing crew of quarterback-seekers both on the inside and outside of the line. The ACL injury of Carl Lawson concealed the potential of the Jets’ line last season. There is a lot of hope in Florham Park that this season’s cast will be different.
In the offseason, the time of hopes, dreams, prognostication, and long-range betting, the question always arises: who will be the best? Who will stand out among the pack?
The Jets’ projected four starting defensive linemen are Lawson, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and Jermaine Johnson. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich’s recent comments notwithstanding, we would assume that these four will take the majority of the snaps upfront.
Who will lead the Jets in sacks in 2022?
Let’s go through each of the Big 4 and discuss.
The guy who was brought in to eat: Carl Lawson
Lawson seems to be a darling of the Jets’ fan base. He put up 5.5 sacks with the Bengals in 2020 before signing a three-year, $45 million deal with the Jets. Unfortunately, Lawson’s torn ACL in camp ended his season before it started.
Still, Lawson’s 2020 campaign produced a 76.3 overall grade at Pro Football Focus, including an 84.9 pass rush grade. That’s borderline Pro Bowl level pass rush.
This is what PFF’s Ben Linsey had to say about Lawson heading into 2020 free agency (prior to his signing with the Jets):
“There is an argument to be made that Lawson is the best pure pass rusher to hit free agency this offseason. Since entering the league in 2017, his pass-rush grade on true pass-rush sets ranks in the 96th percentile among all edge defenders — firmly in elite territory. Injuries and inconsistent play have limited his opportunities to begin his career, but he finished the 2020 season with a career-high 723 defensive snaps and 84.9 pass-rushing grade. The arrow is pointing up.
“Despite finishing the season with only 5.5 sacks, few pass rushers were able to consistently beat their blocks and pressure opposing quarterbacks more often than Lawson. He was one of just five qualifying edge defenders to record a pass-rush win rate of 20% or higher, joining Joey Bosa, T.J. Watt, Khalil Mack and Jerry Hughes. On top of that, his 64 pressures were fourth-most at the position.”
The biggest question with Lawson is about his health. The injuries have piled up. Can he put it all together in 2022? The Jets can cut him after this season with almost no cap hit, so Lawson is essentially playing for his next deal. Will he play up or down to the moment?
The best from last year: John Franklin-Myers
Franklin-Myers, fondly referred to as JFM, signed a four-year, $55 million extension with the Jets in October 2021. However, there is very little guaranteed money beyond 2022, so it’s essentially a prove-it year for Franklin-Myers just as it is for Lawson.
Franklin-Myers’ six sacks in 2021 came primarily from the outside. He earned an 80.3 PFF grade, best on the Jets’ defense and 15th-best among 129 qualified edge rushers in the NFL. His 74.1 pass rush grade was solid, although it didn’t rank as high as his overall grade, placing 28th.
The tricky part with JFM is that he’s most likely to attempt the majority of his pass rushing from the inside of the line in 2022. As Michael Nania detailed here, JFM is a far better pass rusher from the interior of the line.
With the return of Carl Lawson and the drafting of Jermaine Johnson, it is highly likely that the Jets will utilize JFM in a manner more closely aligned with what Nania suggested: inside on pass rushing downs, outside on run stopping downs. Therefore, using the six sacks as a baseline for 2022 may be foolhardy.
If JFM can come anywhere near his 2020 pressure rate from the inside of 14.4% (3rd among interior rushers), look out, league!
The guy who has everything to prove: Quinnen Williams
Williams, affectionately called Q, was Mike Maccagnan’s last gift to the Jets. You have to wonder if Joe Douglas would have drafted Q had he been the GM. That being said, Quinnen was seen as a can’t-miss prospect coming out of college.
Another article by Michael Nania details the mixed bag that Q has put up in his three years in the league thus far. 2020 appeared to be a breakout year for Williams until he took a step back in 2021.
Quinnen’s final stat line in 2021 included a 64.4 PFF grade (37th among 89 qualifiers), 6.0 sacks (11th), and a 70.7 pass-rushing grade (32nd). While the 7 sacks look solid on paper, the accompanying numbers suggest a decent-but-not-great interior lineman. That’s very disappointing for a former #3 overall pick.
Williams’ 2020 season, though, is the standard that Jets fans are hoping to see in 2022. His overall PFF grade of 81.4 ranked 10th; 5.5 impact plays per game, 4th; and 8.4 snaps per impact play, 2nd. That’s up there in the top 5-10 interior linemen. This seems to scratch the surface of what Q can do.
Deciding on whether Williams is worth a lucrative contract extension is one matter. The Jets picked up his fifth-year option, giving them more time to evaluate him. But with the pass-rushing talent around him, will Quinnen pick up his game in 2022? Will those six sacks be his ceiling, or can he push himself into the conversation of the elites?
The rookie wild-card: Jermaine Johnson
The Jets were thrilled when Johnson fell into their laps at #26 overall. They reportedly had him in the top eight on their draft board, and according to Joe Douglas, they were trying to trade up for him beginning at #15.
Still, Johnson’s college numbers were good but not great. His 11.5 sacks look good on paper, but his 14.1% pass rush win rate was in the middle of the pack (60th percentile). That metric seems to translate strongly to the NFL and does not bode well for Johnson as a pass rusher. Many NFL and external scouts had similar projections of Johnson.
Still, there are reasons to believe in his upside. He excelled in converting his pressures into sacks (30.4%, 95th percentile). Given the talent of the players around him and the attention they may draw, Johnson may find himself with many opportunities to bring the QB down, something he does very well.
When playing quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, (potentially) DeShaun Watson, and Aaron Rodgers, getting the quarterback down to the ground is nearly as important as simply pressuring him, given all that those quarterbacks can do with their legs. This makes Johnson a sleeper candidate for the Jets’ sack lead.
The Jets’ sack leader is not easy to predict for 2022. For the first time in a while, this is a good thing: there are several candidates to break out. I’d go with Carl Lawson, but I’m suspicious of his health.
I think that John Franklin-Myers will pace the Jets with 10 sacks this season.