Carl Lawson’s contract is escapable for the New York Jets in 2023
In March 2021, New York signed Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. The hope was that Lawson could be an elite pass rusher off the edge in Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s 4-3 scheme.
Sacks were never the basis of Lawson’s game, as he only had 20 sacks in 51 games with the Bengals (about 6.7 sacks per 17 games). Lawson was brought in to do one thing: be a pressure machine.
When the Jets signed Lawson, he was coming off an outstanding 2020 season with the Bengals in which he ranked fourth among edge rushers with 64 pressures. His efficiency was also stellar, as he ranked sixth out of 91 qualified edge rushers with a 14.6% pressure rate.
Unfortunately, in August 2021, Lawson suffered an Achilles tear during a joint practice in Green Bay, ending his first season with the Jets.
Lawson returned in 2022 and played all 17 games for the Jets in his age-27 season. He had his moments, but ultimately, Lawson did not look like the same player.
While Lawson recorded 7.0 sacks in 2022, he did not win his pass-rush reps or create pressure nearly as frequently as he did in Cincinnati. Lawson ranked just 28th among edge rushers with 49 pressures.
From an efficiency perspective, Lawson only performed at around a league-average level for a starting edge rusher. His pressure rate of 11.3% ranked 38th out of 83 qualified edge rushers (min. 250 pass-rush snaps), placing him at the 55th percentile among that group. For reference, the league average pressure rate for edge rushers in 2022 was 10.8%.
Lawson’s 11.3% pressure rate is a career-low. He never went below 13.1% in any of his four seasons with the Bengals.
Over the course of his tenure with Cincinnati, Lawson owned a career pressure rate of 14.3%. That was the fourth-best pressure rate among all NFL edge rushers (min. 500 pass-rush snaps) over the four-year span from 2017 to 2020:
- Nick Bosa (15.9%)
- Von Miller (15.4%)
- Joey Bosa (15.0%)
- Carl Lawson (14.3%)
The Lawson we saw in 2022 was a far cry from the Lawson that Joe Douglas thought he signed. That’s not to say Lawson was bad. He was average. But the Jets signed him to be elite.
Lawson’s run defense is another factor that must be taken into account. He has never been a good run defender in his career and that continued in 2022. Lawson only had 10 run stops all season and ranked 70th out of 89 qualified edge rushers with a run-stop rate of 4.6%. Additionally, Lawson had a missed tackle rate of 17.4% against the run, which ranked 15th-worst at the position.
New York knew Lawson would provide lackluster run defense. But he was supposed to offset that with top-10 pass-rushing. Instead, his pass-rushing was average in 2022. When you combine average pass-rushing with poor run defense, you get a player who is below-average overall.
An interesting wrinkle in this situation was added to the mix a few days after the 2022 season ended. Connor Hughes reported that Lawson had a second surgery on his Achilles shortly after the 2021 season ended. This had not previously been made public.
It is certainly possible that Lawson was still working his way back to 100% during the 2022 season and could return to peak form in 2023. Maybe the Jets decide to keep Lawson and bet that he will improve in 2023 with another year of recovery.
However, Lawson’s injury history makes it tough to be fully confident that a turnaround will happen. Lawson already suffered two ACL tears (one in college and one in the NFL) prior to his Achilles injury. Perhaps the injuries are starting to add up. Even if that is not the case, his propensity for injuries makes it risky to bet on him.
While the new report of Lawson’s second surgery serves as a reasonable explanation for Lawson’s disappointing 2022 season, there are also pieces of the puzzle that only add to the disappointment of his production.
One big concern I had with Lawson’s 2022 season was how frequently he failed to maximize advantageous matchups. Lawson lucked into facing a bunch of backup and rookie left tackles and rarely dominated those mismatches. The Jets faced six backup left tackles in 2022, and in two other games, they faced a rookie left tackle. That’s nearly half of Lawson’s games against a backup or a rookie.
In 2023, Lawson will probably not be as lucky when it comes to his schedule of opposing left tackles. The increased difficulty of his schedule could cancel out the improvement that may come as a result of his distancing from the Achilles tear.
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Lawson’s contract can be easily escaped in the 2023 offseason. If the Jets release Lawson, they would net $15 million in cap savings while eating just $333K in dead money. Lawson will have a $15.3 million cap hit in 2023 if he is kept.
It would be hard to justify keeping Lawson at that price tag considering his production this past season. Perhaps they can agree upon a restructured deal to bring the number down.
However, I would argue that simply releasing Lawson is the best move, and this is the key reason why: The Jets have a strong pipeline at the EDGE position.
It’s not as if releasing Lawson would leave New York scrambling to use the savings on a replacement who might not be any better. There are talented young players in the building who are ready to take Lawson’s place at an affordable cost.
In the 2022 draft, New York used a first-round pick on Jermaine Johnson and a fourth-round pick on Micheal Clemons. Both rookie edge rushers played key roles in the Jets’ defensive line rotation throughout 2022 and showed the potential to become solid starters if they can progress in the future.
Bryce Huff is another part of the pipeline. Though Huff’s rookie contract expires after the 2022 season, he is a restricted free agent, so the Jets maintain control of his future.
The Jets should bring Huff back and have him take Lawson’s spot as the starting edge rusher whose primary job is to win in the passing game. In 2022, Huff was everything the Jets hoped Lawson would be. Huff had the best pressure rate of any edge rusher in the NFL (20.8%), showing incredible pass-rushing potential in his situational role.
All things considered, I think releasing Lawson would be the right move for New York. As a team that is low on cap space (they are only projected to have $8.3 million in space, per Spotrac), the Jets cannot pass up on the opportunity to clear $15 million for releasing a below-average starter at a position where they have plenty of intriguing young pieces ready to step up.
Restructuring Lawson is certainly on the table if he is willing to agree to a reasonable deal, but considering the Jets have more important needs at various other positions, I would just take the savings and move on.