Cutting Carl Lawson may seem like a no-brainer for the New York Jets, but they need to consider the risk involved
The news of the day for the New York Jets continues to be the quarterback position.
With that comes the recognition that the Jets will need to clear cap space to acquire their signal-caller, whether via trade or free agency. Whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, or someone else, the team is currently $264K in the red salary cap-wise, per Over the Cap, and must make some moves to get their guy.
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The most obvious cut candidate this offseason seems to be edge rusher Carl Lawson (along with receiver Corey Davis, perhaps). Lawson’s $15.7 million 2023 cap hit can all but vanish if he is cut, as he has only $333K in dead money. Cutting him would save $15.4 million.
On the surface, the Jets already have natural replacements for Lawson on the roster. Micheal Clemons was his direct backup this offseason, and the team also has Bryce Huff (a restricted free agent) and 2022 first-round pick Jermaine Johnson on the edge, in addition to left end John Franklin-Myers. Those four should be able to form a pretty strong pass-rushing quad.
Although Huff and Johnson played exclusively on the left side of the defensive line in 2022, both have prior experience on the right: Huff in 2020-21, and Johnson during his college days. Making that change should not be so difficult for either one.
Still, there are reasons to be cautious about cutting Lawson. Maybe the calculus will still point toward a release, but the Jets should carefully consider these factors before doing so.
Despite general frustration with Lawson’s 2022 season, he remained a stellar presence on the Jets’ line whom defenses had to account for.
Here were Lawson’s stats and percentile ranks among starting edge rushers in 2022 (67 total, min. 290 pass rush snaps), per Pro Football Focus (where closer to 100th = better):
- 16.7% pass rush win rate (70th)
- Eight combined sacks (64th)
- 49 pressures (61st)
- 11.3% pressure rate (57th)
- 16 QB hits (90th)
- 5.56% sack plus hit rate (87th)
- 17.7% true pass set pressure rate (75th)
Lawson was at least somewhat above average in all the main pass-rushing categories in 2022. Although his pressure rate was not nearly as high as his prior career average of over 14%, he was still productive enough to be a solid force on the Jets’ defensive line.
Do the Jets have enough on their roster to replace that production from Lawson straight up?
Year 2 leap
To effectively replace Lawson, the Jets would likely be relying on a massive Year 2 leap in pass rushing from one of their two 2022 rookies. Johnson and Clemons showed strong run-game skills and flashes of promise as pass rushers, but neither player was particularly consistent nor effective as an edge rusher.
Expanding to 125 total edge rushers (min. 145 pass rush snaps), here were Clemons’s and Johnson’s stats and percentile ranks (providing only rate stats due to low snap count):
- Pass rush win rate: Clemons 11.5% (40th), Johnson 13.8% (T-58th)
- Pressure rate: Clemons 9% (35th), Johnson 9.3% (T-42nd)
- Sack plus hit rate: Clemons 4.83% (77th), Johnson 3.31% (42nd)
- True pass set pressure rate: Clemons 14% (T-55th), Johnson 14% (T-55th)
Johnson was somewhere around the below-average to average range in most of these areas, while Clemons shone in turning his pressures into sacks and hits but was below average in overall pressure rate and pass rush win rate.
These stats are understandable for rookies, but do the Jets want to rely on them making the leap in 2023?
When discussing the Jets’ options surrounding Huff, it always comes back to run defense. On the surface, it’s difficult to understand why the Jets gave Huff only about 14 snaps per game when he was so deadly as a pass rusher. Here were his pass-rushing stats in 2022, using the same qualifications as above:
- 28% pass rush win rate (100th percentile, ranked 1st)
- 20.8% pressure rate (100th percentile, 1st)
- 6.94% sack plus hit rate (98th percentile, 3rd)
- 26.5% true pass set pressure rate (99th percentile, 2nd)
In other words, Huff was a game-changing pass rusher. However, the Jets preferred Lawson, Johnson, and Clemons as run defenders, leaving Huff as a pass-rush specialist. In fact, Huff saw only 16 run-defense snaps all year, and all of them were in third-and-long situations in which the offense ran a draw play, essentially giving up.
According to Michael Nania’s charting of the 2022 season, Clemons and Franklin-Myers were the Jets’ two most effective edge-rushers in the run game. After a rocky start, Johnson joined them in providing good edge-setting. Lawson was consistently solid, if unspectacular, for the entire season.
In 2021, on 120 run defense snaps, Huff ranked 66th out of 103 qualifiers with a 5.0% stop rate. Huff also had a 10% missed tackle rate and a 2.6-yard average depth of tackle, both of which ranked 46th. It’s difficult to evaluate Huff’s run defense in 2022.
If Huff’s role on the defensive line were to increase in 2023, that would mean that the Jets would be relying on him to hold his own against the run.
Are they willing to do so? Or are they going to let Johnson and Clemons split reps on the right side, keeping Huff as a pass-rush specialist?
It’s interesting to note that Jacob Martin, whom the Jets signed in the 2022 offseason and then traded to Denver before the deadline, has a similar skillset and body type to Huff. However, he played on a lot more running downs in his time with the Jets, averaging seven run-defense snaps per game.
Another factor is that Huff is a restricted free agent this offseason. What the Jets plan to do with him will likely determine their approach to his contract. Is he really worth a second-round tender of $4.304 million if he’s only going to play about 14 snaps per game?
If the Jets let Huff become an unrestricted free agent, some other team is sure to snap him up and increase his role. Should they let such a powerful pass rusher go just because they’re not as confident in his run-stopping abilities?
If the Jets aren’t all-in on Huff, they should definitely retain Lawson.
True pass sets
One conundrum about evaluating pass-rushers is the environment in which they are playing. What if one rusher is playing against a quick-screen game, while the other defends third-and-long situations regularly?
ESPN’s pass-rush win rates attempt to account for this by only counting passes that were released at or after 2.5 seconds post-snap. The rationale is that quick passes rarely result in pressures unless the offense intentionally allows some of the defensive line to get through in order to throw past them.
PFF does not seem to account for this in their pass-rushing stats. However, they do provide a separate metric called “true pass sets” (abbreviated TPS) which refers to pass rushing on passes that were released between two and four seconds post-snap and were not on screens or play-action. These are truly the situations in which a pass-rusher is going up against his blocks and shows whether he is effective or not.
To try to project what an edge rusher’s numbers would be like within an average workload between TPS and non-TPS, I adjusted pressure rates to account for the variations in different rushers’ workloads. For example, 65.6% of T.J. Watt’s pass-rush snaps came in TPS situations, while only 39.5% of Maxx Crosby’s were in that situation.
Since the league average rate among the 67 qualified edge rushers (min. 290 pass-rush snaps) was 49.1% TPS and 50.9% non-TPS, I adjusted each rusher’s pressure rate by multiplying their TPS pressure rate by 49.1% and adding their non-TPS pressure rate times 50.9%; in other words, I took an adjusted weighted average.
Most edge rushers’ ranks did not change all that much with this adjustment. For example, Lawson’s pressure rate increased slightly from 11.3% to 11.7%, and his percentile rank increased marginally from the 57th to the 58th percentile. This is hardly enough to account for any significant difference.
However, among backups, the percentages can make a much bigger difference. For example, among 125 edge rushers with a minimum of 145 pass-rush snaps, Johnson and Clemons ranked second-to-last and last, respectively, in TPS rate, lining up in TPS situations only 30% and 33% of the time, respectively.
When you make this kind of weighted average adjustment for Johnson and Clemons, their pressure rates improve from 9.3% and 9.0% to 10.3% each. This is much closer to the league average of 10.6% and places them in the 51st percentile among those 125 edge rushers.
In other words, when Johnson and Clemons switch from rotational edge rushers with primarily run defense responsibilities to all-around rushers, their edge-rushing abilities become more evident.
Now, this kind of statistical chicanery may not actually pass muster. It could be that if Clemons and Johnson faced more TPS situations, their TPS numbers would simply take a dip. However, the potential is there for these players to have more of an edge-rushing impact if placed in more of these situations.
This is especially true of Clemons, who had a high rate of sacks and quarterback hits in TPS situations.
Pass rush opponents
Generally, a team’s left tackle is going to be better than their right tackle. Players are often projected as right tackles in the league when they lack the dominance to go up against the league’s best edge rushers.
Therefore, it stands to reason that Lawson and Clemons, who played right end (lining up against left tackles) faced stronger pass blockers than Johnson and Huff, who played left end (lining up against right tackles). Since one or both of those players would need to move to the other side of the line if the Jets cut Lawson, is the team prepared for a potential pass-rush drop-off due to the increased skill of the blockers they face?
I am not going to expand on this too far statistically since Lawson did face a number of backups this season (one of the primary arguments for cutting him—that he simply was not dominant enough against inferior competition) and individual teams may have better right tackles than left (such as the Minnesota Vikings, who had backup Blake Brandel playing left tackle against the Jets while stalwart Brian O’Neill manned the right side).
However, this is something to keep in mind in the debate.
After the season, it was reported that Lawson had to have a second clean-up procedure on his Achilles last offseason and was not initially expected to be ready to start 2022. This makes it easier to claim that Lawson will bounce back in a big way in 2023.
The Jets would obviously welcome a return of Lawson’s Cincinnati dominance, and the second year post-Achilles procedure (which, in this case, would now be 2023) is usually better than the first.
The question is what price that’s worth paying. The Jets invested two draft picks into the edge rusher position with a clear eye on a post-Lawson (and possibly post-JFM, too, given his contract) world. $15.7 million is not chump change. As Michael Nania and Joe Blewett have said numerous times this offseason, Lawson played like an $8-9 million player in 2022.
Is that a possibility, though? Do the Jets provide Lawson with a phony extension to spread out his cap hit and possibly add a few million, making it a two-year, $16-18 million deal rather than one year at $15.7 million? Would Lawson agree to such a thing?
I’ve been on the “cut Lawson” train since midway through the 2022 season. It’s not so much that I believe Johnson, Huff, and Clemons can pick up the mantle as my belief is that it’s necessary to get the QB the Jets need.
Lawson is a useful player to have around, and in an offseason where the Jets had more cap space, it might be worthwhile for both sides to negotiate a pay cut. It’s hard to know exactly what a player heading into his age-28 season coming off a so-so year would command on the open market.
Maybe Lawson can get more than that $9 million or can sign a one-year prove-it deal for more. However, maybe it’s worth his while to cut down his contract and make that prove-it year be with the Jets while playing next to Quinnen Williams and Franklin-Myers.
The thing is that the Jets just don’t have that much wiggle room cap-wise this offseason. If they cut Davis, Jordan Whitehead, and Braxton Berrios, they need to replace all of them. The one player they can release and theoretically replace with depth already on their roster is Lawson.
Of course, Joe Douglas can go full-on Saints and start restructuring every contract on the roster. In that case, the team could start maneuvering the contracts of C.J. Mosley, Franklin-Myers, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin, Laken Tomlinson, and D.J. Reed, converting their base salaries into signing bonuses to push the cap issues into the future. New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis has seemingly been doing this for half a decade now.
Indeed, if the Jets acquire Aaron Rodgers, it’s possible that Douglas does this. If he really wants to build a Super Bowl-caliber roster in 2023 (and maybe 2024) and worry about the future later, this is probably the way to go. In that case, keeping Lawson is clearly the smarter move. As of now, he is still a better all-around edge defender than the other players the Jets would replace him with.
Knowing Douglas’s track record, though, it’s unlikely he does this. As it is, giving Tomlinson, Uzomah, and Conklin contracts that were so immovable in Year 2 was somewhat uncharacteristic for him. He inherited the disaster of Mosley’s contract, so that might well be restructured once more.
Still, it’s far more likely that Lawson becomes a difficult cap casualty to keep the Jets semi-solvent for the future rather than going full throttle in 2023.
Now, if the Jets do acquire Rodgers and his 2023 cap hit is just $15.8 million, it’s possible that the Jets will cut Whitehead, Berrios, and Davis, restructure/extend Lawson, and maintain cap solvency for 2023 by replacing the three released players with cheaper alternatives via free agency or the draft.
With the need to re-sign or replace Connor McGovern, Sheldon Rankins, Quincy Williams, and Kwon Alexander, as well as find a minimum of one new tackle, I still don’t think that will cut it for the Jets’ cap.
I’ve been wrong before about many of the things I thought Douglas would do. It is also very probable that his owner is providing considerable input about the construction of the team’s 2023 roster, which can muddy the reading of Douglas’s moves (are they his ideas or Woody’s directives?).
If I had to put money on it, though, I’d lean towards betting that the Jets will cut Lawson. They’ve just got to hope that Johnson or Clemons has developed their pass-rushing moves considerably or be willing to live with Huff’s lesser run defense.
Jets fans, what do you want the team to do? Keep him or cut him?