Carl Lawson is capable of being more dominant than he was in 2022 for the New York Jets
Despite being billed as a strong candidate to become a cap casualty, it is starting to appear very likely that seventh-year edge rusher Carl Lawson will return to the New York Jets in 2023. In a recent interview, head coach Robert Saleh all but guaranteed Lawson is coming back, saying Lawson “will be here as long as he can walk and play.”
If that’s the case, the Jets will be hoping Lawson can put together a bounce-back season. And when we say “bounce-back”, that doesn’t mean Lawson is trying to erase a poor season. His 2022 campaign was plenty solid and is nothing to sneeze at.
But Lawson has proven he is capable of being a much more fearsome player than he was in 2022.
Carl Lawson’s good season in 2022 was a far cry from his elite pass rush consistency in Cincinnati
Lawson signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Jets in March 2021. In terms of average annual value, he was tied with Trey Hendrickson as the second-most expensive edge rusher signed in free agency that year. He represented the Jets’ most substantial investment at the EDGE position in recent memory and was poised to be the franchise’s first premier player in that spot since John Abraham in the early-2000s.
Unfortunately, Lawson’s first season with the Jets ended before it began as he suffered an Achilles injury during a joint practice in August.
Lawson returned in 2022 and played all 17 games during his second season with New York. It was a mixed bag. Lawson was nowhere near a “bad” player, but he also wasn’t quite the player the Jets thought they were getting when he inked the $45 million pact.
While Lawson finished the 2022 season with 7.0 sacks – which was actually his best total since he posted 8.5 in his 2017 rookie year – his sack total belied the fact that he was not nearly as consistent of a pass rusher as he was with the Bengals.
Sacks were not the basis of Lawson’s appeal when he signed with the Jets. His calling card in Cincy was his ability to create pressure at an elite level of consistency. And in his first healthy season with the Jets, Lawson was not nearly as proficient at creating pressure as he was in Cincy.
Lawson had 49 pressures in 2022, per Pro Football Focus, which ranked as the 29th-most among edge rushers. With those pressures coming across 432 pass-rush snaps, Lawson had a pressure rate of 11.3%, which ranked 41st out of 114 qualified edge rushers (65th percentile).
That’s pretty good. It’s better than a lot of starting edge rushers in the league. But Lawson was a monster when it came to creating pressure during his final season with the Bengals.
In 2020, Lawson had 64 pressures, which ranked as the fourth-most among edge rushers. Those 64 pressures came on a total of 437 pass-rush snaps – nearly the same as his 2022 total. Lawson’s pressure rate of 14.6% ranked fifth-best out of 115 qualified edge rushers (96th percentile).
Lawson’s outstanding production in 2020 is what makes it tougher to appreciate his “pretty good” production in 2022. He’s capable of far better than what he gave the Jets last year.
The 2020 season was no outlier for Lawson from an efficiency perspective. While he posted the best volume totals of his career in 2020 thanks to an increased snap count and his improved durability (he played all 16 games for just the second time in four years), Lawson had always been a top-flight pass rusher on a per-snap basis.
Over his four years in Cincinnati, Lawson registered a pressure rate of 14.3%. That ranked fourth-best among edge rushers with at least 500 pass-rush snaps from 2017-20, trailing only Joey Bosa (15.0%), Von Miller (15.4%), and Nick Bosa (15.9%).
Prior to joining the Jets, Lawson’s lowest pressure rate was his 13.1% mark in 2019, which still ranked at the 75th percentile among qualifiers. This is despite dealing with a hamstring injury that cost him four games in the middle of the season, and he was also coming off a torn ACL that ended his previous season.
Lawson’s consistent efficiency across each of his first four years in Cincinnati serves as further evidence of how unusual his 2022 output was. His 2022 pressure rate of 11.3% set a new career-low by nearly 2%.
But there are reasons to believe Lawson can get back to where he was at his peak.
Could Lawson return to form with another year removed from his injury?
Lawson suffered a ruptured Achilles in August 2021 that sidelined him for the entire season. It was the third major injury of his football career, as he had already suffered two ACL tears (2014 and 2018).
Considering the 2021 Achilles injury alongside his prior injury history, a dip in Lawson’s production was to be expected in 2022. It’s actually rather impressive that Lawson played all 17 games and was an above-average starter in the first year removed from his third major lower-body injury.
Furthermore, Lawson reportedly underwent a second surgery on his Achilles in early-2022, shortly after the 2021 season concluded. This report did not come out until January 2023, shortly after the 2022 season ended. So, it turns out that Lawson had even less time to recover ahead of the 2022 opener than initially thought. It’s an important piece of context that was unknown to outsiders while the season was going on.
Lawson managed to stay extremely healthy throughout the 2022 season. He started all 17 games and was never listed on the Jets’ injury report. Despite his underwhelming production, Lawson’s clean bill of health was an important accomplishment for his future.
As we head into 2023, Lawson has a chance to enter Week 1 with two full years of recovery since the Achilles rupture and more than a year-and-a-half of recovery since the second surgery. Still only 27 years old (he’ll be 28 this summer), Lawson is plenty young enough to recapture his previous peak form once he fully recovers.
Here’s what makes this discussion interesting, though: Lawson already looked quite explosive in 2022. It didn’t seem as if his production decline was caused by him being a step slower.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Lawson had an average pass-rush get-off time (how long it takes the player to cross the line of scrimmage after the ball is snapped) of 0.76 seconds, which tied Trey Hendrickson for the fifth-fastest time among edge rushers with at least 300 pass-rush snaps. For perspective, the 2022 league average for edge rushers was 0.88 seconds.
Lawson looks pretty darn explosive on this rush against the Dolphins in Week 5.
Lawson’s 0.76-second average represented a slight decline from his 2020 mark of 0.73 seconds, which ranked third-fastest. But a dip from 0.73 seconds to 0.76 seconds is marginal, and the latter mark was still good enough for Lawson to remain one of the league’s top-five fastest edge rushers off the line of scrimmage. Additionally, Lawson’s 2022 time was actually better than his 2019 time (0.79s). All things considered, Lawson seemed largely unaffected by his injury in this specific area.
Based on this data, it seems Lawson’s recovery might not yield not have as much improvement in the explosiveness department as we thought, despite it sounding like a reasonable hypothesis theoretically.
However, I do think there is one specific area where Lawson’s recovery from the Achilles injury may have affected him in 2022: his usage of speed rushes.
While Carl Lawson’s injury did not seem to hurt his explosiveness, it might have limited his all-around toolbox
Watching Lawson’s 2022 film, I thought he looked just as effective as he previously did when it came to exploding off the line and beating his man with power. He was a wrecking ball with the bull rush, looking as strong as ever, and he looked fast getting out of his stance, which is backed up by the NGS get-off time data.
Where I thought Lawson declined the most as a pass-rusher was the frequency at which he used his speed rush. It felt like the bull rush was the only weapon Lawson truly trusted in 2022. He relied on it constantly, rarely trying to win in any other way. His one-dimensional style made him too predictable.
A diverse toolbox of moves is necessary to be an elite pass rusher, and as a Bengal, Lawson had just that. Lawson would win his battles in a wide variety of ways, including with speed around the corner.
We didn’t see much of the speed element from Lawson this past season. And when you think deeper about the mechanics of a speed rush, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that his recovery from the Achilles injury was affecting him there.
For instance, take a look at these two impressive reps from Lawson in the 2020 season. In each clip, he uses speed to win around the corner, coupling his speed with precise hand usage to keep himself clean. Moves like these are not common on Lawson’s 2022 tape.
Let’s connect the dots here. Lawson’s Achilles rupture was on his left leg. As a right defensive end (Lawson lined up on the right side for the vast majority of his snaps in CIN and did the same with NYJ), the left leg is Lawson’s inside leg as he goes in for a rush.
Watch Lawson’s left leg in those clips. On an outside rush from the RDE spot, the left leg serves as the pivot point in allowing the rusher to turn his body around the corner. There’s a lot of stress being placed on the lower part of the left leg to facilitate the turning of the hips.
So, while Lawson may have been healthy enough to explode out of his stance at the same speed he previously was, perhaps he did not yet regain enough confidence in his lower left leg to consistently attempt outside rushes around the corner. If Lawson was still dealing with minor pain or discomfort in this area, it absolutely could have discouraged him from using outside moves – causing his overreliance on bull rushes.
The hope is that, with another year of recovery, Lawson can regain full confidence in his lower left leg and reinsert some outside rush moves back into his toolbox.
If he adds the outside/speed threat back into his game, Lawson could absolutely return to being an elite pass rusher in 2023.
The Jets’ logic with keeping Carl Lawson makes sense
I entered this offseason as a proponent of releasing Lawson. I thought his performance in 2022 was not close to good enough to warrant the $15.3 million cap hit he will have in 2023 (and, yes, that number is still a bit large considering the amount of improvement it will take for Lawson to justify it). I also believed the Jets had enough young talent behind Lawson at the edge rusher position to not only survive his release, but perhaps get even better at the position if the youngsters could take second-year leaps.
But it’s easy to see New York’s logic in deciding to keep him around.
The Jets are hopeful that Lawson can return to being an elite pass rusher in 2023 after another year of separation from his Achilles injury. That’s not an unrealistic proposition considering Lawson stayed healthy in 2022 and still played fairly well. It becomes especially more realistic when you consider the specific area of pass rushing where Lawson declined the most is one that easily could have been affected by his Achilles.
Even if Lawson does not return to his peak form, he still is, an above-average starter at the very worst, which makes him valuable for a team that:
- A. Loves to rotate its defensive linemen
- B. Doesn’t know yet if it can trust its young edge rushers to handle a bigger role
New York’s defense is predicated upon a rotation-heavy approach for the defensive line, ensuring the team constantly has well-rested pass rushers on the field. When you play with this mentality, you can never have enough weapons. Keeping Lawson only improves the team’s depth on the defensive line – surely, they were not going to find someone off the scrap heap who could replicate even the declined version of Lawson.
As for the Jets’ young pass rushers, it’s important to remain pragmatic about their development. Bryce Huff, Micheal Clemons, and Jermaine Johnson all flashed exciting upside in 2022, but until they prove they are ready for larger roles and can improve the weaknesses in their games, the Jets would be wise to hedge their bets by ensuring they have a reliable starter who can hold the fort down in case the kids do not develop.
Admittedly, I’ve probably been too optimistic about the projection of these three young edge rushers. Huff’s run defense is a major question mark while Johnson and Clemons still have a very long way to go as pass rushers, which is especially concerning since they were both on the older side for rookies (Johnson 23, Clemons 25).
Starting edge rushers must be able to survive in both phases. Until any of those three youngsters prove they can do it, the Jets only have two players who have shown they can succeed on the edge against both the pass and the run: John Franklin-Myers and Lawson.
It might seem like a hot take to label Lawson as a two-way edge rusher, but I thought Lawson’s run defense was surprisingly solid in 2022.
After rewatching every one of the Jets’ run-defense snaps and assigning credit to individual players for positive and negative efforts, Lawson stood out as an above-average run defender. In my system, I scored him with a 1.71-to-1 ratio of positive plays to negative plays against the run, which ranked fifth-best among the Jets’ 16 defensive players with 300+ total snaps. (Methodology explained here.)
While it is not what I expected to see based on my preconceived notions, it’s the truth. Lawson is a starter-caliber run defender on the edge, and that sets him apart from Huff, who is yet to prove he can be competent in that phase.
Lawson did not have many flashy highlights against the run, nor did he have the best tackle statistics. But he did not make a lot of mistakes, and he had many subtle moments of solid edge-setting in which he helped stuff a run without getting statistical credit. Here are two examples.
On the first play, Lawson sets up a fourth-down stop as he gets in front of the play to force the run back inside, and he also frees up D.J. Reed by drawing the attention of multiple blockers. On the second play, Lawson shuts down the RB’s cutback lane by plowing the TE inside and straight into the RB, which forces the RB down despite Lawson getting no tackle credit.
Lawson’s surprisingly respectable run defense is a key component in the discussions surrounding his role with the team. I was previously under the impression that Lawson was a below-average run defender, which is a perception many fans might still have. If this were truly the case, keeping Lawson as a fort-holding starter instead of handing the role to Huff wouldn’t make much sense. Lawson’s floor wouldn’t be high enough to warrant not handing the starting role to Huff and going all-in on Huff potentially reaching his ceiling.
But after looking closer at the film, I feel confident in labeling Lawson as an above-average run defender, which establishes him as a competent two-way player and thus gives him a very high floor in comparison to Huff and the Jets’ other young edge rushers.
All in all, I can see why the Jets are deciding to roll with Lawson for one more year, even if it wasn’t the move I initially advocated for. Lawson offers an elite ceiling if he can take a step forward in his second season post-Achilles, and because of the high floor he displayed in 2022, he simultaneously provides the Jets with valuable security in a room full of young edge rushers.
The “Carl Lawson decision” is vital.
Carl is younger than I thought, turning 28 by opening day.
My original thought was cut because it’s $15m in cap space with only $300k in dead money.
I thought gambling on Huff JJ and Clemmons along with vet JFM could get it done and $15m can bring alot of talent.
I’m now thinking that at age 28 a heavily bonused 3 year deal (ripping up this year) taking him to age $30 might get us $10m in cap space while having an amazing corp at the Edge.
I’d like to see Poona Ford signed since we missed on Campbell.
Joe needs to get the capologists to free every dime to complete this team.
Kudos to the other posters here (and Rivka) for bringing up the prospect of lightening the cap load through restructuring and extension.
I was firmly in the cut Lawson camp until we learned about the second surgery.
Michael makes great points about Lawson’s lack of a pass-rush arsenal last year, I hope the theory plays out as hypothesized.
As I said last year, I would also like to see our designated pass rushers change positions (right and left) occasionally to take advantage of OLine weaknesses and to confuse them as well. Most (all?) of the best pass rushers in the league line up in multiple positions (Watt, the Bosas, Parsons).
Along these lines, I would also like to see us move from the Wide 9 on early downs to assist in run support.
When playing poker, there are certain instances when you must choose to raise or fold. In those instances, if you believe you have the winning hand, you have to raise. Calling the bet will not do. That’s playing timid and if you don’t have the fortitude to raise, then you must fold (unless of course you’re baiting your opponent into raising you, but that doesn’t help my analogy, so let’s please ignore that).
My point is this: if the Jets believe Lawson’s injury held him back and he is going to recapture his top-5 status, they need to extend him, lowering his cap hit this year, and getting a bit of a bargain in the future. If they don’t have the confidence to do that, then they should cut him and use that $15mm another way.
I would go on to say they have time still to decide. They could wait to see him run around in camp, and that might tell them something, but they really didn’t have the time. If they were going to use that $15mm on someone else, the time to do that would’ve been when free agency first opened.
I think they are going to extend him.
I agree Rivka, I’ve actually been saying an extension for him at a price closer to market value, makes sense for both sides. The Jets get a better cap situation and a good player at the “right price’ and Lawson gets some security, something I think would be enticing given his injury history. The question is: will Lawson want to “bet on himself (since we are using a poker analogy),” stay for 1 year, break out and land a bigger payday?
Matt, I like the thinking on using that money someplace else but, I don’t see anybody on the open market who provides as much as Lawson on the field. I still think JJ and Clemmons are a year away, and I think Huff is a one trick pony who should keep the role he has. Sometimes keeping a player on a “prove it” deal gets the best out of that player, even if they leave the team still benefits from the production. I still think it’s a win.
I’ve been on keeping Lawson this year and maybe signing him to an extension to for one more year. Pass rushers are worth it and people forget a year ago how much we were hurting for edge production