Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with defensive end Carl Lawson.
The 25-year old is listed at 6’2” and 265 pounds and was a fourth round pick out of Auburn in 2017. In four years with the Bengals, he has registered 20 sacks, albeit only 11.5 over the past three seasons. He was among the league leaders in total pressures in 2020, though.
Lawson was a five-star recruit after recording 27 sacks in his senior year in high school. He eventually opted to go to college at Auburn.
As a freshman, Lawson earned one start and registered 20 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in a rotational role. However, he missed the following season due to injury.
He became a starter in his redshirt sophomore season, but this was also disrupted by injuries and he was limited to seven appearances and held to just 17 tackles and one sack.
However, he finally remained healthy in his redshirt junior season and had a breakout year with career-highs of 30 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 12 starts. He also recorded 14 tackles for loss, which was eighth-best in the SEC.
At the end of the season, Lawson was named as a first-team all-SEC selection and a second-team all-American. He then decided to enter the 2017 draft.
Lawson was a projected day two pick, but dropped into the fourth round due to some of his combine results and concerns over his durability. However, he made an immediate impact with the Bengals, as he made the all-rookie team after posting 8.5 sacks in a situational role.
Injuries blighted his next two seasons as he missed nine games in 2018 and another four in 2019. He still posted five sacks in 2019 though.
He entered the 2020 season with just three career starts but moved into a starting role and ended up starting 11 games. He ended up with a career-high 36 tackles and 5.5 sacks, but his pressure count was among the league leaders.
Lawson’s contract expired at the end of the 2020 season and the Jets signed him to a three-year, $45 million deal early on in free agency.
Now let’s take a look at what Lawson brings to the table, divided into categories.
Lawson is short for an edge defender and has really short arms for the position. However, he’s got big hands.
At his pro day, Lawson posted a slow time in the three-cone drill, which is often seen as a crucial metric in determining how fast a player will be able to come off the edge. However, research by Marcus from Mockdraftable.com indicates that there’s a correlation between arm length and three cone times, so Lawson’s slow time could be more to do with his lack of length than any lack of ability to turn the corner at speed.
His other numbers back this theory up because he posted excellent times in the 40-yard dash (4.67) and short shuttle (4.19). He also posted 35 bench press reps and the strength he exhibits is clearly important to him being able to overcome the lack of length. His explosiveness numbers were about average.
Lawson was an outside linebacker in Auburn’s 3-4 system, playing the Buck position, which is described as a versatile hybrid edge/end role.
When he arrived at Cincinnati, they initially used him as a situational edge rusher while trying him out for a full-time role as a SAM linebacker. However, that never really worked out and ultimately once he became a starter it was as the weakside edge.
Lawson has primarily lined up on the right and mainly with his hand(s) in the dirt, but he does go over to the left side, play standing up or drop off the line from time to time.
Lawson battles hard in the trenches and keeps working relentlessly even when initially blocked.
Even when he gets blocked to the ground, Lawson shows hunger and generally won’t give up on the play.
As noted, he wasn’t really a full time player until 2020 and, even then, was rotated out at times. He has only played over 60 snaps once in his career, but played 55 or more three times in 2020.
While Lawson’s sack numbers have generally been solid but unspectacular, he’s proven that he can be extremely productive in terms of generating pressure, which is something the Jets have coveted from their edge rushers for several years. In 2020, Lawson led the NFL in quarterback knockdowns and was fourth among all edges in total pressures.
He shows good quickness off the edge as he has managed to dispel the concerns based on his combine metrics that he might not be able to bend the edge or get separation.
As well as generating pressure around the edge, Lawson’s speed-to-power game is also strong, making him an ideal fit to generate quick pressure from a wide nine end position.
Over his first three seasons, Lawson played primarily in a situational rusher role, so he didn’t contribute much against the run. In fact, when he moved into a starter role last year, he played basically the same number of run snaps as he had in his first three seasons combined.
He posted just under twice as many run stops in 2020 as he had in his first three seasons, so may be showing signs of improvement in that area, although clearly he’s been mainly targeted for his pass rushing talent. He graded out poorly against the run as a rookie, but has posted average grades since then.
Lawson shows good discipline on the back side, often staying at home to make plays on cutback runs or coming downhill well to get in on the stop on runs up the middle. He can also use his ability to explode into the backfield to make some plays.
When engaging with a blocker, Lawson displays good strength at the point of attack, so isn’t easy to drive off the line. However, he can get caught inside at times on outside runs or sealed to the inside on cutbacks.
Here’s one play where Lawson came off a block to penetrate and stop the running back for a loss in the backfield.
Lawson overcomes his lack of length by displaying good technique. There’s been an increasing number of short-armed defensive tackles that have become elite by being able to use good technique to control their opponent in recent years and Lawson adopts a similar approach off the edge.
A lack of length isn’t going to be an issue if you can keep your blocker’s hands off you and Lawson uses violent hand strikes to ensure this happens.
Ironically, one of his best moves is the long-arm move, which he again has success with because he combines perfect technique with a suddenness that makes it difficult for the offensive lineman to react. His hand placement is perfect and he extends his arm with good leverage to overpower Jason Peters here.
Lawson will also use a spin move as a counter at times. Again, he has success with this move because he swipes away at the blocker’s hands when he uses it. He will also display good technique by getting his pads low on a bull rush or transitioning to a rip move as he comes around the corner.
In the running game, Lawson’s lack of length could make it more difficult for him to get off blocks, but his strength and active hands enables him to overcome this. He has, however, been called three times for illegal use of the hands in his career.
Lawson hasn’t been a particularly productive tackler, which stands to reason when he was used in a situational rusher role in the past. However, he finishes well and hits hard.
He’s not had many issues with missed tackles in his career so far, as he has never had two in a game or five in a season.
Lawson forced three fumbles in his college career and forced the first two fumbles of his professional career in 2020.
Lawson doesn’t drop into coverage very often and, when he does, it’s usually just into a short zone rather than a man assignment. He actually dropped less often in 2020 than he had in the previous season.
On this play, he dropped off but wasn’t aware of the receiver breaking across the field behind him for a big play that ended up setting up the game-winning field goal.
Lawson has never been credited with a pass defensed in the NFL or at the college level and, perhaps due to his short arms, isn’t a threat to deflect passes.
Lawson has said that he is at his best when he relies on his natural instincts and avoids being reactive. He definitely seems to have a smart approach towards winning his matchups.
The Bengals praised how smart he is, saying that his ability to understand what was required of him was one of the main reasons they drafted him. He was on the SEC first-year academic honor roll at Auburn.
There are times when Lawson’s awareness can let him down on misdirection runs or if he drops into coverage. He also didn’t really anticipate the chip block here.
Lawson has jumped offside or been called for a neutral zone infraction 10 times in his first four seasons.
The Jets probably won’t expect Lawson to contribute much on special teams, other than the occasional kick rush.
He also played some kick coverage as a rookie and had some good moments as a blocker on the kick return unit.
Lawson has excellent character and is a hard worker who has a chip on his shoulder after being drafted lower than anticipated. He’s a passionate leader and was a captain at Auburn.
On the field, he’s been called for roughing the passer four times and unnecessary roughness twice. A couple of those were really bad calls though. He has also been known to get into some scuffles at training camp.
Lawson played all 16 games in 2020, but has had some injury issues in the past, including a torn ACL in 2018 and another torn ACL in 2014. He missed four games due to a hamstring injury in 2019 and six due to a hip injury in 2015.
He also lost a few teeth in his rookie season because he had been refusing to wear a mouthpiece, although he didn’t miss any time due to this.
Although the Bengals tried Lawson at the SAM linebacker position in the past, it seems obvious that his NFL future is as a weakside edge. That will be his role with the Jets who arguably haven’t had a natural weakside edge since John Abraham was traded in 2006.
He has been a teammate of current Jets players Sharif Finch, Josh Malone and Noah Dawkins while in Cincinnati.
It will be exciting for Jets fans to see Lawson in action because he’s the most talented edge rusher they’ve had in ages.
While he’s not necessarily elite against the run and doesn’t offer much in coverage, it’s clear that generating quick pressure is a priority for Robert Saleh’s defense and few players in the NFL do this as well as Lawson, even though his sack numbers haven’t been elite so far.
This is another talented addition that should fit the system and help continue to build a strong culture. How successful Lawson is with the Jets will be a vital component of the early years of the Saleh regime.