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It was only training camp, and it was only practice, but it was still quite a show that Carl Lawson was putting on this summer. He was the best, fastest, most exciting player on the Jets nearly every time they took the field.
And now he’s gone, out until next season with a torn Achilles that he suffered during a joint practice with the Packers in Green Bay on Thursday. It is one of the most devastating summer blows this star-crossed franchise has ever experienced. Lawson was their star defensive end, their $45 million free-agent acquisition, the great hope of their rebuilt defense.
And now his season is over, 24 days before it had a chance to start.
This is an incalculable loss for the Jets, given how important the front line and the pass rush is to the Robert Saleh defensive scheme, and the excitement Lawson’s performance and potential was bringing to the team. This is a franchise that hasn’t had a dominant pass rush for decades, since way back with the famous Sack Exchange of the 1980s.
The 6-2, 265-pound Lawson, among the NFL leaders in quarterback pressures and hits in Cincinnati last season, was going to change all that.
And the Jets weren’t just basing that hope on 17 practices and a cameo in a preseason game against the Giants. They spent countless hours studying his film before they made him their massive free-agent offer, and people in the organization were absolutely giddy when he took it. They thought he was an undiscovered gem, performing in a bit of obscurity since he only had 5 ½ sacks last year.
They were sure the sacks didn’t tell his whole story, though, and the Jets were willing to explain that to anyone who asked.
"If you look at Carl and you just look at a piece of paper, he doesn't check a single box in terms of height, length, size," Saleh said earlier in camp. "But when you turn on the tape, all he does is win over and over and over again. In the NFL, you can never have too many guys who just win play after play. That's why he fits. He fits any scheme.
“He's a guy who lines up and dominates one-on-one, especially in money situations when you need somebody to affect the game.”
He did dominate, over and over again in practice. He was a fixture in the face of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, most of the time using his speed to get around the edge before the Jets’ talented, 6-7, 363-pound left tackle, Mekhi Becton, could get set. He was as disruptive and electric as any player anyone can remember seeing at Jets camp. The rave reviews kept pouring in.
That gave the Jets a reason to dream of a powerful defensive front, with a strong push inside from Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins, and even some eventual help on the other side from Vinny Curry whenever he’s finally healthy enough to play. Saleh marveled at those starters, and the depth he knew he had with players like John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff and Folorunso Fatukasi.
“We can truly come at them in waves,” Saleh said.
They could still come at opponents in waves, but every great defense still needs that one stud, the one game-wrecker that keeps offensive coordinators up at night. Lawson was potentially a game-plan changer. Teams would have to decide how much attention to pay to him at the risk of giving not enough attention to Williams. Quarterbacks, fleeing from an inside push from Williams, would do so knowing that Lawson would likely be waiting for them on the outside.
Again, what the world saw this summer from Lawson was just practice, and until proven otherwise, Lawson still was the guy who had only 20 sacks in his 51-game career. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out as well when the games start for real.
But his presence gave the Jets so much hope – hope that their young secondary would be protected because quarterbacks would be rushed, hope that their defense would be able to carry an offense and a rookie quarterback that would likely struggle to find its way, and hope that maybe these baby Jets could pull off a few more close victories than anyone outside expects.
The pop of his Achilles, though, was like a pin in the Jets’ balloon. The air of excitement and hope and cautious optimism around the defense and the team suddenly just fizzled out. It is a huge emotional blow as much as it is a physical one. It is the first real crisis Saleh has to face in his seven-month-old head coaching career.
The Jets can recover -- theoretically, of course. The defense could turn out to be just fine. But the truth is there’s not a player or pass-rusher on the defense quite like Lawson, capable of what he seemed to be capable of this summer. Saleh knows the drill. He lost Nick Bosa in Week 2 with the San Francisco 49ers last season and they somehow still ended up as the fifth-ranked defense in the league.
That was a better team, though, with a deeper roster, coming off a Super Bowl run. The Jets? They’re still trying to dig their way out of the 2-14 mess they were in last season.
They needed a player like Lawson to help lead the way, and it sure seemed like that’s what he was doing. So there’s no way around this, especially given what he was doing this summer: This is a crushing blow for the Jets.