Have Jets found their next great pass-rusher with Carl Lawson?

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Jets Carlo Lawson practice no helmet
Jets Carlo Lawson practice no helmet

When the Jets drafted Zach Wilson second overall, they hoped he would end their decades-long search for a true franchise quarterback. And that wasn’t the only long-standing problem they hoped they solved this offseason.

By signing Carl Lawson, they hope they’ve finally also found the great pass rusher they’ve been seeking for far too many years.

“Didn’t y’all have Mark Gastineau here? The Sack Exchange?” Lawson asked at the beginning of camp. “That was a long time ago. I don’t think I was even born.”

No, he wasn’t. In fact Lawson wasn’t born until a full decade after the Sack Exchange and seven years after Gastineau – who had 107.5 career sacks -- took his final snap for the Jets. And no Jet has even come close to providing that kind of a pass rush since. They’ve had only three players with double digit sack seasons – Muhammad Wilkerson (2013, 2015) and Calvin Pace (2013) -- in the last 15 years.

But Jets GM Joe Douglas made a big bet this offseason that the 26-year-old Lawson is going to change all that and help transform the defensive line that will be the centerpiece of Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme. And it’s a huge gamble – Lawson got a three-year, $45 million contract with $30 million guaranteed -- considering Lawson has never had more than 5 ½ sacks in a season in his career.

His sack numbers don’t tell his whole story, though, which is why the Jets aren’t worried about Lawson ending up in a long line of their expensive, free-agent busts. He had 64 pressures in Cincinnati last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and 24 quarterback hits – numbers that put him up among the most disruptive defenders in the league.

“If you look at Carl, and you were just looking at a piece of paper, he doesn’t check a single box in terms of height, length, size, none of it,” Saleh said. “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 after play, and so that’s why he fits. He’s the guy that’s going to line them up and he’s going to absolutely dominate his one on one, especially in money situations where you need somebody to affect the game.”

The early days of training camp aren’t exactly “money situation,” especially without full pads on, but there’s no doubt the 6-2, 265-pound Lawson has been one of the most dominating Jets so far. And that’s been notable considering so many of his battles have been against Mekhi Becton, the Jets’ 6-7, 363-pound left tackle. Lawson has been a fixture in the backfield, creating havoc and disrupting far too many of Wilson’s throws.

“He ain’t been stopped yet,” said Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. “But that’s what I expect from him.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson (58) reacts while running onto the field prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson (58) reacts while running onto the field prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Lawson, Rankins, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and defensive end Vinny Curry -- when he returns -- should make for a formidable front line of Saleh’s defense, where the pass rush could literally come from anywhere.

“They can’t double-team everybody,” Rankins said. “The guys we have, they can’t key in on just one guy.”

“We all work together to go hunt,” Lawson said. “It’s like chasing a chicken. You don’t want to chase a chicken by yourself. You want to corner them.”

That may be true, and it worked for Saleh’s defenses in San Francisco, but it helps when there’s one dominant player in the hunt. That’s why the 49ers defense was so dangerous in 2019 when Nick Bosa was healthy and had nine sacks.

Lawson believes he can be that kind of player if he can be a better finisher. He said back in June that his potential is “otherworldly.” And asked how many sacks he “left on the table” last season by not being a better finisher, he said “Maybe 100.”

He was exaggerating ... Probably.

“Every rush to me, I'm supposed to win,” he said. “I'm supposed to get there and get the sack. It's impossible but that's how I treat it."

That’s what the Jets want to see, of course. And they believe they will. They believe he could be their most productive defensive end since John Abraham, who last played for the Jets in 2005. They think the combination of his speed, Saleh’s scheme, and the rest of the defensive line really could give them their best pass rush since the Sack Exchange

And Lawson is ready to embrace that.

“I want to follow up on some of the greats,” he said. “I want to make my own legacy and keep it going as well.”