FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Carl Lawson can list the reasons.
Emotionally, the defensive end agreed to a pay cut because he loves the New York Jets and their defensive line culture, Lawson said Tuesday after an OTA practice.
Financially, Lawson wasn’t disturbed by the implications of trading a non-guaranteed $15 million salary for $8 million guaranteed with up to $3 million in incentives, per multiple reports. An overall pay cut? Unquestionably. A life-changing financial decision?
“I have a lot of money and I don’t really buy much,” Lawson explained. “I like money, but it’s not a big part of my life, my family’s taken care of. So, easy decision.”
And then there was the spiritual compulsion. Lawson felt staying with the Jets was a sign from a higher power.
Because his pay cut, which formally occurred in May but was on his radar as early as February, directly correlated with the Jets creating salary cap space to acquire four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his contract set to swallow $108.8 million across the next two seasons.
Rodgers wasn’t just a quarterback whom Lawson has watched and occasionally competed against in the six seasons since the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Lawson in the fourth round.
Lawson more acutely identified Rodgers as a reminder of his career roller coaster.
“If the quarterback was Rodgers, I almost felt like, ‘God is talking to me,’” Lawson said. “Because my career started chasing the quarterback. I got four sacks against him. And my career damn near ended in the pursuit of this quarterback.”
Lawson pointed skyward.
“So kind of a no-brainer from upstairs to be like, ‘Hey — you need to be here.’”
Run-in with Rodgers eerily memorable
The Bengals traveled to Green Bay on Sept. 24, 2017, for the third game of Lawson’s pro career and the first in which he played a more prominent role, his 77% of defensive snaps up from a previous high of 33%.
Lawson stifled Rodgers with two solo sacks, another combined sack and still a fourth initial sack on an ultimately penalized play (12 men on the field is one more than allowed, folks) that brought his official game count to 2.5 sacks. His disruption helped the Bengals never trail … until Rodgers rallied the Packers to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. Lawson says Rodgers looked at him after one of the sacks, motioning his hands toward the ground and saying, “58, chill.”
“I’m a rookie [thinking], ‘We’re blowing y’all out,’” Lawson said. “He came back [from down] in the fourth quarter and I’m like, ‘All right. I see why he’s the guy.’”
That was Lawson’s high against Rodgers, the 2.5 sacks that set him on track for an 8.5-sack rookie year that remains his career best. His production wavered in the years to come, a left ACL tear in 2018 frustratingly reminiscent of the right ACL he had torn in 2014 in college.
By the time the Jets signed Lawson to a three-year deal worth $45 million entering the 2020 season, he had rebounded to register 10.5 sacks in two seasons, also notching 54 quarterback hits across those years.
Healthy and in a new system, Lawson was optimistic.
Training camp reflected the potential.
Then, in a joint training camp practice against the Packers — there’s that Rodgers moment again — Lawson rushed the passer in a red-zone drill.
He fell and stayed down. His Achilles had ruptured.
Lawson confident he’ll bring Jets double-digit sacks
Again, Lawson rehabbed and again, he returned in 2022 to post a 7-sack season in which he played in all 17 games. He found a home in a Jets defensive line room that he felt fostered a special culture of motivation and positivity “in a world that’s really, really negative,” not to mention his love of the fresh fruit and bison the cafeteria is apparently serving.
So Lawson accepted his pay cut this spring, hired a professional to stretch his dense muscle mass three times a week in hopes of powering flexibility to injury prevention, and called upon advice from the late Hall of Famer Kevin Greene to chase greatness via “superior habits.”
His goals aren’t modest either.
Lawson confirmed he’s raring for the double-digit sack season he hasn’t yet produced.
“That’s a goal,” he said, “and that’s going to happen.”
He won’t listen to the message that he said Rodgers brings back up each time they see each other: “Chill. Chill.”
A productive individual and team season won’t just validate his decision to stay with the Jets. It might also set him up to recoup the money he’s no longer going to receive in 2023.
“I plan on doing the stuff I plan to do and get that money back,” he said. “I plan on playing [until] at least 35.”
He’s weeks away from 28 and expects the windfall to continue.
“So if I can’t make back at least a couple million dollars of what they’re paying defensive ends,” Lawson said, “I must suck really, really bad and need to go back in the gym.”