In wake of Carl Lawson's season-ending injury, Robert Saleh's stance on Jets' depth comes into focus

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Robert Saleh on Jets sideline greeting players off the field wearing all black
Robert Saleh on Jets sideline greeting players off the field wearing all black

As stoic and calm as Robert Saleh looked, it was easy to see that this one hurt. The season-ending injury to Carl Lawson wasn’t just the loss of any player. It was the loss of a potential star.

But as painful as it was, Saleh didn’t dwell on it much in his first press conference in the wake of his first real head coaching crisis. He expressed sorrow that Lawson tore his Achilles, empathy for the man, but not a drop of sadness for the players he left behind.

In fact, Saleh has spent months letting those players farther down the roster know he doesn’t consider them much different than the ones at the top. And he certainly wasn’t going to change that approach when he needs them now.

“I’ve said it before: The NFL train stops for nobody,” Saleh said after the Jets’ 23-14 win over the Green Bay Packers Saturday. “When someone falls off the train it’s another opportunity for someone to jump on the train. There’s a lot of men on this football team, especially at that D-end spot, that are champing at the bit for an opportunity.

“And they’ve got it.”

Yes, they most certainly do.

It’s a cliché, right? How many coaches over the years have said “Next man up” while everyone outside the locker room rolls their eyes. The difference is that some coaches say that in reference to players who clearly knew they were second- or third-stringers – bit parts who were simply around in case of an injury.

But what Saleh has done since he arrived, and especially since training camp started, is go out of his way to make everyone feel truly useful. Yes, from watching practice it’s easy to figure out his 11 starters on defense. But there have been at least 11 other players who have worked in with the first team for a significant period of time.

Those include rookies and veterans, draft picks and undrafted free agents. He has employed a heavy rotation on every level of defense, making most of his players feel like they will have a significant job.

So yes, Lawson was their best player in training camp, by far. But Bryce Huff, John Franklin-Myers and rookie Hamilcar Rashed have all gotten plenty of first-team work at defensive end, too. None of them are quite as good as Lawson, but it’s a good bet all of them think they could be.

And that’s the kind of confidence Saleh wants to build in his players. When he was asked on Saturday if he could really evaluate quarterback Zach Wilson considering the Packers sat most of their starters and some of their second-stringers too, Saleh said “You go tell those backups that they’re not capable of being starters. You guys know my conviction of Player A to Z.”

This is what he said about that back in the spring: “The difference between Player A and Player Z is minimal, and the only thing that keeps Player Z from becoming Player A is an opportunity and reps. .. Does it always happen? It doesn’t, but unless you’re willing to be bold enough to coach your tail off and to invest as much as you can into these young men and give them the opportunity to be seen, give them the opportunity to get reps, and give them the opportunity to get better, you’ll never know what you might find.”

Saleh has made it clear that he is bold enough to give those players a chance. There was no evidence of a payoff on Saturday afternoon, when his Lawson-less defense was really pushed around by the Packers’ second- and third-stringers. The Packers ran the ball at will early on, breaking right through that front line. Third-string quarterback Kurt Benkert had a safe and comfy pocket, giving him a chance to look like Aaron Rodgers, completing 11 of his first 14 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.

The pressure from the Jets was basically non-existent. Franklin-Myers got near Benkert once, and Huff got close on a big third down when for some reason he was left unblocked. But otherwise, it was pretty clear that without Lawson’s speed, the Jets have some work to do.

And Saleh’s not blind to that, either, nor is he dismissing of the importance of who Lawson was and what he was going to bring.

“The man puts in the work, he does everything the right way,” Saleh said. “I mean you could not ask for a more perfect big-money free agent, because despite getting paid he still wanted more.

“I just feel bad for him.”

But he doesn’t and won’t feel bad for Lawson’s teammates. He’s been telling them from the beginning that they’re all just as important to his plan.

So when he trots out another cliché and says “We’re going to focus on the guys that we have,” they know he means it. Because that’s what he’s been doing from the day they arrived – focusing on the guys that he has on the field.

They all fit somewhere between Player A and Player Z. And Saleh believes that will be good enough.