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NFL free agency 2021: Sack numbers don’t tell Carl Lawson’s whole story

Could Lawson be an edge-rushing target for the Giants

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New York Giants v Cincinnati Bengals
Carl Lawson
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Carl Lawson has not compiled huge sack numbers in his four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He might, though, be one of the best edge defender values on the market if he reaches free agency.

With the New York Giants perhaps in the market for edge-rushing help, let’s take a closer look at the 2017 fourth-round pick.

The basics

Age: 26 in 2021 season
Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 265
Position: Edge
Experience: 4
2020 stats: 16 games | Sacks: 5.5 | QB hits: 32 | Tackles: 36 | Pass rush productivity: 8.5 (9th among 58 qualifying edge rushers)

The skinny

Lawson has 20 sacks in 51 career games, with a high of 8.5 as a rookie in 2017. He had 5.5 last season. That’s nice production, but it’s not “gotta break the bank to get that guy in free agency” kind of production.

It is the ancillary numbers, the analytics if you will, that tell you how truly disruptive Lawson has been when healthy.

Let’s start with the chart below, which shows that only two edge rushers under the age of 30 had better pressure rates than Lawson in 2020.

Per The Athletic, Lawson’s 32 quarterback hits in 2020 were second in the NFL, and his 83 quarterback hits over his four-year career are tied for 11th in the league during that span.

Lawson played only seven games in 2018 before suffering a torn right ACL. He played 12 games in 2019 when battling a hamstring injury. The bookend seasons to those, 2017 and 2019, have been highly productive.

In 2020, Lawson had those 5.5 sacks and 32 hits, along with a PFF pass-rush productivity rate of 8.5 that was ninth among 72 qualifying rushers. In 2017, he had 8.5 sacks, 21 hits and was seventh among 71 qualifiers with a pass-rush productivity rate of 9.6.

Lawson, 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, can play with his hand in the ground as a defensive end or rush from a standup position as an outside linebacker. In 2020, he played 151 of 723 defensive snaps (20.9 percent) as a standup outside linebacker, according to PFF. In 2019, he played 134 of 457 snaps (29.3 percent) at outside linebacker.

Lawson has not been considered a great run defender, though his PFF run defense grades have been in the 60s after a poor 44.6 grade as a rookie. That would indicate he isn’t a complete liability, though a team like the Giants might want to use him situationally.

Spotrac’s Market Value Tool estimates that Lawson could expect a contract around four year and $35.46 million, or about $8.8 million per year.

PFF thinks Lawson could be a bargain.

There is an argument to be made that Lawson is the best pure pass rusher to hit free agency this offseason. Since entering the league in 2017, his pass-rush grade on true pass-rush sets ranks in the 96th percentile among all edge defenders — firmly in elite territory. Injuries and inconsistent play have limited his opportunities to begin his career, but he finished the 2020 season with a career-high 723 defensive snaps and 84.9 pass-rushing grade. The arrow is pointing up.

Despite finishing the season with only 5.5 sacks, few pass rushers were able to consistently beat their blocks and pressure opposing quarterbacks more often than Lawson. He was one of just five qualifying edge defenders to record a pass-rush win rate of 20% or higher, joining Joey Bosa, T.J. Watt, Khalil Mack and Jerry Hughes. On top of that, his 64 pressures were fourth-most at the position. ...

He’s not going to provide much as a run defender, but his limited playing time and depressed sack totals could lead to a team getting a steal this offseason.

The Bengals could use the franchise tag to keep Lawson. If not, the Giants could do a lot worse in an effort to upgrade their edge position.