Bengals face an expensive question on Carl Lawson

CINCINNATI -- Carl Lawson represents one of the most interesting paradoxes in NFL free agency.

If he hits the open market, Lawson, 25, will be one of the top available edge rushers following a strong season with the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet the Bengals finished 2020 with a paltry 17 sacks, the lowest total in the NFL.

With Lawson, sacks don't tell the whole story. The tape and the analytics explain why Lawson will be an appealing target should the Bengals not use the franchise tag on him -- and how an improved Cincinnati defense could lead to more sacks in 2021.

"This league hasn't changed," Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo told ESPN this week. "It's about affecting the quarterback."

And even though Lawson finished with just 5.5 sacks last season, he was around the quarterback as much as anyone in the NFL.

Among edge rushers with a minimum of five sacks, Lawson ranked sixth in the league in quarterback pressures, according to NFL Next Gen. He was credited with 58 disruptions (combined number of hurries, pressures and sacks), good for fourth in the league among players at his position.

Lawson's value also extends past his individual numbers. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Lawson created 10.5 sacks last season, the seventh-highest in the NFL.

The progress in his game wasn't a surprise to his teammates.

"He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever played with," Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said in November. "He just keeps working on his game, keeps progressing and finding every little thing you can do to be successful. It's no surprise he's playing great."

Given the advanced metrics, Lawson seems to be a prime candidate for the Bengals to use the franchise tag, which is estimated to be around $17.8 million in 2021 by overthecap.com.

But any team willing to invest significant dollars on Lawson is banking on his ability to stay healthy. Last season was only the second time he played all 16 games. And teams will also be looking for Lawson to convert all of those pressures into sacks or turnovers.

In an interview in December, Lawson pointed out that not all metrics around pass rush are created equally. Some sacks could have been the result of someone else's pressure. Winning a battle on the line may not yield a sack if the quarterback releases the ball quickly. Lawson said the one putting the opponent in the ground is the one with the upper hand in that debate.

"You go toward the guy with more sacks because he is winning the one-on-one and he's getting sacks," Lawson said.

Lawson's sack numbers could hit double digits in 2021 if he's able to turn those pressures into sacks. The 2017 fourth-round pick might also benefit from playing in a better defense.

Throughout 2020, Cincinnati employed a "cage rush" technique aimed at keeping the quarterback in the pocket. While the benefits include keeping mobile passers contained and helping your secondary, the lack of sack opportunities is one downside.

"When we use techniques, just like at any position, whether it be a corner or linebacker, we're going to give our guys techniques not to handcuff them," Anarumo told ESPN. "But we're going to give them techniques that able and allow us to play good team defense."

As the Bengals enter the third year under Anarumo and coach Zac Taylor, several questions linger about key positions.

Starting outside cornerback William Jackson III and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander are on expiring contracts. Middle linebacker is up in the air after veteran Josh Bynes held down the spot on a one-year deal.

The Bengals could also be without Geno Atkins, the defensive tackle who bolstered Cincinnati's pass rush for a decade alongside Carlos Dunlap, who was traded to Seattle last season after a rift with his role and the coaching staff.

Lawson could be the next one to take over in that role if the Bengals can strike a deal with him. And if the scheme and defense around him are better, Lawson could exceed the 8.5 sacks he had in his rookie season in 2017.

"There's a lot of stuff in my game, pass rush and run-wise, to take that next step I'm trying to get to," Lawson said in December. "So I'm just going to keep on climbing."