FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Two things the New York Jets haven't done well for about a decade: Spend wisely on big free-agent contracts and identify quality edge rushers.
With defensive end Carl Lawson, they're hoping to kill two trends with one stone.
Stepping out of his persona as a methodical, build-through-the-draft general manager, Joe Douglas signed Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract, including a massive $30 million guarantee. Aside from rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, Lawson is the most important acquisition of Douglas' tenure.
Three reasons: Size of the investment. Positional need. Synergy between Douglas and the coaching staff.
Coach Robert Saleh's 4-3 defensive scheme can't function at its peak without a pass-rushing presence on the edge. Douglas and his staff identified Lawson as the ideal fit and made him their top target in NFL free agency. They looked beyond his 5.5 sacks last season with the Cincinnati Bengals and saw an ascending talent with first-step explosiveness and impressive pass-rushing metrics.
If Lawson flourishes in New York, it will be a great example of the front office being in lockstep with Saleh & Co., a dynamic that proved elusive for past regimes. In the process, they might have solved an age-old problem, acquiring an impact pass-rusher.
"Didn't y'all have Mark Gastineau here and the Sack Exchange?" Lawson asked reporters at the start of training camp. "That was a long time ago. I don't even think I was born."
No, he wasn't. Lawson was born in 1995, seven years after Gastineau -- now a member of the Jets' Ring of Honor -- retired with 107.5 sacks. Another terrific pass-rusher, John Abraham, finished with 133.5 sacks, but most of those came with the Atlanta Falcons, who acquired him from the Jets in 2006.
Since then, the Jets have cycled through retreads and bad draft picks (where have you gone, Quinton Coples?). They have produced only three double-digit sack seasons since '06 -- Muhammad Wilkerson (2013 and 2015) and Calvin Pace (2013).
Quality edge rushers are as hard to find as quarterbacks, which is why teams will overpay. If a player hits free agency coming off a 10-sack season, he will enjoy the financial score of a lifetime. In that respect, Lawson is an outlier.
Of the 15 highest-paid edge rushers in the NFL, based on average salary per year, only three have yet to produce a double-digit sack season -- Lawson (career-high 8.5), the Detroit Lions' Trey Flowers (7.5) and the Los Angeles Rams' Leonard Floyd (7.0).
The Jets looked at Lawson's tape and saw a highly productive player despite his less-than-stellar sack total. Among all edge players with at least 250 snaps played in 2020, he finished 16th in pressure percentage, 13th in disruption percentage and fourth in average "get-off" time (0.73 seconds), according NFL Next Gen Stats.
Translation: He applied a lot of pressure, but came up short in sacks. It's no wonder that, when asked where he would like to improve, Lawson said, "Finishing." The Jets believe he can turn some of those pressures into sacks.
"If you look at Carl and you just look at a piece of paper, he doesn't check a single box in terms of height, length, size," Saleh said of the 6-foot-2, 265-pound end. "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. That's why he fits. He fits any scheme. He's a guy who lines up and dominates one-on-one, especially in money situations when you need somebody to affect the game."
Lawson said he left "100 sacks" on the field last season -- an exaggeration, obviously.
"I believe that every rush is supposed to be a sack," he said. "It's impossible, but that's how I treat it."
Lawson will play alongside two talented interior players, Quinnen Williams and newcomer Sheldon Rankins, giving the Jets their best defensive line since 2015. The Jets' belief is Williams and Rankins will collapse the pocket from the inside, creating opportunities for Lawson to swoop in for the sack. And vice versa.
"It's like chasing a chicken," Lawson said. "You don't want to chase him by yourself. You want to corner him with a bunch of people."
In fairness to the Bengals, their defensive line wasn't bad. Actually, it was pretty good with former Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap II and Michael Johnson. For three years, Lawson couldn't crack the starting lineup. He was a pass-rushing specialist, graduating to every-down player in 2020. He played a career-high 723 snaps and registered 32 quarterback hits, also a career high.
The Jets have suffered epic fails in free agency, most notably cornerback Trumaine Johnson and running back Le'Veon Bell. Johnson was overrated and a bad scheme fit. Bell never felt welcome, thanks to a coach (Adam Gase) who didn't want him. Talk about a disconnect between coach and front office.
Lawson can change that perception. That's why he's their most important new player not named Zach Wilson.