Is the best yet to come, or has the peak already been reached? That’s the question that will surround Carl Lawson this offseason.
A former fourth-round pick from the 2017 NFL draft, Lawson is not the first player to have his best season occur during the last year of his rookie contract. We saw Lawson develop into a starter at right defensive end this past season and put together consistent week-to-week production.
It all starts with availability. Lawson’s 723 defensive snaps from the 2020 season were 41 more than his previous two seasons combined. Injuries and perceived physical limitations were what previously kept Lawson out of the starting lineup and subjected to being a situational pass-rusher. That narrative was flipped a month into this past season.
When Carlos Dunlap was in the midst of a falling out with the coaching staff, the team turned to the 25-year old Lawson to take his place. Before Week 5, Lawson had only started three games in his time with the Cincinnati Bengals. He did not miss a start from that week on.
With his past injury issues in the rearview mirror, Lawson transformed from a pass-rushing spark to a more complete edge defender, but pressuring the quarterback remained his bread and butter. Lawson had Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest pass rushing grade during the 11 weeks he was a starter. For the entire season, Lawson accumulated 64 quarterback pressures and 24 quarterback hits, per PFF. Only three edge defenders had more pressures, and only one had more hits.
Applying pressure is obviously valuable, but large signing bonuses and guaranteed salaries are given to players who rack up sacks. Lawson only had two sacks from Week 5-17 after he had 3.5 sacks through the first four weeks. The NFL world is a bit smarter than it was in previous years and we collectively know sacks can be a misleading stat. Lawson’s pass rushing grade speaks for itself, and so does his top-10 finish in ESPN’s Sacks Created metric. The sacks didn’t always come, but Lawson was winning early and often.
The standard for Lawson was set very highly when he was a rookie. Lawson was second on the team in sacks with 8.5 in 2017. His promising first-year was being validated during the first half of the 2018 season before he tore his ACL in Week 8 of that season.
Lawson was back to 100% strength by the 2019 preseason and had a strong regular season debut as well, but a nagging hamstring injury forced him to miss four games that year. It was clear that Lawson was not himself when he was on the field and his 2017 form appeared more like ancient history.
For this reason, the Bengals decided to let Lawson play out the final year of his contract in 2020. It would’ve been a slight risk to extend Lawson before the season considering his injury history, but he had already proven himself as an effective edge rusher at such a young age during his first three years.
16 very productive games later, Lawson is an impending free agent and knows he’ll cash in shortly. If he decides to take a bag from one of the other 31 teams, the Bengals would be left with Sam Hubbard and Khalid Kareem at defensive end. Underwhelming would be a vast understatement.
The Bengals need Lawson more than anyone else on their roster with an expiring contract. This past season may’ve been the best we’ll ever see from Lawson, but it would cost more to replace his quality of play than it would cost to keep him around for the foreseeable future. Think Kevin Zeitler a few years ago; do they really want to go down that path again?
Free agency is still several weeks away and we have no idea how the rest of the league will value Lawson. He’s only been a full-time starter for one season and the “money stats” were not spectacular by any means. We know the Bengals value him after watching this year unfold, so it’d be surprising to see him walk when they have the money to re-sign him.
Lawson will be just 26 years old this Summer and has finally hit his stride as an every-down edge defender. Signing him to a multi-year deal will be one of the easiest decisions the Bengals make all year.