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Here’s how the Bengals can keep Carl Lawson

The team’s top priority in free agency absolutely, positively must be their special edge rusher. Here’s what a potential contract would look like.

Cincinnati Bengals v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Carl Lawson is the victim of an outdated way of thinking of pass rushers.

Sacks are great, but really, they’re not everything. Think about it. A sack is finishing the job. Sometimes a quarterback is pressured and he runs into a defender, but not the one who initially created the pressure. That’s why pressure is so important.

And Lawson, who had only 5.5 sacks, created 64 pressures. Sam Hubbard finished second on the team with 32. After doing the math, I realized that’s only half as many! And after that it gets even worse. Carlos Dunlap was third with 13 pressures, and no one else on the defense hit double digit pressures.

Lawson was also the first pass rusher to get the QB more than all but six other players. ESPN has an interesting stat, sacks created, which accounts for what I described: being the first defender to reach the quarterback. Lawson finished sixth with 10.5 sacks created.

Lawson broke onto the scene with 8.5 sacks his rookie year. He came in with refined technique and a non-stop motor, as you can see in his rookie highlights below:

It became clear back then in 2017 that he was going to be great. It just hasn’t all come together yet. You can hear Lawson talk about how he wanted to improve his run-stopping abilities after his rookie year below: (spoiler alert: he did get better in that department)

Playing on a team with little to no pass rush outside of himself has hurt Lawson’s traditional stats in recent years. Fortunately, he was able to boost his value with an astronomical game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, which happened to be shown on Monday Night Football for all the nation’s NFL fans (and personnel) to see. In that game, Lawson had eight pressures, six QB hits, and a strip sack.

Despite all of that, Spotrac estimated that Lawson would get about $8.8 annually on a new deal. This is, again, a reflection of an outdated way of thinking of edge rushers. John Sheeran, in the video below, states that he thinks the Bengals will offer significantly more than that, as they tend to evaluate their own players independently of the perceptions of other teams.

Sheeran predicts the Bengals will be able to offer Lawson a four year, $54 million deal with a two-year cash flow of $27.65 million. That would come with a $12 million signing bonus, which is in the range of practicality for a front office that generally doesn’t guarantee a lot of cash up front. The annual salary of $13.5 million would be significantly higher than what Spotrac predicted. For Sheeran’s full analysis, you can watch below.

You can also listen on iTunes or using the player below:

Still, it is not clear if Lawson will accept such a deal. If the Bengals give him the franchise tag, he’ll have a decision to make. If he plays under the tag, he is risking his future. But he could potentially make significantly more next year, whether on another (much larger) franchise tag deal or a more lucrative long term offer. He might get a bigger deal because of the nature of the salary cap, which is being lowered this year, or because he accumulates more impressive traditional stats. The latter is quite likely, considering how talented he is and the fact that the team seemingly has to add another pass rusher. Plus, the snaps of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap will be going to guys who are more motivated to play under Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo.

But Lawson and his agent may not want to take that risk because of his injury history. The only reason the Bengals were able to steal him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft was because he missed his sophomore year at Auburn with a torn ACL and missed half his junior year with a hip injury. Lawson would tear his ACL again in 2018 with Cincinnati.

There’s also a question of whether Lawson wants to remain with the team. Earlier, I shared a rumor about Lawson being told not to use all his pass rush moves. Supposedly, he only unleashed his entire arsenal against the Steelers in that Monday Night game. If true, it may be yet another example of defensive players frustrated with the defensive coaching staff.

From the Bengals’ perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Lawson is as talented as they come and only getting better. ACL tears are not what they used to be. There’s a good chance his season-ending injuries are behind him. So for a front office that loves value and keeping its own, retaining Lawson is a golden opportunity.