Carl Lawson hits free agency for the first time as one of the best edge rushers on the market. Given his age and potential, he seems like a likely candidate for a massive payday. With teams increasingly focused on knocking down the opposing quarterback, Lawson should have a number of suitors. However, he’s not without his flaws, which could scare some potential investors away from the defensive end.
As Free Agency Arrives, Carl Lawson Has a Number of Strong Options
Spending the first four seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Carl Lawson is set to become a free-agent in late March. In 2020, Lawson led the team with 5.5 sacks. That’s not a lofty figure, but he’s become a highly-regarded name for his ability to generate pressures. Lawson finished fifth in the NFL with 45 pressures last season, three ahead of Super Bowl stand-out Shaquil Barrett. He also finished second in the league behind T.J. Watt with 32 quarterback pressures. With Lawson in categories with some of the league’s elite, it’s easy to see the high potential still untapped for the 25-year-old. Though he does come with some injury baggage, including two ACL tears, he has tremendous upside.
However, there is a possibility or maybe even a likelihood that Cincinnati uses the franchise tag on Lawson. The team’s inability to generate consistent pass rushes was a major issue in recent seasons. Taking the team’s best pass rusher away would further cripple their ability to get to the passer. Regardless, Lawson is set for a huge pay raise in the coming weeks. Whether it’s the $15.9 million franchise tag or a $10 million-plus deal, his income is about to increase. The biggest lingering question? Who’s going to sign those checks for the 2021 season.
The Minnesota Vikings are a fit for Lawson primarily due to their desperate need for a pass rush upgrade. In recent years, they’ve seen massive chunks of their defense depart in free agency. Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Sheldon Richardson have all come and gone. Additionally, the team gave Yannick Ngakoue a try last year to no avail, eventually trading him to the Baltimore Ravens. Fortunately, they still have Danielle Hunter on their roster, one of the league’s elite pass rushers. Adding Lawson alongside Hunter probably boosts the former more than the latter. However, it would be worth it for Minnesota, as Hunter could use some help after missing all of last season with an injury. Minnesota’s defense ranked 29th in scoring defense last year and needs to keep opposing offenses off the field. Lawson helps with that issue dramatically.
In what would be a spurn to the franchise that brought him into the league, Lawson makes a lot of sense for the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are chasing edge rush talent to complement superstar Myles Garrett this off-season. While they didn’t land J.J. Watt like many of their fans hoped, Lawson is arguably a better right-now investment. The Browns finished in the middle of the pack last season, ranking 14th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate stat. Despite that, Garrett finished third in pass rush win rate among defensive ends. Adding Lawson to an already dominant edge rush situation in Cleveland makes their team even more dangerous in 2021. Cleveland has the cap space to make it happen and their priorities are clearly on the defensive side of the ball.
New York Giants
Towards the end of last season, the New York Giants seemed to really have some magic getting started. Most of that magic generated from the defensive side of the ball. Leonard Williams is ascending as one of the best pass rushers in the league. Dexter Lawrence looks solid at worst after two seasons in the league. Dalvin Tomlinson is a really solid interior tackle anchoring that line. If they add Carl Lawson to that defensive line, that group is truly something of nightmares for opposing passers. While they need to add more on offense sooner than later, Lawson would make them scary in the slumping NFC East. The Giants finished dead-last in pass rush win rate a season ago, so they might feel pressure to add more pressure to their roster ahead of 2021.
With plenty of cap space and a need to improve defense, the Miami Dolphins are another potential landing spot for Lawson. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores receives high regard as a head coach and defensive mind. Potentially, Lawson could see the opportunity of working with Flores as a way to maximize his skill set. After the team parted ways with Kyle Van Noy following a one-year experiment, they need to add more pass rush talent. Further, over his first two years in the league, 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins has only stacked 3.5 sacks. If he signs a lucrative deal with the Dolphins, he’ll immediately be their best pass rusher. While an opportunity to play with a more established group might appeal to Lawson, Miami might be willing and able to out-pay any competition.
Seemingly for years, the Atlanta Falcons defense has searched for answers, both in the draft and free agency, with not much success. If they add Carl Lawson in free agency, he’d be an immediate upgrade over any of Atlanta’s current edge rushers. Further, the ability to couple Lawson on the edge with Grady Jarrett on the interior has to be appealing. Atlanta finished 23rd in sacks a season ago, finishing with 29 on the season. Adding to the formula? Lawson is native to Alpharetta, GA, a suburb just north of Atlanta. While their team seems ready to rebuild, or at least reload, Lawson provides youth and potential for their next contention window. If they’re ready to make a big investment in their defense, they could make Lawson a major off-season splash. However, the team’s hiring of head coach Arthur Smith this off-season might point to a strong offensive pivot. Regardless, Lawson upgrades the team’s ability to get home.
Staying home, or at least staying in Cincinnati, actually seems like the best option for Lawson. While he might desire greener pastures in free agency, the team has a tendency to keep its best young players in town. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap were fixtures in the organization for nearly a decade and both received market-setting contracts in 2013. Lawson very well could be the next Bengals’ defensive player to land a massive contract. Coupling Lawson back with Sam Hubbard, last season’s league leader in run stop win rate, seems beneficial for the Bengals. Especially with D.J. Reader returning next season and the potential to add another enticing pass rusher in free agency or the 2021 NFL Draft.
The coming weeks for Carl Lawson and his free agency cycle will be quite interesting. He should have options across the league considering his age, production, and potential. Certainly, he’s not without his flaws, but there’s a lot more good than bad for the young defensive end. While Cincinnati has the leverage of the franchise tag, Lawson is going to get a big pay raise in 2021, no matter what.
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