Will The Bengals Use The Franchise Tag on Carl Lawson?
By Calvin K (Twitter: @Calvin_SGF)
Carl Lawson is entering his fifth year as an NFL pro, and he could hit free agency for the first time this offseason if the Bengals decide against using the franchise tag. Lawson has had an impressive four-year career, and his total of 5.5 sacks in 2020 doesn’t do him justice given that he was playing alongside a lackluster defensive line. Lawson still managed to create pressure despite the players around him, and his 44 QB pressures were tied for the fourth-most in the NFL last season.
In his first four seasons, Lawson showed that he is a very talented player, and he’s certainly proved that he’s deserving of a big contract. The market for defensive ends is always big, but there’s a chance that Lawson gets overshadowed by elite free agents such as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, and Leonard Williams. This could make him a bargain for a team looking for a defensive end, and any team that gets him for less than $12-$13 million a year could get a steal. Lawson is still just 25 years old, and a contract like that is a small price to pay for an elite defensive end, especially considering that the very best at the position can get north of $20 million per year. The variables of a potential contract are many, but regardless, Lawson should receive plenty of interest from teams this offseason. Here are five franchises who could pursue the fifth-year-pro.
Cincinnati Bengals (Re-Sign/Franchise Tag)
This move makes tons of sense for the Bengals, who will have a tough time replacing Lawson at defensive end without paying an exorbitant price. Cincinnati has approximately $43.4 million in cap space, good for sixth in the NFL, so they are a team that could definitely give Lawson a big contract. The Bengals also have lots of flexibility in how they retain him.
The Bengals could choose to give Lawson the franchise tag, which would cost them about $16 million. This would keep him in Cincinnati for at least one more season, and it would give the team time to work out a potential long-term deal, the deadline for which would be July 15th. A long-term deal seems like the best option, as Lawson is still young, and it would give him some contract security as well. A multiyear salary would be unlikely to reach $16 million per year, so if Lawson continues to play at a high level, that option would be better for the Bengals than a franchise tag.
The main thing holding Lawson back in Cincinnati has been the lack of production around him. Despite Lawson’s best efforts, Cincinnati had just 17 sacks in 2020, the fewest in the NFL. If the Bengals can add some pieces around him, Lawson’s production could jump, and his elite pass-rushing skills could draw some attention away from other players in return, elevating their production as well.
New York Jets
The Jets did manage to tie for 20th in sacks in 2020, but they didn’t have a single player over 3.5 sacks besides defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who had seven. New York could definitely use some help at defensive end, and if Lawson was signed, he would take some pressure off of Williams, who would no longer be the only major pass rushing force for that defense.
In Cincinnati, Lawson struggled as the only potent pass rusher, but in New York, Lawson could create more consistent pressure on the quarterback because Williams would draw away some potential double-teams. The Jets have over $73 million in cap space for 2021, so they could give Lawson a big offer and still have plenty of room to spare.
New Jets head coach Robert Saleh, being a former defensive coordinator, will certainly want to improve New York’s defensive unit, which was below average at basically everything in 2020. Signing Lawson would be a great start, and it would give the Jets two major sack threats, something they didn’t have last year.
The Titans struggled to create pressure in 2020, accumulating just 19 sacks over the entire season. A lot of that was due to the injury troubles of star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who only played five games all season. Now, Clowney is a free agent, and if the Titans let him walk, they’ll need to find another pass rusher to go alongside linebacker Harold Landry III.
Lawson could make sense for Tennessee as an option who is certainly not cheap, but one who would be cheaper than Clowney. Clowney, at 28, is three years older than Lawson, and while 28 certainly isn’t old, the Titans might want a longer-term option to anchor the pass rush for years to come. Landry only has one year left on his contract as well, so if the Titans don’t re-sign Clowney, they’ll definitely be in need of a new pass rusher. Lawson isn’t a player who would fix all of their problems, but if the Titans made a couple of other (smaller) moves via free agency and the draft, they’d be on track for a much improved defensive line.
J.J. Watt is gone from Houston, and that is a huge blow to a team that finished 18th in sacks in 2020. The Texans’ 34 sacks were spread out throughout the defense, with 10 players getting at least two sacks and five players getting at least three. However, no Texans player had more than five sacks in 2020. This mainly showed that Houston didn’t have an elite pass rusher outside of Watt, and Watt’s effectiveness was limited by the fact that he was double-teamed more than any other pass rusher in the NFL.
Houston has nearly $20 million in cap space, so they’d be able to afford a big contract for Lawson. However, to avoid a situation in which double-teams limit him, the Texans would probably need to make another move to add a second pass rusher alongside him. That move wouldn’t have to be as expensive, and stabilizing the line/signing Lawson could do wonders for their pass rush.
Making multiple upgrades for the defensive line might seem like a big investment for a team that has other glaring weaknesses. However, if the line is consistently creating pressure, the opposing quarterback is forced into mistakes, elevating the linebackers and secondary and improving the defense overall. With the right personnel around him, Lawson can be a double-digit-sack guy, and having that kind of player is extremely important for having consistency in the pass rush.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers already have a solid defensive unit for creating pressure, but the majority of their sack numbers come from their linebacker group. The Packers had 41 sacks in 2020, tied for 10th-most in the league, but 25.5 of those came from their linebackers. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but if the Packers could get help at defensive end, that could make their pass rush elite.
The opening at defensive end is a main reason why there’s been buzz about J.J. Watt coming to Green Bay, but the Packers could choose to sign Lawson instead as a longer-term option. However, if the Packers signed Lawson, they’d probably have to make some cuts to improve their salary cap situation (nearly $6 million over the cap). This would make Lawson tough to take on financially, but if the Packers think he’s good enough, they might be willing to pursue him at the cost of other positions.