The New York Jets will undoubtedly miss their new pass rusher after Thursday’s painful news, but not all is lost.
The football gods were feeling bored on Thursday and thus engaged in one of their oldest and most cherished pastimes: toying with the New York Jets.
Carl Lawson, one of the NFL’s rising pressure artists, with the Jets in March, was injured in a joint practice with the Green Bay Packers on Thursday afternoon. The Jets later announced that their $45 million man ruptured his Achilles tendon during a blitz on a team drill and would miss the entire 2021 season. Zane Lewis, an undrafted freshman in the secondary, was likewise lost for the year through a sprained MCL and a torn patella tendon.
The Jets have little time to truly process this unfortunate turn of events. An exhibition contest against the Packers lingers on Saturday late afternoon (4:25 p.m. ET, WLNY/NFL Network), their penultimate preseason game under the new shortened format. Lawson was expected to bolster a pass rush that has had trouble creating pressure in the backfield in recent seasons. This season alone, the team faces matchups against elite passing talents like Josh Allen and Tom Brady, as well as young rising stars like Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Jalen Hurts, and Tua Tagovailoa.
Pessimism over the coming Jets season has become as prevalent of a metropolitan summer tradition as Macy’s 4th of July fireworks and the New York Mets’ collapse combined. Lawson’s injury has done little to alleviate concerns from a fanbase that now has to deal with the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
But Jets fans should know…not all is lost with Lawson done for the year:
Bryce Huff now has a great opportunity to prove to the NFL he shouldn’t of went undrafted last year
Can’t wait to watch him this season✈️ pic.twitter.com/yzOaFE5rvq
— 𝙅𝙀𝙏𝙎 𝙈𝙀𝘿𝙄𝘼🛫 (@NYJets_Media) August 20, 2021
Return on Investment
Don’t let the Jets’ garish two-win campaign blur the fact that their front seven enjoyed several breakout campaigns. The team has recently welcomed back Quinnen Williams to their trenches. Williams is coming off a breakthrough year that saw him lead the team in sacks and vindicate his status as the third overall pick in the 2019 draft. He believes that the arrival of head coach Robert Saleh will allow him to reach his true NFL potential, especially considering the pass rushers that the former San Francisco defensive boss has turned into household names. Williams has spent the offseason going over their film.
“I’ve been watching every tape (for) about two years now. When they had DeForest Buckner), (Arik) Armstead, Nick Bosa, man them guys were rolling,” Williams told Steve Serby of the New York Post. “That year when they went to the Super Bowl, I was watching their tape, how much fun those guys were having…Kwon Alexander was there, one of my good friends. (I was) watching those guys ball, watching those guys get off, watching those guys dominate that year.”
Elsewhere in returning trench talents, John Franklin-Myers and Foley Fatukasi will also look to build on breakthrough years. Another returnee, Bryce Huff, has been one of the most pleasant surprises in camp, drawing rave reviews after a two-sack performance in last weekend’s preseason opener against the Giants.
“The more we watch him, he’s just winning,” Saleh said of Huff’s Saturday showing, per Max Goodman of Sports Illustrated. “He’s one of those guys, at first, we were like, ‘Man, how are we going to hide this guy in the preseason, he’s going to end up with like 10 sacks.’ It got to the point where we were like, ‘How are we going to keep him off the first unit?’”
It comes with a painful sacrifice, but Saleh may no longer have an answer to that question.
They Studied Abroad
It’s clear that Lawson figures into the Jets’ long-term plans. With the team potentially facing a pair of annual matchups against multi-talented quarterbacks like Allen and Tagovailoa for the foreseeable future, addressing the pass rush was vital.
But even sans Lawson, the Jets have built their backfield invasion force to a strong level. Lawson perhaps made them an elite unit, but there is still plenty to work with. The former Bengal wasn’t the only entry from abroad on the defensive depth chart: the Jets also welcomed Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry to the fold as affordable, serviceable options that have championship experience.
The Jets dodged a bullet when it came to Rankins. He also left Thursday’s practice in Wisconsin early thanks to a knee injury, but the Jets have since labeled him day-to-day. Earlier this month, Rankins, a playoff participant in each of the last four seasons as a member of the New Orleans Saints, didn’t single anyone out when it came to his praises of the defensive line. He feels that the pass rush can instill fear in offenses through a team effort.
“I’ve played with some good dudes. But the dudes I’m playing with now, in this scheme, I feel the sky’s the limit,” Rankins said in a report from Rich Cimini of ESPN. He was clear that the Jets’ backfield assaults wouldn’t end with the first teams, perhaps retroactively prophesizing that one lost cog, no matter how expensive that piece is, won’t break down this machine. “Whoever we roll out there, teams better, excuse my French, buckle their s***. We’re coming. And when that group gets tired, the next group is coming. We expect to do that for a full 60 minutes of a football game and dominate games.”
Curry, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles will likely miss the Jets’ opening weekend contest in Carolina but has refused to hide his enthusiasm for donning a new shade of green. The 33-year-old defender compared the modern Jets to the 2016 Eagles, a team that finished with a losing record but planted the seeds for a Super Bowl run the following season. Like the Jets, Philadelphia was working with a first-year head coach (Doug Pederson) at the time. Current Jets general manager Joe Douglas was serving in the Eagles’ front office as the Vice President of Player Personnel.
“I’ve seen this ship before. When Coach Pederson took over in Philadelphia, so I’ve seen this ship before and I just wanted to be a part of it, so no hesitation at all,” Curry said in his opening statements as a Jet, per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Just the relationship with Joe and just to see what he was building, it was kind of like too good to pass up. The excitement around the building when I met some of the staff members. I met a couple of my teammates that I knew just down the road. It was just like a great fit for me, a very exciting opportunity so I just had to do it.”
Lawson’s injury also opens up a big opportunity for late signing Ronald Blair, a disciple of Saleh’s systems in San Francisco. Despite Blair’s relatively unsung status, Saleh has spoken highly of the fifth-round pick from 2016 during their shared tenure in the Bay Area.
“If you like winning, you like Ronnie Blair. If you don’t like winning, you don’t like him,” Saleh said in 2019, per Kyle Posey of Niners Nation. “I love him to death. He can do no wrong in my book. He’s got great versatility. He’ll play nickel if you ask him to, and he’ll know what to do, and he’ll execute.”
Don’t Talk About Playoffs
Jets fans have every right to be upset about Lawson’s injury. But they must face an uncomfortable truth: Lawson’s prescience didn’t thrust them into the playoff discussion. 2021 was never going to be the Jets’ year, frankly.
Perhaps nothing short of a full-team swap with the Kansas City Chiefs was going to put the Jets into this winter’s bracket. Competing for a division is out of the question for the time being with the Buffalo Bills at full strength. There are simply too many established contenders in the AFC to compete for the wild card…the AFC North might send three playoff teams alone. That predicament isn’t meant to be a critique of Douglas: it simply goes to show just how far backward the Adam Gase era set back the Jets’ fortunes.
Of course, one never wants to say never when it comes to NFL postseason fortunes…the greatest moment in Jets history is based on the first-ever Super Bowl upset after all. But there’s no denying that the odds are stacked against them. Appearing in the “In the Hunt” column once the networks breakout the playoff charts come the holiday season would be a respectable and attainable goal for the Jets. Lawson or no Lawson, the postseason was a tall ask, even with expanded real estate to work with.
Lawson’s forced departure shouldn’t depress the Jets. A prime opportunity still stands on the horizon, one to foster development and figure out who will be part of the potential good times ahead. Getting an upset win at some point in the season over one of those established contenders would also serve as a great throat clearing gesture, one that would put the rest of the NFL on notice. That Philadelphia team mentioned by Curry, for example, earned wins over Steelers, Falcons, and Giants teams that went to the playoffs (they also topped a top-seeded Cowboys squad that was resting starters in Week 17).
But Lawson’s injury shouldn’t derail any goals or endeavors put forward by a Jets team embroiled in a desperate search for stability. Part of that is a mental struggle, but the Jets and observers both domestically and abroad appear to believe they have the right man to help them work through it in Saleh.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags