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By: Michael Nania
Which NFL free agents can fill Lamarcus Joyner’s free safety role in the New York Jets’ defense?
The New York Jets are likely to have a new starting free safety in 2023. Their 2022 starter, Lamarcus Joyner, is coming off a very rough season and is about to become a free agent.
New York could look to the free-agent market to find a replacement for Joyner.
Before we take a look at some of the best options for New York to target in free agency, let’s talk about a crucial factor to keep in mind when scanning the free agent market: scheme fit.
How well a free agent fits the prospective team’s scheme is an essential variable to consider when evaluating whether he is worth targeting. Yes, players and teams can adjust to make things work, but it is generally a good idea for front offices to focus on finding players who have a skill-set that seamlessly fits their team’s system. The less bending that needs to be done on both sides, the better.
With that in mind, I wanted to analyze the free-agent safety market to identify which players have the best chance of being viewed by Joe Douglas as a good scheme fit to replace Joyner at free safety.
By analyzing Joyner’s usage in Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme this past season, we can get a guide for the type of player that the Jets will be looking for to fill Joyner’s role.
Here is a look at where Joyner lined up on his defensive snaps in 2022, per tracking from Pro Football Focus:
- Free safety: 73.3 (6th-highest among 73 qualified safeties)
- Box: 14.0% (64th)
- Slot: 10.4% (56th)
- Edge: 2.1% (48th)
- Outside CB: 0.2% (70th)
I created a formula that analyzed the snap distribution of all qualified safeties in the NFL and revealed how closely their usage resembled Joyner’s. This allows us to get an idea of which players are the best fits to step into the free safety role in Ulbrich and Saleh’s Jets defense.
Here are the free-agent safeties whose usage in the 2022 season most closely matched Lamarcus Joyner’s. Look out for these players to be on the Jets’ radar. (I did this same exercise last year and eventual Jets signing Jordan Whitehead made the list, so we might be onto something here.)
8. Nick Scott, Los Angeles Rams
- Free safety: 64.5% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 23.6% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 11.3% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 0.1% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 0.4% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.214 (20th of 73 qualifiers)
A seventh-round pick in 2019, Nick Scott was a backup and special teamer for three seasons before finally getting his chance to start in 2022. Scott played in all 17 games, starting 16 of them, racking up 86 tackles, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. He was charged with allowing 3 touchdowns.
One interesting aspect of Scott’s game is his discipline. He has never been called for a defensive penalty over 1,607 career snaps on defense.
Scott will turn 28 years old in May.
7. Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders
- Free safety: 67.8% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 22.0% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 5.9% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 3.1% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 1.3% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.202 (18th of 73 qualifiers)
Duron Harmon is best known for his seven years in New England from 2013 to 2019, winning three Super Bowls. Since then, he has bounced between Detroit, Atlanta, and Las Vegas.
Harmon will turn 32 on January 24 but showed in 2022 that he may still have some gas left in the tank. Harmon played all 17 games (16 starts) and allowed no touchdowns in coverage while collecting two interceptions. His durability is a plus, as he has not missed a game since the opening week of his 2013 rookie season.
Of the eight Raiders defensive backs to play at least 160 coverage snaps in 2022, Harmon was the only one who did not allow a touchdown. The veteran seemed to be a rare bright spot in the Raiders’ brutal secondary.
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6. Marcus Epps, Philadelphia Eagles
- Free safety: 64.6% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 23.0% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 10.8% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 0.8% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.200 (17th of 73 qualifiers)
Like Nick Scott, Marcus Epps was a day-three pick in 2019 and spent three seasons as a backup and special teamer before getting the chance to start in 2022.
Epps started all 17 games for the Eagles. It was a shaky campaign. He allowed 5 touchdowns while failing to record an interception. Overall, Epps allowed 441 yards on throws into his coverage, ranking as the third-most among safeties.
Epps will turn 27 on January 27.
5. Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos
- Free safety: 67.5% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 17.2% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 14.4% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 0.4% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 0.4% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.150 (13th of 73 qualifiers)
The 20th overall pick of the 2010 draft is still kicking. Kareem Jackson started all 17 games for the Broncos in 2022, his 13th NFL season.
However, Jackson’s best days are behind him. In 2022, Jackson allowed 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions on throws in his direction. He also tied for fourth among safeties with 19 missed tackles. On the positive side, Jackson did a nice job of keeping everything in front of him, as he ranked sixth-best out of 73 qualified safeties with only 8.6 yards allowed per reception.
Jackson will be 35 in April. He’s stayed durable, though, missing only five games over the past six seasons.
4. Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
- Free safety: 67.3% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 13.9% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 15.0% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 3.2% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 0.7% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.122 (12th of 73 qualifiers)
A second-round pick in 2019, Juan Thornhill has been an integral cog in the Chiefs’ secondary since day one, starting all 16 games in his rookie year.
In 2022, Thornhill set career-highs in tackles (71) and passes defended (9) while tying his career-high for interceptions (3), but his coverage was boom-or-bust overall. Thornhill allowed 4 touchdowns and committed 3 pass interference penalties.
Thornhill will turn 28 in October.
3. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
- Free safety: 71.5% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 18.6% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 8.8% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 0.3% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.104 (9th of 73 qualifiers)
Jets fans know Devin McCourty all too well. McCourty has snagged 7 interceptions against the Jets over his 13 seasons in New England. Only three players in history have collected more picks against the Jets.
In 2022, McCourty allowed 3 touchdowns into his coverage while amassing 4 interceptions. He was a sound tackler, missing only 4 tackles all season.
It was McCourty’s second consecutive strong season. In 2021, he allowed 0 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while missing just 6 tackles. McCourty also did not commit a single penalty in either season.
McCourty will turn 36 in August.
2. Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals
- Free safety: 70.5% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 16.7% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 8.8% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 2.9% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 1.2% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.089 (6th of 73 qualifiers)
Jessie Bates may be out of the Jets’ price range, as the Bengals’ young star is expected to be the most coveted safety on the free agent market. Bates is still only 25 years old (he will be 26 in February) and is one of the league’s best ball-hawks at safety. He earned second-team All-Pro honors back in 2020.
Bates has 14 career interceptions, ranking ninth among safeties since 2018. He just snagged a career-high 4 interceptions in 2022. Bates did allow 3 touchdowns, but he only missed 7 tackles and did not commit any penalties.
Teams looking to add Bates will need to be wary of his volatile nature. Bates has alternated between great seasons and poor seasons every since his rookie year – his 2022, 2020, and 2018 seasons were excellent, but his 2019 and 2021 seasons were not up to par.
1. Tashaun Gipson, San Francisco 49ers
- Free safety: 72.8% (Joyner: 73.3%)
- Box: 12.4% (Joyner: 14.0%)
- Slot: 10.55% (Joyner: 10.4%)
- Edge: 3.3% (Joyner: 2.1%)
- Outside CB: 1.1% (Joyner: 0.2%)
- Lamarcus Joyner Similarity Index: 0.043 (1st of 73 qualifiers)
It’s perhaps no surprise that a San Francisco 49ers player ranks first on this list. Robert Saleh draws heavily from his former team, while the 49ers’ defense continues to operate very similarly to how it did under Saleh. San Francisco’s defensive coordinator is DeMeco Ryans, who worked under Saleh as a defensive assistant throughout all four of Saleh’s seasons as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
An undrafted free agent in 2012, Tashaun Gipson is in his 11th NFL season and first in San Francisco. Gipson had a renaissance regular season with the 49ers. Starting all 17 games, Gipson allowed 0 touchdowns, plucked 5 interceptions, committed 0 penalties, and missed just 1 tackle over 1,036 defensive snaps.
Even prior to 2022, Gipson’s touchdown-to-interception ratio over his previous five seasons was 9-to-12. It seems like he still has plenty left to offer even as his 33rd birthday approaches in August.
Next Article: Joe Douglas’s priority No. 2 must be offensive tackle
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Originally posted on Jets X-Factor