Safety was the NY Jets’ biggest defensive weakness in 202212 min read
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By: Rivka Boord
The Jets need to add at least one new safety this offseason
Heading into the 2022 season, it was fairly obvious that the Jets’ biggest defensive weakness was up the middle.
Exiting the season, it’s even clearer that, of that general weakness, the biggest hole in the defense was and is the safety position.
Joe Douglas took a “plug and pray” approach to safety prior to the season. Knowing that he had too many holes to possibly fill in one offseason, he chose to prioritize some and try to hide others. Robert Saleh clearly decided that safety was a position he could mask with elite corner play and a strong pass rush. For much of the season, it worked; after a brutal start, Jets fans had started to convince themselves that Lamarcus Joyner and Jordan Whitehead could be serviceable, after all.
However, as the season progressed, what Joe Blewett had been warning about in his film reviews for weeks became evident: the safeties did, indeed, stink. Quinnen Williams & Co. did what they could to cover up for the lapses in coverage, but at some point, teams wised up to the fact that a two-high look won’t prevent big plays if those two high safeties can’t cover or tackle. The Vikings, Lions, Jaguars, and Seahawks found ways to victimize Whitehead and Joyner, capitalizing on their poor angles and tackling form repeatedly.
At season’s end, Pro Football Focus could not even fully capture how woeful these two safeties were. However, let’s start with the numbers.
Jets safeties: by the 2022 numbers
|Lamarcus Joyner||Jordan Whitehead|
|Passer rating against (rank out of 70 safeties, min. 350 coverage snaps, 94.8 average)||106.1 (49)||85.8 (24)|
|Catch rate||20-for-28, 71.4% (41)||22-for-34, 64.7% (23)|
|Yards per reception||15.0 (64)||12.9 (53)|
|YAC per reception||3.60 (11)||5.64 (49)|
|Yards per cover snap||0.582 (38)||0.435 (21)|
|Forced incompletion rate||10.7% (38)||17.6% (9)|
|Pass breakups||3 (T-30)||5 (T-2)|
|Dropped INTs||1 (T-31)||4 (T-67)|
|TDs allowed||4 (T-51)||2 (T-18)|
|Missed tackle rate – passing game||9.7% (40)||8.9% (31)|
|Missed tackle rate – running game||19.4% (T-58)||20.3% (T-62)|
|Stop rate – running game||1.8% (45)||3.7% (18)|
|Average depth of tackle||14.1 (68)||5.7 (T-14)|
|Man coverage catch rate||9-for-9, 100% (T-63)||9-for-13, 69.2% (T-35)|
|Man coverage yards per reception||9.9 (T-34)||15.3 (64)|
|Man coverage passer rating allowed||147.5 (68)||104.0 (50)|
At first glance, some of those numbers don’t even look so bad. There are several categories in which one safety or the other seemingly ranked at around average or above, including passer rating, catch rate, YAC per reception, yards per cover snap, forced incompletion rate, pass breakups, missed tackle rate in the passing game, stop rate, and average depth of tackle.
However, this just goes to underscore the difficulty of assessing coverage stats, particularly for linebackers and safeties. Unless a defender is locked face-to-face in a one-on-one matchup with a pass-catcher, it is difficult for nonexpert eyes to determine assignments. NFL Next Gen Stats uses the nearest defender in coverage, but the complexity of NFL defenses renders that statistic heavily flawed.
Even if we grant that PFF’s numbers are accurate, there is plenty in both Joyner’s and Whitehead’s statlines to point to some poor play. For example, both safeties were below the 20th percentile in missed tackle rate in the run game, which clearly tracks with their play on the field but still loses their poor angles that prevented an attempted tackle.
Furthermore, Joyner and Whitehead were both among the worst safeties in the league in man coverage. PFF underestimates the number of targets in pure man coverage due to a lack of recognition of match-up zone plays, which essentially become man looks. However, both safeties were putrid in the man coverage snaps charged to them by PFF.
This may partially explain why the Jets had such difficulties getting off the field on third down: since they play softer zone coverage on earlier downs, it was easier to mask the safeties’ deficiencies in coverage with scheme; on third down, though, when Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich utilize extensive man coverage, the pair were toast.
When challenged downfield, Joyner struggled to prevent completions in situations where he should have been able to. This is supported by his allowed CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expected) of +8.0%, which ranked ninth-worst out of 70 qualified safeties, per NGS.
Whitehead allowed too many open throws in coverage. He forced a “tight-window throw” (less than one yard of separation) on just 11.1% of his targets as the nearest defender, which ranked 47th out of 70 qualified safeties.
This is particularly poor for a box safety like Whitehead, as he typically plays in tighter spaces and is asked to cover tight ends. Free safeties may not force as many tight throws because they play so far off the line, but box safeties like Whitehead should be able to force plenty of contested throws due to their role. Whitehead was toasted too frequently for a player who must be able to take on some tough coverage assignments.
Whitehead also demonstrated poor hands defensively, botching plenty of golden opportunities for interceptions. PFF charged him with four dropped interceptions, tying for the second-most among safeties.
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Other Jets safeties
Will Parks and Tony Adams were the Jets’ two primary backup safeties this season. Ashtyn Davis did not take many snaps at safety. Parks played some big nickel, meaning as the fifth defensive back rather than a slot corner. He also played both safety positions.
Parks’s 2022 stats were not particularly great. He allowed 6-of-8 targets to be caught for 66 yards at 11.0 yards per reception, including 54 YAC (9.0 per reception). He allowed a 99.0 passer rating. Parks also missed 22.2% of his tackles, which likely does not include the horrific angle he took on Lions TE Brock Wright’s 51-yard game-winning TD. Overall, Will Parks is not a terrible backup option for the price, but he certainly should not be a candidate for the starting safety spot.
Meanwhile, Adams flashed some intriguing skills but did not necessarily put up the stats to match them. In just 118 defensive snaps (56 run defense, 61 coverage, 1 pass rush), Adams recorded 5 defensive stops (plays that constitute a failure by the offense) and allowed 3-of-4 targets to be caught for 31 yards with just 2.0 YAC per reception and a long of 20 yards. Adams’s 96.9 passer rating allowed was fairly close to the 94.8 NFL average for safeties, but his 11.8% missed tackle rate was worse than the 9.3% average.
Still, in a small sample size, the Jets had to like what they saw from Adams, at least in potential. Is that enough to pencil him into the starting lineup for 2023, though?
Offseason contract situations
Joyner signed a one-year deal last offseason and is almost surely gone unless the Jets would like a veteran backup presence. They will not run it back with a 32-year-old coming off a poor season. That leaves an opening at free safety.
Tony Adams was an undrafted free agent and signed a three-year deal last offseason at less than $1 million per year. Considering that Adams made the Week 1 roster over Parks and remained on the 53-man squad for the duration of the season despite many roster gyrations, it is highly likely that he is part of their plans for 2023.
Jordan Whitehead is an interesting case. When he signed a two-year, $14.5 million deal last offseason, many fans called it a steal, even as Joe Blewett warned that it was more like an overpay. Whitehead is definitely not worth his 2023 cap number of $10.2 million and can be cut with $2.98 million in dead money, saving the Jets over $7.2 million. That is practically guaranteed to happen, as the Jets can likely get a replacement starter at that number or slightly above.
Parks was one of those guys shuttled back and forth to and from the Jets’ practice squad this season. He’s a fan favorite and seems to be an emotional leader for the team, but his production on the field is mediocre at best. Still, he plays special teams and is a useful player to keep around to compete for a roster spot, at the very least.
Ashtyn Davis played 13 total defensive snaps in 2022 and no longer seems to be in the team’s plans defensively. The former third-round pick can be released before the final year of his deal to save the team $1.3 million with just $280K in dead money. However, the Jets seem to like his special teams contributions, as he is their punt protector. It remains to be seen whether they let him go as a non-contributor defensively.
It will be very difficult for the Jets to sign two starting-caliber safeties with their tight cap situation and other needs. However, it may be equally difficult to find two of those in the draft. The best idea is likely to split the difference and draft a safety in the early rounds, which several prognosticators thought they might do in 2022.
The lines between free and strong safety have become increasingly blurred in recent seasons, particularly in the Jets’ frequent use of two high safeties. Even when Gang Green played single-high, Joyner and Whitehead both played some of the deep middle.
Whichever route the Jets go, they need at least one safety who is far superior in coverage to Whitehead and Joyner. The level of liability from the pair considering the strength of the Jets’ corners was abysmal to watch. The question is if there is any superior cover safety available in either free agency or the draft.
Vonn Bell, Bengals
At a quick glance, Vonn Bell of the Bengals was fifth among safeties in passer rating allowed at 65.1. However, this was by far the best mark of his career; He had never yielded a passer rating under 100 prior, and his career-worst 127.5 rating allowed in 2020 should give anyone pause before lauding him as a strong coverage safety.
Furthermore, Bell tied for 54th out of 70 safeties with a 7% forced incompletion rate, suggesting that his rating is driven by something other than good coverage. Indeed, Bell’s four picks are likely the primary reason for his stellar QB rating against, as his two pass breakups are nothing special.
Adrian Amos, Packers
Adrian Amos of the Packers is another option out there. What stands out immediately about his numbers is the woeful 121.9 passer rating he allowed in 2022, but this follows five consecutive seasons below 100.0, including a 71.7 rating allowed as recently as 2020. Still, Amos allowed six touchdowns in both 2021 and 2022 and recorded only a 4% forced incompletion rate in 2022. Heading into his age-30 season, he does not seem to be heading in a great direction in coverage.
Jimmie Ward, 49ers
Jimmie Ward seems like a possible Jets target as a former Robert Saleh player. Heading into his age-32 season, Ward would be another stopgap option rather than a long-term solution. However, it’s important to note that Ward has played slot corner in all but one game this season.
Off the bat, you notice Ward’s 3% forced incompletion rate, tied for 61st out of 70 safeties. Ward has allowed an average passer rating of 94.0, primarily due to his three picks; however, he has also allowed 57-of-70 targets (81.4%) to be caught and surrendered four touchdowns.
Spotrac lists Ward’s market value at $7.6 million, which the Jets could afford if they cut Whitehead. However, he just does not seem like a terribly appealing option.
Julian Love, Giants
Julian Love is the kind of player the Jets might want, at least off the field: he’s a team captain at the age of 24, a former fourth-round pick who has the mental toughness and grit that Robert Saleh is looking for.
Love’s numbers in coverage this season were decent, as he allowed a 97.0 passer rating, had a 10% forced incompletion rate (slightly below the average of 11.1%), and recorded three pass breakups and two picks. Love’s 70% completion rate and 11.0 yards per reception allowed are both below average, so he might be worth some further digging before committing any sort of money towards.
However, it’s likely that the Giants will want to bring their captain back. I would not anticipate Love becoming available. Spotrac lists his market value at $7.9 million, which might be a bit steep, as well.
Jessie Bates, Bengals
This would be reaching for the fences in a way that the Jets are unlikely to be able to afford. After holding out in the preseason, Jessie Bates ended up playing on the franchise tag. It doesn’t seem all that likely that Cincinnati will sign Bates long-term after last season’s skirmish.
Bates allowed an 86.1 passer rating against, 23-of-35 targets (65.7%) at 14.7 yards per reception, and a league-average 11% forced incompletion rate. He had four picks and four pass breakups this season after topping out at 12 pass breakups in 2020, a year in which he was second in the league in forced incompletion rate. While Bates is solid in coverage, he has not duplicated that masterful 2020 season in the two years since. With a projected market value of $10.6 million, Bates is likely not a Jets target.
Jordan Poyer, Bills
This is a name that would get Jets fans excited, as Jordan Poyer is considered one of the best safeties in the NFL. Entering his age-32 season, though, Poyer’s decline may be on the not-too-distant horizon. Already, injuries limited him to 12 games in 2022.
Poyer remains one of the NFL’s premier cover safeties, as his 18% forced incompletion rate (T-8th), four interceptions (T-7th), and 8.9 yards per reception (12th) will attest. However, with a market value of $11 million and a current team whose Super Bowl window is heavily dependent on their elite safety tandem, Poyer is highly unlikely to be available to the Jets, let alone accessible due to price.
Ryan Neal, Seahawks
After Jamal Adams went down for the season in Week 1, unheralded backup Ryan Neal stepped up in a big way. The 2018 UDFA has made the rounds through several NFL practice squads, but he found a place to stick this season. Neal’s 77.0 passer rating allowed (15th), 18% forced incompletion rate (T-8th), 7.5 yards per reception (T-1st), 60.0% catch rate (11th), and six pass breakups (T-1st) make him an intriguing target.
On the other hand, this was a breakout year out of nowhere, which might make any team leery. Since Seattle is likely to tag Geno Smith, they will most likely be unable to tag Neal. Although Spotrac lists Neal’s market value at $2.4 million, coming off a season like that, Neal will likely command a lot more on the open market. Still, if he can be had at a rate anywhere close to the $7.2 million that the Jets can save by cutting Whitehead, it might behoove them to make a run at Neal. He’s 28 years old and does not have extensive NFL tread on his tires, which means he can possibly be an impact player for multiple seasons.
It’s important to note that Neal’s cumulative missed tackle rate this season was about 11.5%, which is slightly high for the position. However, he was 26th out of 70 qualifiers in run defense, and his overall strong coverage metrics make up for the occasional missed tackle. Furthermore, Neal’s 4.2% stop rate in the run game ranked 14th, while his 6.3 average depth of tackle was 17th.
Neal seems like the most intriguing option listed here due to his two-way season, though he carries the most risk of a one-year wonder.
Draft target: Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
Credit goes to Andrew Golden for the early analysis of all draft targets, especially prior to the release of All-22 film. Here is what he has to say about Johnson:
- Listed at 6’3″, 195, but may be even bigger
- Played SS, FS, and slot corner in college, and did them all well
- Excellent ball skills
- Not afraid to get his hands dirty and fight through the trash
- Comes downhill from depth with speed and anticipation to fight through blockers, whether a TE, WR, or OL
- A bit of ‘Whitehead syndrome’ – always looking for the kill shot, which could lead to some missed tackles
- Somewhat overconfident in his speed, so will keep his hips planted for too long in off-man, thinking he can make it up
- Overall, zero physical limitations and great mentality, knocks are coachable
Johnson is listed as the 30th-best prospect on PFF’s Big Board, which is skewed by positional value. That suggests that Johnson is likely a mid-first-round pick. The Jets have a clear need at tackle, but they could keep an eye on Johnson if he falls a bit or if they feel that safety is an immediate need.
Other possible draft targets: Chris Smith, Georgia; Brian Branch, Alabama; Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame; Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State
What will the Jets do?
My guess is that Joyner and Whitehead will both be gone. The Jets cannot afford to have Whitehead eat up $10.2 million of their cap. I think they will sign one starting safety in free agency and target another in the draft. They may well run back Adams and Parks in the backup spots, or sign some other strong safety of a similar ilk.
Either way, the team must hit on at least one of those players. They cannot receive the same level of safety play as they did in 2022 and expect to field a similarly strong defense. Rarely can a team have such liabilities as the last level of defense and still succeed.
Joe Douglas must ensure the safety of the Jets’ safety-first defense and shore up the position.
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Originally posted on Jets X-Factor