What are Lamarcus Joyner’s strengths and weaknesses and where does he fit into Robert Saleh’s New York Jets defense?
While the New York Jets already had Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis penciled-in to the two starting safety spots after franchise-tagging the former, that did not mean the safety position was off the team’s shopping list. In the modern NFL, it’s becoming increasingly common to see three safeties on the field. So, with no other safety on the roster besides Maye and Davis who had ever started an NFL game, adding some more security at the position was an important box to check.
Enter Lamarcus Joyner. The 30-year-old has 95 games and 58 starts under his belt over seven years in the league – five with the Rams and the past two with the Raiders. He has experience as a starter at both slot/nickel cornerback and safety, but according to reports, Joyner will be playing safety for the Jets.
What are Joyner’s strengths and weaknesses at the safety position? Where does he fit into the Jets defense? Let’s dig into the minutia of his game.
Overall performance over two years at safety
Joyner, 5-foot-8 and 191 pounds, has primarily played slot cornerback in five of his seven NFL seasons. He played the position over the past two seasons with the Raiders and over his first three seasons with the Rams.
From 2017-18, Joyner played free safety for Los Angeles, and it’s during those two seasons that he played the best football of his career.
In 2017, Joyner posted the second-best overall grade at Pro Football Focus among safeties (91.0). He took a step back in 2018 but was still strong as his 74.9 grade ranked 23rd out of 67 qualifiers (67th percentile).
According to PFF, Joyner has a career overall defensive grade of 91.0 on plays where he lined up at free safety, which is elite.
Joyner’s coverage was fantastic during his days at free safety. Over 998 coverage snaps from 2017-18, he was targeted 44 times and allowed 21 catches for 232 yards (5.3 per target), 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, adding in eight pass breakups. That’s a passer rating of 48.7.
Perhaps Joyner’s best attribute as a safety is his tackling. He is a tremendous last line of defense in the open field, missing a tackle only once in a blue moon.
Joyner picked up 127 tackles from 2017-18 while being credited with only seven missed tackles over that span, a tiny miss rate of 5.2% that ranked fourth-lowest among qualified safeties over that span.
It’s in the passing game where Joyner’s tackling stood out. Just one of his seven missed tackles from 2017-18 came against the pass.
Joyner graded well as a run defender when playing safety. His 73.9 run defense grade in 2017 placed at the 68th percentile, while his 75.0 grade in 2018 placed at the 78th percentile.
The most notable aspect of Joyner’s run defense was that he found a way to get involved at a relatively frequent rate for a free safety. He recorded a run stop on 13 of his 562 snaps against the run from 2017-18, a 2.3% rate that isn’t too far below the 2020 average for all safeties, which was 3.1%. Joyner’s 2.3% mark is very high for a safety who primarily lines up deep.
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However, Joyner’s tackling in the run game was not nearly as elite as his tackling in the passing game. He made 51 tackles against the run with seven misses, giving him a miss rate of 12.1%. That’s still solid, though, faring a tad better than the 2020 average miss rate against the run for a safety (13.0%).
Performance outside of the free safety spot
While Joyner has an outstanding career PFF grade of 91.0 on plays in which he lined up at free safety, he has overall grades of 61.3 (mediocre) as a slot corner and 51.0 (bad) when lined up in the box.
Joyner’s two-year run as a slot cornerback with the Raiders was not successful. In 2019, his overall PFF grade of 47.5 ranked seventh-worst out of 93 qualified cornerbacks. He crept up to 53.8 in 2020, but that still ranked 69th out of 87 qualifiers.
Joyner will turn 31 years old this November. Were his struggles with the Raiders entirely due to him being played out of position, or could they also have been a sign of decline as he hits the dreaded 30-year-old wall?
Joyner played the slot at a nearly exclusive rate as a member of the Raiders, lining up at slot corner on 85.8% of his snaps from 2019-20.
Over his final two years with the Rams, free safety was Joyner’s primary home. He played free safety on 73.9% of his snaps from 2017-18.
In 2017, Joyner still played a decent amount of slot corner, appearing there on 19.1% of his snaps, but in 2018, the Rams sliced that number down to 3.3%.
Joyner played in the box on only 14.1% of his snaps from 2017-18.
While Joyner was not a player who never came off the field, a la Marcus Maye, he still played the vast majority of the Rams’ defensive snaps over his tenure as a safety. He started all 27 of his games from 2017-18 and participated in about 93% of the defensive plays in his average game (discounting one game that he left early due to injury).
Joyner’s durability track record isn’t noticeably good or bad. He has played in 95 out of 112 possible regular season games in his career, an 84.8% portion and an average of 13.6 games per year. Over the past three seasons, he played in 43 out of 48 possible games (89.6% / 14.3 per year).
Joyner showed off stupendous range from the deep parts of the field, reading plays in a hurry and running precise routes to the catch point.
In response to the back motioning out into the slot, the Rams rotate from a Cover-1 to a Cover-2 pre-snap on this play. Joyner is tasked with covering the boundary-side half. Blaine Gabbert tries to squeeze the ball to J.J. Nelson by floating it over Trumaine Johnson and under Joyner, but Joyner runs a great route to the ball that is both perfectly timed and perfectly aimed as he arrives at the right time and place to lay a shot on Nelson that jars the ball loose.
As the single-high safety, Joyner jumps the slant route by Will Fuller and lowers his shoulder to lay a devastating shot that knocks the ball out.
As the boundary-side safety in a two-high look (lined up relatively shallow, only 10 yards downfield), Joyner helps the outside cornerback in bracketing Adam Thielen, positioning himself to play any inside-breaking route by Thielen. Once Thielen commits to running a post route, Joyner picks him up and runs with him. Joyner shows solid speed to stick to Thielen’s back hip. He contests the pass effectively as he plays through Thielen’s hands, preventing him from attacking the ball. To top it off, Joyner makes sure to get his head around to avoid a penalty.
Here, Joyner drops down to defend the bunch and then plays the flat post-snap. He sees Scott Tolzien throwing the quick-out to T.Y. Hilton from a mile away, going up as high as he possibly can to snag the ball for a pick-six. Great display of recognition and preparation.
Joyner is a phenomenal tackler in the open field. He’s a guy you can rely on to prevent big gains from becoming touchdowns.
Here, Trumaine Johnson is beaten by Rishard Matthews and then misses a tackle, but Joyner is able to limit the damage with a nice open-field cut-down. Joyner shows great awareness with his positioning for the tackle attempt. Knowing he has a teammate to the outside, he squares up aggressively toward the sideline so that in the worst-case scenario he misses the tackle, he will still force Matthews into either the sideline or the other defender. Nevertheless, he finishes the play himself.
Rob Kelley finds the edge and breaks loose with only Joyner between him and the end zone. Joyner remains patient and squares up with a strong angle, wrapping Kelley around the ankles to hold him to 19 yards.
Nice take-down of Travis Kelce here as the last line of defense after Mahomes hits the future Hall-of-Famer in stride on a deep shot.
Joyner is above-average at charging downhill and making stops against the run from deep alignments. Here, Joyner creeps down from his two-high alignment pre-snap. He stays patient while reading Mitchell Trubisky’s decision on the read-option, knowing that his help is most needed on the outside in the event of a keeper by Trubisky. When Trubisky keeps, Joyner darts outside. He dips beneath the wide receiver’s attempted block and makes a fantastic contorting tackle on Trubisky to hold him to a one-yard gain.
Considering that the Jets already had two valued safeties under contract before adding an accomplished player in Joyner, it’s clear that the team values having three safeties it can rely upon. “Big nickel” looks, packages that feature a safety coming in as the fifth defensive back instead of a cornerback, seem likely to be a part of the defense’s plans.
It will be interesting to see exactly how Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich plan to utilize all three players. Only one thing seems to be a given, and that’s Marcus Maye maintaining his status as a starter. Outside of that, we’ll just have to wait and see what the Jets have planned. Will Joyner replace Davis as the starter beside Maye while Davis takes on the No. 3 safety role, primarily subbing in for big nickel looks to take on roles in the box? Davis’ film is littered with moments that suggest he is capable of living near the line of scrimmage.
Or, could Davis remain the starter beside Maye while Joyner handles the third safety spot? In this case, Davis would rotate down if the Jets need an extra safety near the line, and the 5-foot-8 Joyner would handle deep assignments.
How the Jets manage the safety position is one of the most intriguing stories to keep an eye on throughout the offseason. It will be a difficult task for Saleh and Ulbrich, but just like their overload on the defensive line, it’s a good problem to have.
Joyner’s track record as a safety is magnificent. His coverage and tackling have been top-notch when playing the position, and it’s puzzling why the Raiders decided to move him to cornerback.
If a move back to his position-of-strength leads to Joyner recapturing the magic of his 2017-18 glory days, the Jets could have one of the best safety groups in the league.