Following his initial report of Joyner coming to an agreement with the Jets, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport shared a bonus tidbit, stating that Joyner was expected to play the Jimmie Ward role in New York.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 19, 2021
Jimmie Ward was San Francisco’s starting free safety under Robert Saleh from 2017-20. He had played cornerback over his first three seasons with the 49ers from 2013-16 and made the switch to safety when Saleh arrived as the new defensive coordinator in 2017.
Rapoport’s report confirmed that Joyner would be switching back to the safety position, where he thrived as a member of the Rams from 2014-18. Joyner had played slot cornerback with the Raiders from 2019-20, performing at a less impressive level than he did at safety.
But what exactly is the “Jimmie Ward role”? And if Joyner is playing that role, what will Marcus Maye’s role be?
Let’s analyze San Francisco’s usage of its starting safeties to get an idea of how Joyner and Maye could be deployed in 2021.
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt’s usage
When healthy, Jaquiski Tartt has been the 49ers’ starting strong safety next to Ward.
Tartt and Ward have both struggled to stay healthy, but in 2019, they remained fairly durable by their own standards, starting 12 and 13 games, respectively.
The 2019 season painted an accurate picture of exactly which roles Saleh wanted his two starting safeties to play.
Here is a look at the percentage of their snaps in which Tartt and Ward lined up at each position in 2019, and where those rates ranked out of 68 qualified safeties:
|Position||Ward (Snap %)||Tartt (Snap %)||Ward (Rank)||Tartt (Rank)|
|Box (LB or SS)||12.0%||43.4%||63rd||12th|
Free safety: Lamarcus Joyner/Jimmie Ward
Under Saleh, Ward primarily stayed deep, but he was still asked to step closer to the line of scrimmage and take on different responsibilities fairly often. Ward lined up as a free safety on around 70% of his snaps and lined up elsewhere on the other 30%, with most of those reps coming in the slot, at off-ball or linebacker, or at strong safety.
For reference, Ward’s deployment at free safety under Saleh is fairly similar to what Jets fans became accustomed to seeing at the position with Gregg Williams at the helm in 2019 and 2020.
Marcus Maye played free safety alongside Jamal Adams throughout all of the 2019 season and was used similarly to Ward. In 2020, Bradley McDougald played free safety over the first five games before Maye reclaimed the role over the final 11 games, and Maye’s usage upon returning remained similar to the Ward model.
Here is a comparison between the snap distribution rates of Ward in 2019, Maye in 2019, and Maye in Weeks 6-17 of 2020:
|Position||2019 Ward||2019 Maye||2020 Maye (Wk 6-17)|
|Box (LB or SS)||12.0%||20.0%||18.1%|
The differences here are subtle. Williams was slightly more aggressive at placing Maye in the box, and he pumped up Maye’s playing time on the edge as well. Ward was used more frequently in the slot.
Overall, the two players stayed at home and handled the free safety role at a similar rate, with Ward hanging back deep a tad bit more often.
Lamarcus Joyner will be filling Ward’s shoes in 2021. How does Ward’s role compare to what Joyner is used to?
Here is a comparison between Ward’s 2019 usage and Joyner’s usage in 2018, which was his final season with the Rams and his most recent campaign at the safety position (ranks out of 68 safeties):
|Position||2019 Ward (Snap %)||2018 Joyner (Snap %)||2019 Ward (Rank)||2018 Joyner (Rank)|
|Box (LB or SS)||12.0%||15.4%||63rd||55th|
Joyner was one of the purest free safeties in the NFL during his last season with the Rams. He played the eighth-highest percentage of his snaps at free safety (79.2%) and ranked bottom-20 among safeties at every other position.
That was not the norm for Joyner, though. The Rams significantly altered his usage in 2018 compared to the previous year, and his performance declined (although he remained a well-above-average starter).
In his elite 2017 season – by far the highest-graded (90.9 PFF grade) and most productive season of his career – Joyner was less one-dimensional and was used in a way that is highly reminiscent of Ward:
|Position||2019 Ward (Snap %)||2017 Joyner (Snap %)||2019 Ward (Rank)||2017 Joyner (Rank)|
|Box (LB or SS)||12.0%||12.3%||63rd||61st|
Joyner played a little bit more slot corner than Ward did, but otherwise, this is spot-on.
In the best season of his career, Joyner was used in a nearly identical fashion to how Robert Saleh liked to utilize his free safeties. This is a beautiful player-to-scheme match.
Strong safety: Marcus Maye/Jaquiski Tartt
Marcus Maye will be moving back to strong safety after a 2020 season in which his statistical production was significantly worse at that spot compared to his natural free safety position.
In Week 6, Maye moved back to free safety after playing strong safety throughout the first five games, and he played better football over the rest of the year. He was PFF’s second-ranked safety behind Adrian Amos from Weeks 6-17 (89.3 grade).
Playing strong safety from Weeks 1-5, Maye earned a 62.2 overall PFF grade that ranked at the 60th percentile among 64 qualified safeties over that span. That number was inflated by his marvelous Week 1 performance against Buffalo – Maye had an 84.6 grade in that game, but over the next four weeks, Maye had a 51.1 grade that placed him at the position’s 19th percentile.
Maye struggled with missed tackles and man coverage at strong safety. From Weeks 1-5, he tied for third among safeties with seven missed tackles. In man coverage, he gave up a 150.0 passer rating, second-highest among safeties to see at least five man-coverage targets from Weeks 1-5. Most notably, Maye allowed two touchdowns to 49ers tight end Jordan Reed in Week 2.
Will the role that Tartt played under Saleh give Maye a better chance to succeed at strong safety than the role he played under Gregg Williams?
Interestingly, Tartt’s role under Saleh in 2019 was very similar to Jamal Adams’ role with the Jets in that same season. Tartt spent the majority of his time roaming around to strong safety, linebacker, the slot, or the edge (close to 65% of the time), but still played a decent amount of free safety (nearly 35% of the time). Adams’ splits were similar.
You’re probably thinking, “well, didn’t Marcus Maye take over Jamal Adams’ old role at the start of 2020?”
Yes and no. While Maye definitely took on many of the same responsibilities that Adams handled as a Jet, Williams actually used Maye in an even more versatile fashion than he used Adams. Compared to Adams in 2019, Maye played significantly fewer snaps in deep coverage while handling more snaps in the slot and more snaps on the edge.
If Saleh does use Maye as he used Tartt in 2019, then the 2019 version of Adams is a surprisingly good model for how Maye will be deployed.
Here is a comparison between the deployment of Tartt in 2019, Adams in 2019, and Maye from Weeks 1-5 in 2020 (ranks among 68 safeties):
|Position||Tartt (Snap %)||Adams (Snap %)||Maye (Snap %)|
|Box (LB or SS)||43.4%||41.8%||39.3%|
|Position||Tartt (Rank)||Adams (Rank)||Maye (Rank)|
|Box (LB or SS)||12th||13th||13th|
Adams moved around a lot with the Jets, but he still played traditional deep safety roles (deep half, deep third, etc.) fairly often. He was not pigeonholed to playing near the line of scrimmage. Plenty of strong safeties around the league are far more tethered to the box than Adams was as a Jet – with early-2020 Maye being an example.
Maye’s uber-aggressive role was a more extreme version of the role that Adams played, and it was not a good fit for his skill set. He is not great enough in slot coverage or as an edge defender to be playing those two roles as often as he was, and he is too good in deep coverage to be used in that role as infrequently as he was.
In Tartt’s role, Maye will still be taking on a wide array of roles around the field, but he will hang back deep more often than he did while playing strong safety in 2020. This role will allow his versatility to truly shine, as his snaps will be more evenly distributed and he will not be overworked in areas that are not his primary strength.
After playing a caricature of the Jamal Adams role early in 2020, Maye is poised to truly mimic No. 33’s role this time around – just as Tartt did in 2019.