A former Black Knight is settling into the New York Jets’ secondary
The safety position has been a revolving door for the New York Jets. Due to projected starters Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Maye finishing their 2021 seasons with a combined seven starts (1 for Joyner, 6 for Maye), prior to season-ending injuries, the Jets have used eight different safeties this year.
Most of those safeties have struggled mightily to refrain from making costly mistakes. New York’s six backup safeties have combined for 12 missed tackles while allowing 535 yards and three touchdowns in coverage.
Opposing quarterbacks are averaging 14.9 yards per target when throwing at a backup Jets safety compared to 8.1 yards per target when throwing at any other Jets defender.
Only one backup safety on the Jets has been able to keep the blunders to a minimum: Long Island product Elijah Riley.
The native of Port Jefferson, N.Y. attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he shined as a member of the Army Black Knights for four years. Riley signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2020.
According to the Eagles’ 2021 media guide, Riley met Darrelle Revis at a Jets training camp practice when he was 12 years old.
Now, he is following in Revis’ footsteps as a reliable member of the Jets’ secondary.
The Jets signed Riley off of the Eagles’ practice squad on Nov. 9. Twelve days later, he was promoted to the active roster and thrown straight into the fire as the team’s starting free safety against the Miami Dolphins.
Not only had Riley never started a regular-season game before that afternoon, but he hadn’t even handled a sizable diet of playing time as a backup. Riley only played four defensive snaps in his career before joining the Jets.
Riley played 64 snaps (89% of the defensive plays) in his starting debut against Miami and impressed the Jets enough to earn a second consecutive start against the Houston Texans.
In the Jets’ 21-14 win, Riley played 45 snaps (79%).
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) December 4, 2021
For a player with essentially zero experience who was tossed directly into a historically bad defense fewer than two weeks after joining the team, the body of work that Riley put together over his first two starts is remarkable.
Riley has been excellent at finishing tackles with a high level of consistency, which is a crucial skill for safeties since they are often the last line of defense. He has made 11 tackles and is yet to be credited with a missed tackle.
Most of Riley’s tackles have been productive. Of his 11 tackles, nine of them held the ball carrier short of the first down marker. Six of those nine resulted in a gain of four yards or less.
Best of all, Riley has yet to find himself in the limelight for making an egregious coverage mistake. Riley dropped into coverage on 54 snaps over his first two starts and was targeted only once, which was a 6-yard reception that he stopped shy of the first down marker.
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Among the 13 Jets defensive backs who have played at least 10 coverage snaps this year, Riley’s average of 0.11 yards allowed per cover snap is the best.
To boot, the 23-year-old has not committed any penalties.
It is not as if Riley is handling a vanilla role for the Jets. Riley has been moving around for the Jets quite a bit. Slightly over half of his snaps came at free safety (51.4%), but he has also frequently come down to play in the box (33.9%) while dabbling in the slot (14.7%).
Handling multiple roles while accumulating zero penalties, zero missed tackles, and zero touchdowns or first downs allowed in coverage, Riley has been shockingly reliable for a player making his first starts at a position where big-time mistakes are common for inexperienced players.
If his first two starts are a sign of things to come, the native New Yorker could prove to be one of the greatest underdog stories in recent Jets history.