Jayron Kearse needs to be on the New York Jets’ free-agent radar at safety
Who’s starting at safety in 2022 for the New York Jets?
It’s a question that crosses my mind frequently. In my opinion, it’s the Jets’ biggest question mark on the defensive side of the football for next season.
We often hear that the safety position is key to the Robert Saleh defense. Look at Jimmie Ward in San Francisco and Earl Thomas in Seattle (while Saleh was a defensive quality control coach with the Seahawks)
Now, look at the Jets.
Fast-forward to now and Joyner didn’t make it out of Week 1 due to an elbow injury that landed him on IR, Maye appeared in just six games before suffering a devastating Achilles injury in Week 9 that ended his season, and Davis was highly unreliable throughout the season.
In the end, the Jets trotted out a number of players just to finish the season. Kai Nacua, Elijah Riley, Will Parks, and converted cornerback Jason Pinnock all finished the season on the active roster at safety.
When you consider that both Maye and Joyner will be free agents, it’s easy to see why the Jets desperately need to upgrade that position.
I don’t think the Jets will consider Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the fourth pick in the NFL draft, but I do think they’ll make a real push to sign one of the marquee names on the free-agent market – if those marquee names make it to free agency, that is.
Saints safety Marcus Williams is expected to be available, mainly due to the cap situation that New Orleans finds itself in. The Saints created nearly $34 million in cap space this past weekend with restructures to the contracts of wide receiver Michael Thomas, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and guard Andrus Peat, but even with that, they’re still set to be $42 million over the projected cap of $202.8 million.
The other name to watch is Bengals safety Jessie Bates, although many expect him to be franchise tagged if the two sides can’t reach an agreement on a long-term extension. With the way the Bengals are set up with their young team, I imagine Bates will be keen to stay in Cincinnati.
If Bates gets tagged and Marcus Williams decides to sign elsewhere, then the Jets will need to look for other targets to add quality to the backend of the Jets defense.
While researching potential free agents, one name kept leaping out at me, and that’s Dallas Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse, a former seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings.
Why does Jayron Kearse make sense for the New York Jets?
There are a number of aspects to Kearse’s game that make him an appealing addition for the Jets.
First of all, he’s coming off an outstanding season in Dan Quinn’s defense.
Now, remember that Dan Quinn and Robert Saleh worked together under Pete Carroll in Seattle in 2013, and current Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich worked with Quinn while he was head coach in Atlanta. It stands to reason that their defensive philosophies overlap and while both have diversified their approach away from the structure in Seattle, they still have certain concepts that align, so seeing Kearse excel under Quinn is a confidence builder.
Kearse was one of the best tacklers in football this past season. His 3.9% missed tackle rate was the second-best mark at the safety position out of 75 qualifiers (min. 500 defensive snaps played), trailing only Jimmie Ward of the 49ers. Reliability as a tackler is key to this Saleh defense and it’s an issue we saw with Ashytn Davis in 2021 as his 12.9% missed tackle rate ranked him 52nd in the league at his position.
While Kearse isn’t lightning fast at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he has good speed for his size. Per PlayerProfiler, his speed score of 94.8 (which adjusts a player’s times in speed drills for his size) ranks at the 54th percentile among safeties.
When talking about the Jets we like to talk about positional versatility, and Kearse has that. Dan Quinn recognized he had a chess piece that he could move around the formation and this allowed Kearse to have his best season statistically. In 2021 Kearse spent significant time at the following alignments:
- Edge: 168 snaps
- Box: 415 snaps
- Free Safety: 177 snaps
- Slot: 202 snaps
- Corner: 50 snaps
This allowed Kearse to roam the field and make plays in a variety of ways. He had a career-high 11 pressures as a blitzer, ranking third among safeties. Kearse also led safeties with 10 pass breakups and had as many interceptions (2) as touchdowns allowed (2) in 2021.
Kearse should come at an affordable price. Pro Football Focus estimates that he should fetch a three-year deal paying him $5 million per year.
Only one Jets safety played 500 snaps last year and that was Ashtyn Davis. Using PFF’s grading system, here’s how they compare:
- Overall Grade: Kearse 75.9, Davis 60.7
- Run Defense Grade: Kearse 68.9, Davis 43.1
- Tackling Grade: Kearse 89.1, Davis 63.3
- Pass Rush Grade: Kearse 78.4, Davis 70.8
- Coverage Grade: Kearse 75.5, Davis 66.1
Kearse is a better option in every regard and he’s still only 28. I’m not saying you give up on Davis, but based on what we’ve seen so far, you can’t head into the 2022 season expecting him to start and perform at a high level. You should be looking to upgrade, and I can see the Jets having two new starting safeties by the time the opening game rolls around.
My hope is that Kearse is one of those new starters.