Which NFL free agents can fill Marcus Maye’s strong safety role in the New York Jets’ defense?
Scheme fit is an important factor to consider when projecting where NFL free agents will land. While players and teams can adjust their styles to a certain extent in order to make things work, it is generally a good idea for front offices to fixate their search on players who have a skill-set that suits their team’s system.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the free-agent safety market to figure out which players might be identified as the best scheme fits for the New York Jets by general manager Joe Douglas. Today, we’ll focus on strong safeties, and in a future article to come soon, we’ll focus on free safeties.
The safety position is almost guaranteed to be one of the Jets’ biggest priorities on the 2022 free-agent market. Their only safety under contract (save for reserve/future deals) is Ashtyn Davis.
New York will likely be looking to replace safety Marcus Maye, who is an impending free agent. Maye, who played the 2021 season on the franchise tag, seems improbable to return after he and the Jets were apparently far apart in their contract talks last year.
By analyzing Maye’s usage in the Jets’ defensive scheme this past season, we can get a guide for the type of player that the Jets will be looking for to fill Maye’s role.
Maye primarily played strong safety in the scheme captained by defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and head coach Robert Saleh. Nearly two-thirds of his snaps were played in the box, in the slot, or on the edge.
Here is a look at where Maye lined up on his defensive snaps in 2021, per tracking from Pro Football Focus:
- Box: 42.8%
- Free safety: 34.8%
- Slot: 18.0%
- Edge: 3.6%
- Outside CB: 0.8%
I created a formula that analyzed the snap distribution of all qualified safeties in the NFL and revealed how closely their usage resembled Maye’s. This allows us to get an idea of which players are the best fits to step into the strong safety role in Ulbrich and Saleh’s Jets defense.
Here are the free-agent safeties whose usage in the 2021 season most closely matched Marcus Maye’s. Look out for these players to be on the Jets’ radar.
7. Terrell Edmunds, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Box: 40.9% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 23.4% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 28.6% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 3.8% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 3.3% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.266 (17th of 104 qualifiers)
I did a complete breakdown on Terrell Edmunds recently. The 25-year-old former first-round pick is a great fit to fill Maye’s shoes. He provides strong coverage in both slot and man-to-man situations, although he has question marks in zone coverage and against the run.
Compared to Maye, Edmunds subs out some snaps as a deep safety in favor of more reps in the slot and at outside cornerback, but he plays in the box at nearly the same frequency.
6. Jordan Whitehead, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Box: 36.5% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 28.8% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 21.3% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 8.3% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 5.2% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.246 (16th of 104 qualifiers)
Jordan Whitehead, who will turn 25 on March 18, is a productive downhill safety. He is tied with Landon Collins for fifth among safeties with 22 tackles for loss since he was drafted in 2018. In 2021, Whitehead tied for fourth among safeties with 18 run stops.
Historically, Whitehead has struggled in coverage, but he has shown a lot of progress in this area. His allowed passer rating has dropped by at least seven points in three consecutive seasons, dwindling from 116.0 as a rookie to a career-low 81.3 in 2021.
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5. Daniel Sorensen, Kansas City Chiefs
- Box: 40.1% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 25.9% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 19.3% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 11.2% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 3.3% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.230 (15th of 104 qualifiers)
Daniel Sorensen was a respectable safety in Kansas City for many years but he just had a horrendous season at 31 years old. Sorensen had the worst missed tackle rate among qualified safeties (27.5%) and allowed the most yards into his coverage of any safety (521).
No team should look for Sorensen to be anything but a backup for them.
4. Anthony Harris, Philadelphia Eagles
- Box: 36.6% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 43.4% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 16.7% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 2.3% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 1.1% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.178 (10th of 104 qualifiers)
Anthony Harris was quietly evolving into one of the most effective safeties in the NFL from 2018-19, picking off nine passes over that span with the Vikings. Although he has tapered off since then, he remains a serviceable starter.
Harris can be exposed in coverage (7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past two years) but he is a phenomenal tackler. In his seven-year career, Harris has never had a season with a missed tackle rate worse than 8.8%, which was his rate in 2021. Despite being a career-worst, it still ranked at the 75th percentile among qualified safeties.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
- Box: 44.0% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 28.1% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 20.7% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 4.9% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 2.3% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.134 (5th of 104 qualifiers)
I recently broke down why I believe the Jets should avoid Tyrann Mathieu at the enormous price tag he is likely to command. An expensive multi-year contract for a safety entering his age-30 season does not seem like the wisest move for a team that is far from Super Bowl contention.
With that being said, I can still see the Jets viewing Mathieu as a perfect fit for their defense. He is capable of handling the versatile role that New York asked Maye to play.
2. Ronnie Harrison, Cleveland Browns
- Box: 37.3% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 34.2% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 20.0% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 7.4% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 0.9% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.119 (3rd of 104 qualifiers)
Back in February, I identified Ronnie Harrison as the most efficient run-defending safety on the free-agent market. A huge safety at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, Harrison used his size to his advantage in 2021 as he ranked highly in all run-defending categories.
On the contrary, Harrison had a rough season in coverage as he led all safeties with seven touchdowns allowed (while snagging only one interception). That could turn out to be an outlier, though, as prior to 2021, Harrison had a solid career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3-to-4.
Harrison will turn 25 in April. He was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 93rd overall pick in the third round of the 2019 draft, five picks before the Jaguars selected future Jets linebacker Quincy Williams.
1. DeAndre Houston-Carson, Chicago Bears
- Box: 42.6% (Maye: 42.8%)
- Free safety: 33.8% (Maye: 34.8%)
- Slot: 19.8% (Maye: 18.0%)
- Edge: 2.6% (Maye: 3.6%)
- Outside CB: 1.0% (Maye: 0.8%)
- Marcus Maye Similarity Index: 0.041 (1st of 104 qualifiers)
Possessing the most similar usage to Maye of any safety in the league, DeAndre Houston-Carson is a sneaky Jets target to keep an eye on.
Houston-Carson was a backup for the Chicago Bears, starting only three of the 13 games he appeared in and playing 50% of Chicago’s defensive snaps in his average appearance (420 snaps total). But when he was on the field, he was excellent.
The 28-year-old safety was the complete package. He tackled well, ranking eighth out of 98 qualified safeties with a 5.9% missed tackle rate. Against the run, he was active, ranking 20th out of 93 qualifiers with a run-stop on 4.5% of his snaps in the run game. Finally, he clamped down in coverage, placing 20th out of 98 qualifiers with an allowed passer rating of just 76.7.
A sixth-round pick of the Bears in 2016, Houston-Carson mainly played on special teams over the first five seasons of his career. This was the first season in which he played more than 91 defensive snaps, logging 420 of them after appearing on just 165 defensive snaps over his first five years combined.
Houston-Carson will turn 29 in April, but after flashing brightly in his first-ever extended defensive action, it’s possible that he still has untapped potential waiting to be unlocked.
Joe Douglas was the Bears’ director of college scouting when they drafted Houston-Carson in 2016.
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