Which NFL free agents can fill Ashtyn Davis’ free safety role in the New York Jets’ defense?
Yesterday, I identified some of the 2022 NFL free agents who are the best scheme fits to play strong safety in the New York Jets’ defense, using Marcus Maye’s 2021 utilization tendencies as a guide.
Let’s switch our focus to the free safety position, where Ashtyn Davis’ utilization can point us to the free agents who are the best fits to take his role in the Jets’ scheme.
Davis is the Jets’ only safety under contract, save for fringe players on reserve/future contracts. A third-round pick in the 2020 draft, Davis has largely been a disappointment. He’s given up a passer rating of 131.0 in his career and was arguably the most negatively impactful run defender on the team in 2021.
In 2021, Davis was a key starter for the Jets. He started in 10 of his 13 appearances and played 81% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in his average appearance, logging 745 snaps in total (the most of any Jets safety).
The Jets will almost certainly be looking for an upgrade over Davis in the starting lineup.
Davis primarily served as the Jets’ free safety in 2021. Here is a look at where Davis lined up on his defensive snaps in 2021, per tracking from Pro Football Focus:
- Free safety: 55.0%
- Box: 29.4%
- Slot: 14.1%
- Edge: 1.3%
- Outside CB: 0.1%
These numbers present us with a rough outline of the kind of player that the Jets want at the free safety position.
I created a formula that analyzed the snap distribution of all qualified safeties in the NFL and revealed how closely their usage resembled Davis’. This allows us to get an idea of which players are the best fits to step into the free safety role in Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh’s Jets defense.
Here are the free-agent safeties whose usage in the 2021 season most closely matched Ashtyn Davis’. Look out for these players to be on the Jets’ radar.
10. Malik Hooker, Dallas Cowboys
- Free safety: 48.1% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 31.5% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 9.7% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 7.9% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 2.9% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.232 (31st of 104 qualifiers)
While Malik Hooker has never lived up to the potential that he entered the league with when Indianapolis chose him 15th overall in the 2017 draft, he’s been a respectable starting-caliber safety in the NFL.
Hooker played a rotational role for the Cowboys in 2021, which saw him play 44% of the team’s snaps across 15 appearances. He gave up two touchdowns but also snagged a pick and allowed only 66 yards on 14 targets (4.7 per target).
We’ve seen Hooker show flashes of solid ball-hawking ability. Hooker has eight interceptions over 2,626 career defensive snaps, an average of 3.0 per 1,000 defensive snaps. For reference, 1,000 snaps are approximately how many snaps a safety would play over 16 fully-played games. So, Hooker can be a consistent three-pick kind of guy if he starts and stays healthy.
With an allowed passer rating of 86.5 in his career, you can do a lot worse than Hooker at free safety. Injuries are his main question as he has only played 51 of 81 possible career games.
Hooker turns 26 in April.
9. Juston Burris, Carolina Panthers
- Free safety: 52.9% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 21.2% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 20.5% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 4.3% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 1.2% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.208 (26th of 104 qualifiers)
Former Jets draft pick Juston Burris began his career as a cornerback in New York but found success with a switch to safety in Cleveland. He’s spent the last two seasons in Carolina.
Burris still isn’t quite a starter-quality talent but he can provide solid depth. He’ll turn 29 in August.
8. Deon Bush, Chicago Bears
- Free safety: 62.9% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 22.3% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 11.1% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 2.9% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.203 (25th of 104 qualifiers)
Deon Bush was drafted by the Bears in 2016 while Jets general manager Joe Douglas was Chicago’s director of college scouting.
Bush primarily played special teams over his first five seasons but was thrust into a key defensive role in 2021, making four starts in relief. It was a shaky run, as he allowed four touchdowns over his short time on the field, although he did his best to make up for it with two interceptions and five passes defended.
An excellent special teamer, Bush can provide the Jets with help in that area while serving as a capable backup at free safety.
7. DeShon Elliott, Baltimore Ravens
- Free safety: 49.5% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 29.5% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 9.8% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 9.5% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 1.6% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.196 (24th of 104 qualifiers)
Set to turn 25 in April, DeShon Elliott is one of the youngest players on the free-agent safety market.
Elliott has been an every-down starting free safety for the Ravens over the past two seasons when healthy. He started all 16 games he played in 2020 and appeared on 98% of the team’s defensive snaps. In 2021, Elliott started all six of his appearances but had his season ravaged by a quad injury (2 games missed) and a season-ending biceps/pectoral injury (9 games missed).
There isn’t much flashy about Elliott, who only has one interception and seven passes defended in 28 career games. However, what’s appealing about his game is that while he is quiet himself, he keeps the opponent just as silent.
Elliott has given up a mere two touchdown passes over 854 career coverage snaps, an average of one touchdown every 427.0 snaps. That is more than twice as good as the 2021 league average for safeties (205.8). To boot, he’s allowing only 0.35 yards per cover snap, which is well ahead of the 2021 positional average (0.53).
6. Xavier Woods, Minnesota Vikings
- Free safety: 61.6% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 20.3% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 14.8% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 2.6% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.7% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.183 (21st of 104 qualifiers)
In his prime, as he is set to turn 27 in July, Xavier Woods has established himself as a solid starting safety over the past four years. He’s started all 61 games he’s played for the Cowboys and Vikings since 2018.
With a career missed tackle rate of 10.7%, a career allowed passer rating of 92.0, and a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-8, Woods is not a world-beater but he is an above-average starter across the board.
5. Jaquiski Tartt, San Francisco 49ers
- Free safety: 59.3% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 26.3% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 9.8% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 3.9% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.150 (16th of 104 qualifiers)
Jaquiski Tartt’s presence in this list validates the credibility of using Davis’ utilization as a guide to determine which players fit in the Jets’ scheme. He’s a longtime 49er who played under Robert Saleh in San Francisco for four years. It appears that Davis took over the Tartt role in Saleh’s defense.
Injuries are a major issue for Tartt, who has never played a full season and appeared in just 50 out of 81 possible games from 2017-21. But when he’s been healthy, Tartt has always been a starter for the 49ers, and a solid one at that.
Tartt was a backup over his first two seasons but has started every game he’s played since 2017, which was the year Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
Like DeShon Elliott, Tartt is not a splashy playmaker (4 interceptions, 18 passes defended in 80 games) and instead thrives upon shutting down his matchups. Tartt has only given up nine touchdowns over 2,360 career coverage snaps (one per 262.2 snaps) to go along with a respectable average of 7.3 yards allowed per target (2021 average for safeties: 7.9).
While Tartt recently turned 30, he’s been playing his best football over the past few years. Since 2019, he’s allowed only 295 yards over 33 games and 62 targets (8.9 yards per game / 4.8 yards per target).
4. Sean Chandler, Carolina Panthers
- Free safety: 61.3% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 25.1% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 11.2% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 1.7% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.7% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.146 (15th of 104 qualifiers)
Sean Chandler filled in for Juston Burris during the latter’s absence due to injury. Chandler is a great tackler as a last line of defense (5.9% missed tackle rate in career) but struggles immensely in coverage (154.9 passer rating allowed).
The New Jersey native is capable of contributing on special teams, so he can be pursued as a useful backup.
3. Tashaun Gipson, Chicago Bears
- Free safety: 49.5% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 30.2% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 16.2% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 3.6% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.5% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.110 (8th of 104 qualifiers)
Tashaun Gipson, who will turn 32 in August, owns the fifth-most career starts among active safeties with 132.
Gipson’s run as a quality starter may be winding down as he just allowed a career-high 0.61 yards per cover snap in Chicago last season.
However, at the same time, Gipson only allowed one touchdown over 12 starts and 362 coverage snaps, while also collecting two interceptions. Gipson is still a good playmaker as he has seven interceptions in 42 games over the past three seasons.
Gipson can be a decent veteran placeholder at free safety.
2. Dean Marlowe, Detroit Lions
- Free safety: 55.4% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 27.1% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 11.6% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 5.3% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.6% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.097 (5th of 104 qualifiers)
A career backup in Carolina and Buffalo, Dean Marlowe got a chance to play extended reps in Detroit this past season and did fairly well. In 16 games (9 starts, 700 snaps), Marlowe missed only five tackles (6.9% missed tackle rate), gave up just one touchdown, and committed zero penalties.
Marlowe, a Queens native, will turn 30 in July.
1. Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos
- Free safety: 59.0% (Davis: 55.0%)
- Box: 28.4% (Davis: 29.4%)
- Slot: 12.1% (Davis: 14.1%)
- Edge: 0.3% (Davis: 1.3%)
- Outside CB: 0.2% (Davis: 0.1%)
- Ashtyn Davis Similarity Index: 0.081 (3rd of 104 qualifiers)
Kareem Jackson ranks third among active safeties with 168 career starts. He’ll be 34 in April.
Jackson was enjoying great success into his thirties, ranking as one of the highest-graded safeties in the NFL each year from 2018-20, but he fell off hard at age-33 in 2021. He tied for the third-most missed tackles among safeties (18) and graded as PFF’s ninth-worst safety out of 95 qualifiers with a 52.0 grade.
Like a few of the other players on this list, Jackson could be a veteran stopgap but not much more.
When looking solely at free agents who closely match the way that the Jets used their starting free safety in 2021, there isn’t a lot of intriguing talent.
New York could find some solid starters, experienced veterans, or serviceable backups, but there are no game-changers on this list. I’d consider Woods, Elliott, Hooker, and Tartt as the only starter-quality options, although the latter three have significant injury question marks.
Arguably the two best free safeties on the market – Marcus Williams and Quandre Diggs – failed to crack this list because of their extremely high free-safety usage in 2021. Williams played 88.9% of his snaps at free safety while Diggs played 87.2% of his snaps at free safety. They were pure center-fielders, whereas the Jets asked Ashtyn Davis (and all of their safeties) to play all over the field without being tethered to one spot.
This doesn’t mean that Williams and Diggs aren’t fits in New York. Not at all. It simply means that somebody would have to bend a little bit if a union were to happen.
One of two things would be required: Either the Jets would need to drastically alter their safety usage in order to allow Williams/Diggs to play in their familiar center-field-tethered role, or Williams/Diggs would have to prove that they can adapt to New York’s defense and handle a role that asks them to move around more.
Considering their talent level, I think Williams and Diggs are both capable of making the adjustment. But a happy medium would be the smart way to go. The Jets should pursue Williams or Diggs with the plan that they would allow them to hang back in center field more often than Davis did in 2021, and at the same time, they should feel confident that either player is good enough to handle some newfound responsibilities.
Wrapping things up, I wouldn’t expect the Jets’ 2022 starting free safety to be one of the 10 players on the above list. With that being said, I believe it’s fair to think the Jets will add one of those players as a depth piece.