Jordan Whitehead brings a missing element to the New York Jets’ defense
The New York Jets came into the 2022 offseason needing two starting-caliber safeties. They got to work before the beginning of the NFL’s free agency period by re-signing Lamarcus Joyner, who can hold the fort down at free safety until the Jets find a long-term answer.
Once the free agency frenzy got underway, the Jets turned their focus to the outside options on the free-agent market. New York ended up acquiring one of the market’s best young starters in Jordan Whitehead, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Whitehead, who turned 25 a few days ago, is the cousin of Jets legend Darrelle Revis. The fifth-year strong safety joined the Jets on a two-year, $14.5 million contract with $7 million guaranteed.
What are the Jets getting in Whitehead? Let’s dig into his strengths, weaknesses, and overall profile as a player.
Jets free-agent acquisition breakdowns:
Jordan Whitehead is the enforcer New York’s secondary didn’t have in 2021
With New York’s starting safety duo of Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Maye combining to play five full games out of a possible 34, the Jets’ makeshift safety unit had a ton of major problems in 2021.
The most glaring issues occurred in the passing game, where the Jets’ safeties contributed significantly to the New York defense allowing the second-worst opposing passer rating in the NFL (103.2).
While it flew under the radar because of their eye-catching struggles in coverage, the Jets’ safeties were poor against the run, too.
New York’s safeties were highly unproductive in the run game. They combined for only 18 run-stops on the season, ranking as the fourth-fewest of any safety unit in the league.
The Jets secondary wasn’t necessarily “soft”, per se, but when watching Jets games, it never felt like the safeties were a threat to lay a crushing hit-stick tackle on a pass over the middle or do anything of note against the run. New York lacked an enforcing presence who had a nose for big hits and could consistently find the football near the line of scrimmage.
Whitehead fills that void. The Jets now have an intimidating, hard-hitting safety who provides a ton of production in the run game.
Since entering the league in 2018, Whitehead has consistently been one of the most active run-stopping safeties in football. Check out his yearly ranks in run-stops (tackles against the run that constitute a poor result for the offense) among safeties, per Pro Football Focus:
- 2021: 18 run-stops (T-4th)
- 2020: 19 run-stops (T-4th)
- 2019: 17 run-stops (T-10th)
- 2018: 14 run-stops (T-14th)
For those keeping score at home, Whitehead had as many run-stops in 2021 as every Jets safety combined.
Whitehead also ranks fourth among safeties with 18 tackles for loss against the run since 2018.
As evidenced by his strong totals in run-stops and tackles for loss, Whitehead finds his way deeper into the trenches than most safeties in the NFL.
This past season, Whitehead’s average run-game tackle occurred only 3.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the second-shallowest average tackle depth of any qualified safety in the league. Whitehead ranked top-5 in each of the previous two seasons as well.
Jordan Whitehead having absolutely none of Cooper Kupp's block
He's a force when playing downhill pic.twitter.com/5qghWHCgsC
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) March 16, 2022
How is Jordan Whitehead’s coverage?
Whitehead’s coverage has gradually improved throughout his career. It could even be considered a strength in his game at this point, so long as he can maintain the success he enjoyed in 2021.
After allowing a 116.3 passer rating on throws into his coverage as a rookie, Whitehead has decreased his allowed passer rating by at least seven points in three straight seasons. In 2021, Whitehead allowed a passer rating of 81.3, which ranked 33rd-best out of 105 qualified safeties (69th percentile).
Whitehead was targeted 48 times this past season, allowing 33 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns while picking off two passes. He allowed just 6.1 yards per target, ranking 22nd-best out of 105 qualifiers at the position (80th percentile).
The zone-man splits for Whitehead are stark.
Whitehead gave up a 51.8 passer rating in zone coverage, which ranked 11th-best out of 105 qualifiers. However, he gave up a 155.8 passer rating in man coverage, which ranked 83rd out of 85 qualifiers.
Tampa Bay worked around Whitehead’s weaknesses and did not ask him to play much man-to-man coverage. Per PFF, Whitehead played man coverage on only 24.8% of his coverage snaps, which ranked 66th out of 105 qualified safeties.
Whitehead may have to play slightly more man coverage in the Jets’ scheme, as the Jets asked their safeties to play man coverage on 29.8% of their coverage snaps in 2021, but that’s a fairly insignificant difference.
Nevertheless, Whitehead’s struggles in man-to-man coverage can only be hidden to an extent. He’s going to have to take on some one-on-one assignments each week, and he will be exposed occasionally.
But in zone coverage, Whitehead’s aggression allows him to shine. When he gets to just sit back in shallow zones, read the quarterback, and break on the football, he is effective.
Jordan Whitehead a leading candidate for the honorary “Harvey Langi Team Psychopath of the year award”
Full list of winners:
2020: Harvey Langi
2021: Quincy Williams
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) March 15, 2022
Missed tackles are a problem for Jordan Whitehead
While Whitehead is a wrecking ball who hits hard and makes a lot of big-time stops, his playstyle comes back to bite him at times. He’s not the most efficient tackler in the world. You will see him whiff now and then.
Whitehead has missed at least 11 tackles in each season of his career. In 2021, Whitehead had a career-high 15 missed tackles, tying for the ninth-most among safeties.
From an efficiency perspective, Whitehead missed 16.1% of his tackle opportunities in 2021, which ranked 83rd out of 105 qualified safeties (21st percentile). His career missed-tackle rate is 14.9%. The 2021 league average for safeties was 11.6%.
How is Jordan Whitehead used?
Whitehead made it into my March 9 article that identified the free-agent safeties who were utilized most similarly to Marcus Maye (the Jets’ strong safety) last season.
Per PFF, here is a breakdown of where Whitehead aligned in 2021 and how it compares to the distribution that the Jets went with for Maye:
- 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)
Whitehead lined up somewhere other than free safety on 71.2% of his snaps, the 15th-highest rate among 105 qualified safeties.
As a testament to his versatility, Whitehead ranked top-25 in alignment frequency at each of the four non-free safety positions listed above. Kyle Dugger was the only other safety in the league with that distinction.
Whitehead played the majority of snaps for Tampa Bay but was not quite an every-down player in the truest sense. He played 88% of the defensive snaps in his average game during the 2021 regular season. His 2020 rate was 86% and his 2019 rate was 93%.
Jordan Whitehead’s injury history, durability
Whitehead played in 65 out of 71 possible regular season and playoff games for the Buccaneers (92%). In each of his four seasons, he played at least 14 games.
In 2021, Whitehead had two short absences, missing the season opener with a hamstring injury and missing two games in December with a calf injury.
Whitehead missed the final two games of the 2019 season with a hamstring injury. He missed one game in his rookie season with his shoulder injury.
The New York Jets secondary gets tougher with Jordan Whitehead
In Jordan Whitehead, the Jets are getting a hard-hitting enforcer who brings tenacity to a secondary that was severely lacking it.
There are some defensive backs who put a lot of big hits on their highlight reel but aren’t actually all that productive (hello, Calvin Pryor). Whitehead is not that kind of guy. His run-stopping production is consistently top-tier, and he’s shown the potential to be a plus-player in coverage as well.
Whitehead’s gritty skill-set is a strong fit for the Jets’ rebuild, both schematically and culturally.