A battle is set to take place for the New York Jets’ starting free safety position
Heading into OTAs, I was pretty convinced about how the New York Jets were going to line up in the secondary. It would be D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner on the outside with Jordan Whitehead and Lamarcus Joyner at safety.
However, during OTAs, word got out that Jason Pinnock was getting starting reps at free safety over Joyner. Joyner was expected to start for the Jets last year before an elbow injury in Week 1 sidelined him for the entire season.
The Jets re-signed Joyner to a one-year deal in March with the expectation being that he would start next to Whitehead. But what was once considered a foregone conclusion is now shaping up to be one of the more interesting camp battles of the off-season.
So who will end up starting next to Whitehead at the free safety position? Let’s take a quick look at all the possible candidates.
Joyner has been a successful safety whenever he’s played the position. The issue is he hasn’t played the position since 2018 as a member of the Rams.
From 2019 through 2020, Joyner was a member of the Raiders and was asked to play as a slot corner for some unknown reason that only makes sense to Oakland/Las Vegas.
The two best years of Joyner’s career came as a free safety in 2017 and 2018. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall grade of 91.0 in 2017, the best mark of his career, and he followed that up with the second-best grade of his career in 2018 (74.9).
Joyner only has four interceptions over the course of his 96-game career, but all four came when playing free safety and three of them came in his outstanding 2017 season. Joyner plays with the instincts of a ball-hawking free-safety, but he’s not overly fast or athletic.
Joyner’s historical performance at the position gives him the inside track and I’d say he’s the odds on favorite to win the job at this point.
Pinnock was drafted by the Jets in 2021 and transitioned to safety over the back-end of the season.
We didn’t see a huge amount of Pinnock last year, but the 6’0, 205lb safety is an outstanding athlete. He scored a 9.78 in his RAS (Relative Athletic Score) before the draft and his elite explosion grade gives you some confidence that a roaming center field role may suit his game down to the ground.
Pinnock actually started his transition at safety as a strong safety due to his ability to play the run (89.5 run defense grade), but moved over to FS for starts against Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Buffalo, and he more than held his own.
Rumors of him getting starting reps are not overly surprising considering the flashes he showed towards the end of the 2021 season and with Joyner returning from a season-ending injury.
It’s Pinnock’s second year in the system, so the hope is that there is a comfort level within the confines of the defensive system and with the nuances of the safety position. For me, he is Joyner’s closest challenger.
Is Ashtyn Davis a free safety or a strong safety? Last year, he started five games at strong safety and eight at free safety. Coming into the league he was considered a free safety and that’s where he spent the majority of his college career for California.
Davis is considered a highly athletic player but he’s flattered to deceive over the course of his two-year career.
In truth, he’s struggled in his coverage responsibilities. Davis has allowed a 75.5% completion rate into his coverage with 510 yards and six touchdowns allowed over two years. He often takes bad angles to the football and his lack of instincts means he’s usually a step or two too late.
Although he struggled in coverage during his rookie campaign, his tackling was always sound which is evidenced by his 2.7% missed tackle percentage. Unfortunately, that took a step back in 2021, with his missed tackle percentage ballooning to 12.9%.
He’s still young and he absolutely could improve, but I’m not holding out a huge amount of hope. For me, Davis is #3 on the free safety depth chart because what we have seen from him simply hasn’t been very good.
It’s hard to learn anything about a player when they play only 91 snaps, but for what it’s worth, Will Parks looked like a decent Joe Douglas find in 2021.
Over the course of his 6-year career Parks has allowed a 69.2% completion into his coverage with 10 touchdowns allowed and 4 INTs. He also has a 14.3% career missed tackle rate, not ideal for a last line of defense.
The dark horse, and who doesn’t love a UDFA?
I’m as guilty as anyone in hyping up some UDFA signings. Tony Adams was one of the more athletic safeties in the draft class scoring a 9.76 on his RAS, which included a “great” mark in speed and an “elite” mark in explosion.
Adams spent the majority of his college career at corner, only spending 458 snaps at free safety over five years, but he does have 6 INTs to his name. One thing he’ll need to clean up is his tackling, like Davis. Having a missed tackle percentage of 16.9% is not ideal for a last line of defense.
Personally, I see this as a two-horse race between Joyner and Pinnock and it really wouldn’t shock me to see Pinnock win. I like what I saw from him at Pittsburgh and it sounds as though the Jets’ coaches absolutely love what they’ve seen from him at safety.
If Joyner beats out Pinnock, then happy days – it likely means he looks back to his best.