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Why the NY Jets’ safety unit isn’t as weak as you think

Jordan Whitehead, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, PFF, Safeties, Contract
Jordan Whitehead, New York Jets, Getty Images

Where do the New York Jets’ safeties rank league-wide?

If you asked the average New York Jets fan, they’d tell you the Jets’ safety room is among the worst in the NFL. It’s not an unreasonable claim as the safety position held back the Jets defense in 2021 and the only meaningful addition in the offseason was Jordan Whitehead on a two-year, $14 million deal.

However, I believe the Jets’ safeties are closer to average, falling somewhere in the 16-to-25 range among all safety units in the NFL.

At 25 years old, Whitehead is one of the better young safeties in the NFL and is elite against the run. Whitehead was recently ranked by Pro Football Focus’ as the NFL’s second-best box safety entering the 2022 season.

Unfortunately, it’s a passing league, and the Jets’ poor coverage at safety let up a lot of big plays in 2021. Jets X-Factor’s Michael Nania has gone into detail about Whitehead’s gradual improvement in coverage, but in New York, Whitehead will have to do more than what has been asked of him in the past.

The other options beyond Whitehead aren’t the most encouraging either, as Jet X’s David Wyatt-Hupton described here. While the Jets have options at free safety between Lamarcus Joyner, Jason Pinnock, and Ashtyn Davis, all three players have a lot to prove.

Despite these question marks, some fans think too little of the Jets’ back-end group. While a far cry from the days of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, it’s not the bottom-three unit some seem to believe. There are many teams around the league who are dealing with similar or worse situations at the safety position.

Using Pro Football Focus’s list of projected starters at safety for each team in 2022, I averaged the 2021 PFF grades of every starting duo in the NFL to see where the Jets’ safety room stands – and I must say I was surprised by the results.

The New York Jets’ safety unit is… average?

You read that right. Based on PFF’s grading, the Jets technically have an above-average safety room.

For the Jets, Jordan Whitehead and Lamarcus Joyner are the projected starters.

Whitehead had an overall PFF grade of 74.9 in 2021 which ranked 17th among 98 qualified safeties.

Joyner was more difficult to evaluate as he only played nine snaps in 2021 and in the two years prior he played out of position at slot corner.

To get a fair representation of Joyner’s projected performance at free safety in 2022, I took the average of his grade from 2020 (his last full season) and 2018 (his last season at free safety). This resulted in an overall grade of 64.4 which is slightly below average but still an upgrade for the Jets.

Combined, Whitehead and Joyner’s grades gave them an average of 69.7 as a duo.

I ranked all 32 projected safety tandems by their overall grade, run defense grade, and coverage grade. To my surprise, the Jets graded out surprisingly well.

Whitehead and Joyner’s combined 69.7 overall grade placed 13th out of 32 projected safety duos. Their combined coverage grade of 67.6 placed 16th and their combined run defense grade of 73.5 placed ninth.

If you combine Whitehead with Jason Pinnock (70.4 PFF grade), things look even better. Their combined overall grade of 72.7 ranks ninth-best. In coverage, they rank 16th with a 67.5 grade, and against the run, they rank first with an 85.5 grade.

Even if you pair Whitehead with Ashtyn Davis (60.7 PFF grade), the Jets’ safety duo looks competent. Whitehead and Davis combine to rank No. 15 in overall grade (67.8), No. 10 in coverage grade (69.1), and No. 25 in run defense grade (62.3).

This is an extremely optimistic outlook. It can be partially attributed to several star safeties having down years. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jessie Bates III, and Marcus Maye all had sub-61 grades in 2021. Other top safeties like Tyrann Matthieu and Budda Baker had sub-70 grades as well.

Still, it’s worth noting how well the Jets tandems grade out at an unbiased outlet such as PFF. Realistically, it’s probably fair to say the Jets’ safety group ranks in the bottom half of the NFL, but adding a player like Whitehead elevates the ranking. It can be argued that only 13-15 teams have a safety better than him.

Even using a replacement-level player like Sharrod Neasman (who was on the Jets in 2021 but is now a free agent), the Jets would still have the 24th-ranked duo if you combined Neasman’s 53.8 grade with Whitehead’s 74.9 grade. For a tandem that includes a backup, that’s not too bad at all. It’s a testament to how much Whitehead can improve this unit.

While Joyner, Pinnock, and Davis aren’t superstars, they’re much much more comparable to their competition than given credit for.

Yes, Joyner is now three years removed from his last quality season. However, he is still a significantly better free safety than slot corner and was looking good in camp last season before an early injury.

Meanwhile, Pinnock and Davis both offer upside heading into their second and third years, respectively. Pinnock flashed to end the 2021 season after transitioning to safety and has been getting some starter reps in the early practices of OTAs with Joyner absent.

Davis has disappointed in two years, but I believe it’s too early to give up on the former third-round pick.

Heading into the 2022 season, the Jets have one very good starter at strong safety, two players with starting experience, and a young athletic project who has shown flashes. Many teams would envy that position.

If the Jets can get just one free safety to step up out of their many competitors, they could field a legitimate safety unit.

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2 years ago

Problem is though, if whitehead or joyner goes down the backups are horrible especially ashtyn davis. He should be released thats how bad he is, pinnock needs a year for the transition. So the depth behind the starters is the problem.