Perception vs. reality for Robert Saleh
When the New York Jets were linked to Sauce Gardner in 2022 mock drafts, many prognosticators scoffed, “The Jets won’t take a cornerback that high. Robert Saleh does not care about cornerbacks in his defense.”
Sure enough, Joe Douglas called No. 1’s number, and he promptly delivered one of the best rookie seasons by a cornerback in NFL history, cementing his place as a top-tier cornerback in the league and a first-team All-Pro. In doing so, Sauce led the Jets’ defense to the No. 4 ranking in total defensive DVOA and one of the largest season-over-season defensive improvements in league history.
Heading into the 2023 offseason, there are some similar skeptics who remain bearish on the Jets’ defensive needs. In addition to their contention that a No. 4-ranked defense is already set and does not need improvement, they claim that Saleh’s defense does not prioritize linebackers or safeties.
As Michael Nania explained, the idea that the Jets’ defense will automatically replicate its 2022 form and does not need improvement is flawed in many ways. In addition to inevitable fluctuations in defensive performance, the Jets had extraordinary injury luck on that side of the ball in 2022 coupled with a contract-year breakout season from Quinnen Williams. Furthermore, defensive performance tends to vary from year to year far more than offensive numbers, which would foretell a regression to the mean.
Considering that linebacker and safety were the Jets’ two biggest defensive weaknesses, if the team is going to try to improve the defense, it will likely be in those spots. Do they really need upgrades? If so, how significant must they be? How much does Robert Saleh really care about his linebackers and safeties?
The Jets play what would be called a hybrid Cover-3 structure, but they have placed an emphasis on many two-high looks along with the rest of the league. This is largely to deal with the elite QB play and receiver prowess that has overtaken the NFL in recent years.
In this structure, the safeties are the main line of defense to prevent explosive plays. A soft shell means that there will be space in the underneath and intermediate areas, and it’s up to the safeties to keep those plays short rather than allowing them to progress deeper. Additionally, they must be able to cover that deep part of the field to prevent the over-the-top plays that they are playing deep to stop in the first place.
Although playing two-high does not require quite the same level of field coverage as single-high from either safety, it also asks both safeties to play a significant amount of deep coverage. Having a box safety play in this structure is far from ideal, but it is not the easiest to find two deep safeties, even in today’s two-high league.
Unfortunately for the Jets, they had zero effective deep safeties in 2022. Jordan Whitehead and Lamarcus Joyner were lucky that the Jets’ corners were effective enough to conceal the worst of their blown coverages, but toward the end of the season, the deficiencies became ever more glaring.
The worst part of it was that these struggles were 100% predictable. Joyner was behind every single blown coverage in training camp and most of the starters’ portion of the preseason. Whitehead was known as a box safety prior to coming to the Jets, intent on stopping the run and playing close to the line of scrimmage.
At linebacker, the Jets are looking for aggressive, instinctive players who have the speed to evade blockers and attack the line of scrimmage in the run game. Additionally, they want players who can fly all over the field and cover the intermediate zone of the field.
While each of the Jets’ starting linebackers has some of these traits—Quincy Williams is fast and aggressive, C.J. Mosley is pretty strong in diagnosing run plays and tackling well, and Kwon Alexander theoretically has the speed to cover backs out of the backfield—none of them demonstrate these skills with enough consistency and all struggle in coverage. This creates gaping holes in the intermediate area of the field, making it difficult for the Jets to get off the field on third down.
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History of LB development
Both Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have reputations for taking relatively obscure linebackers and developing them into studs. Saleh’s work with Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw is particularly well-known, in addition to some of his early work with Jaguars LB Telvin Smith. Ulbrich turned Deion Jones into a solid player early in his career and also has a reputation from his days as a coach at UCLA, where he developed future stellar NFL linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
Most notably, Warner was a third-round pick and Greenlaw a fifth-rounder. The development of both those players into studs and Warner into a perennial All-Pro is largely credited to Saleh.
Given this history, there is a perception that the Jets do not need to rely on high draft picks to receive strong linebacker play. Right now, although C.J. Mosley was a big-ticket free agent signing by Joe Douglas’s predecessor, Mike Maccagnan, Quincy Williams was a waiver-wire pickup from the Jaguars, and Kwon Alexander was signed for a little over $1 million shortly before training camp. The Jets clearly do not place a high priority on off-ball linebackers.
However, in the 2021 draft, the Jets did draft a few projects for the linebacker position. Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen were taken in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, to be converted from safety to linebacker. Since Saleh and Ulbrich prioritize speed and agility in their linebackers, converting from safety seems to be their preferred method of acquiring LBs in the mold they wish.
So far, it appears that they don’t see Nasirildeen as much more than a practice squad/special teams player, as that’s the role he’s played with the Jets. However, Sherwood started the opening game of 2021 and was Mosley’s backup when he left a couple of games with injury in 2022. The Jets seemed to indicate they like his potential.
Saleh is known for his stops in Seattle and San Francisco. In each of those places, he fielded elite defenses punctuated by some elite talent at the linebacker and safety positions. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, the aforementioned Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, and Jimmie Ward were all excellent players on those defenses, perhaps even the most important.
Given what we’ve seen from DeMeco Ryans’s defense with the 49ers since Saleh’s departure, it’s hard not to think that strong linebacker talent is a prerequisite for the system that the Jets want to play. If Saleh and Ulbrich think that they can develop such talent, they need to have the bare bones in some way. Not drafting a single linebacker in 2022 was surprising; will the Jets change that in 2023 and at least take a developmental prospect?
Jets’ safety outlook
At safety, the Jets do have one promising player in the pipeline in undrafted free-agent safety Tony Adams. Adams played sparingly in 2022 but flashed intriguing potential as exactly the kind of safety the Jets prioritize. Overall, he played 70 out of his 118 defensive snaps (59.3%) at free safety, 33 at slot corner (30%), and 14 in the box (12%).
The issue is that the Jets did not get a good enough look at Adams to truly rely on him as a starter in 2022. If the Jets are really high on him, why did he play so sparingly considering the poor performance by Lamarcus Joyner?
Now, that does not have to be a knock on the Jets’ belief in Adams. There are other positions in which the Jets were stubborn about their usage of players, including the aforementioned Sherwood at middle linebacker, Jeremy Ruckert at tight end, Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff at edge rusher, and the insistence on using Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas for a steady diet of snaps at defensive tackle.
Still, do the Jets really want to enter 2023 with a UDFA who has played 118 total defensive snaps in his career as their starting free safety?
My guess is that the Jets will try to prioritize one of these two positions in 2023—either off-ball linebacker or safety. Although I said in an earlier article that the Jets need two new safeties, if they really do like Tony Adams, they could get away with drafting a strong safety in the early rounds or bringing in a veteran in free agency.
I suspect that safety will be the position the Jets work on simply because they don’t really have a choice. They’re not bringing back Lamarcus Joyner; he was a poor stopgap. Jordan Whitehead has an untenable $10.2 million cap hit in 2023, and the Jets can save $7.3 million by cutting him. That is pretty much a no-brainer.
Whether the Jets go the route of the draft or free agency to fill those positions is anyone’s guess. Again, a lot of it depends on their view of Tony Adams. They did not seem to feel he was starter material in 2022, but perhaps they think that he’s ready to grab the reins after a developmental season. If so, I would imagine they are more likely to sign a veteran strong safety to pair with the inexperienced Adams.
Even if the Jets don’t view Adams as a starter, I still think they’ll dip into free agency at least once, but in that case, I believe they’ll draft a safety in the second or third round, as well.
At linebacker, although C.J. Mosley’s $21.5 million cap hit is untenable, the Jets love him too much to release him and eat $4.5 million dead cap in 2023 and $10.4 million in 2024. It’s possible that they restructure his contract yet again and push some of his cap hit into 2024, but that would make him even harder to cut in 2024.
My guess is that the team rolls it back with Kwon Alexander and Quincy Williams at the other two linebacker spots and possibly tries to find a Quincy-type player on waivers from another team. Signing Jarrad Davis in the 2021 offseason was an overpay and an error, but it shows what the Jets’ approach is to the linebacker position. They think they can take little-known retreads and make them work. They might also draft a linebacker in the later rounds like they did with Sherwood and Nasirildeen in 2021.
One way or another, assuming that the Jets’ safeties and linebackers were their weak points because Saleh and Ulbrich don’t care about those positions is a mistake. I believe they understand what their defensive weaknesses are and still do not have the capital to fill all those needs. Therefore, they are leaving what they perceive to be the most easily concealed positions undermanned.
It would be highly surprising if the Jets don’t acquire at least one mid-to-high-priced veteran and/or Day 2 draft pick at either position. I’d bet on it.