Which NFL free agents can fill Jordan Whitehead’s strong safety role in the New York Jets’ defense?
There is a possibility that the New York Jets could be looking for a new starting strong safety in 2023. Their 2022 starter, Jordan Whitehead, is one of the team’s top cut candidates.
If Whitehead does end up getting released, the Jets might look to free agency for his replacement.
Before we break down a few of the best strong safeties for New York to target on the open market, let’s talk about a crucial factor to keep in mind when scanning the free agent list: scheme fit.
It’s extremely important to consider how well a free agent fits the prospective team’s scheme when evaluating whether he is worth pursuing. While players and teams can definitely adapt to make things work, it is generally a good idea for franchises to fixate on players who have a profile that effortlessly fits their team’s philosophies. The less bending that needs to be done – both by the team and the player – the better.
With that in mind, I wanted to analyze the free-agent safety market to identify which players have the best chance of being viewed by Joe Douglas as a good scheme fit to replace Whitehead at strong safety.
By analyzing the way Whitehead was utilized in Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh‘s defensive scheme this past season, we can get a guide for the type of player that the Jets will be looking for to fill Whitehead’s role.
Here is a look at where Whitehead lined up on his defensive snaps in 2022, per tracking from Pro Football Focus:
- Deep safety: 54.6% (33rd-highest among 73 qualified safeties)
- Box: 32.0% (23rd)
- Slot: 10.8% (51st)
- Edge: 1.7% (52nd)
- Outside CB: 1.0% (48th)
I don’t think these percentages are an ideal fit for Whitehead’s skill-set. He is an aggressive thumper who seeks out big hits and plays with a downhill mentality, which means he should primarily be playing near the line of scrimmage. You don’t want a player like Whitehead lining up as a deep safety on over half of his snaps.
Compare the above percentages to Whitehead’s numbers with the Buccaneers in 2021:
- Deep safety: 28.8% (63rd-highest among 73 qualified safeties)
- Box: 36.5% (20th)
- Slot: 21.3% (16th)
- Edge: 8.3% (15th)
- Outside CB: 5.2% (8th)
Tampa Bay was using Whitehead in the best possible way to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. He was asked to play deep less frequently than most other safeties, which helped hide his issues in coverage. The Buccaneers allowed Whitehead to focus on doing what he does best: roaming around near the line of scrimmage and being a wrecking ball. Specifically, Whitehead played significantly more snaps in the slot, on the edge, and on the outside than he did with the Jets.
Considering the way Whitehead was used with the Buccaneers, I’m not sure why the Jets signed him. New York relies on two-high coverage at an extremely high rate. In 2022, the Jets deployed two high safeties on 50.9% of their snaps against the pass, ranking third-highest in the league behind Kansas City (57.0%) and Buffalo (52.2%). The league average was 40.8%. Knowing they would be a two-high team that needs both safeties to frequently play deep, why did they go after a safety like Whitehead who makes his living in the box?
Whitehead was right at home in the Bucs’ Cover 3-heavy defense, where the free safety and strong safety roles are much more distinct than they are in the Jets’ Cover 4-heavy defense. The Jets definitely used Whitehead near the line of scrimmage far more often than their free safety, Lamarcus Joyner, so they still value in-the-box skills from their strong safety. But it’s essential for their strong safety to be capable of playing both underneath and deep.
Without further ado, let’s identify the free agent safeties who fit the description of what the Jets would be looking for in a new strong safety if Whitehead is released.
I created a formula that analyzed the snap distribution of all qualified safeties in the NFL and revealed how closely their usage resembled Whitehead’s in 2022. This allows us to get an idea of which players are the best fits to step into the strong safety role in Ulbrich and Saleh’s Jets defense.
Here are the free-agent safeties whose usage in the 2022 season most closely matched Jordan Whitehead’s. Look out for these players to be on the Jets’ radar.
8. Julian Love, New York Giants
- Deep safety: 49.1% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 26.9% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 15.3% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 5.0% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 3.7% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.210 (18th of 73 qualifiers)*
*0.000 represents an exact match. The lower the number, the closer to Whitehead’s usage.
A fourth-round pick in 2019, Jordan Love became a full-time starter for the first time in 2022, starting all 16 games he played in.
Love had 124 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, and 2 interceptions in the Giants’ surprising season. His tackling efficiency was excellent, as he missed only 6 tackles with a miss rate of 5.5% (the league average for safeties was 11.6%). In coverage, Love allowed 34-of-48 passing for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (97.0 rating).
Set to turn 25 years old in March, Love will be one of the youngest defensive backs on the free agent market.
7. Marcus Epps, Philadelphia Eagles
- Deep safety: 64.6% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 23.0% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 10.8% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 0.8% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.200 (16th of 73 qualifiers)
Marcus Epps was one of the top matches for Lamarcus Joyner, too. He is the only safety in the league who managed to be among the closest matches to both Joyner and Whitehead.
Epps was a sixth-round pick in 2019 and got his first chance as a starter in 2022, starting all 17 games for Philadelphia. There’s room for improvement, as Epps allowed 5 touchdowns and did not snag any interceptions. He ranked third-worst among safeties with 441 yards allowed.
Epps will be 27 years old in January.
6. Jonathan Owens, Houston Texans
- Deep safety: 59.4% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 22.2% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 11.9% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 4.7% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 1.9% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.196 (14th of 73 qualifiers)
First-time starters are a common theme on this list. Just like Love and Epps, Jonathan Owens was a backup and special teams player over his first three seasons until he got his first starting role in 2022.
Owens started all 17 games for Houston and amassed 125 tackles with 4 passes defended. He was an efficient tackler, missing 11 tackles with an 8.6% miss rate. However, his coverage must improve after he allowed 23-of-36 passing for 360 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions (124.8 rating).
Owens turns 28 in July.
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5. Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
- Deep safety: 45.3% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 37.9% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 14.3% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 1.2% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 1.2% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.194 (13th of 73 qualifiers)
Adrian Amos has been a mainstay in the NFC North since he was drafted by Chicago in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. Amos started 56 games over four seasons with the Bears and has started all 66 games for the Packers over the past four seasons. Amos has not missed a game since 2017.
In 2022, Amos had a career-high 102 tackles to go with 7 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, and an interception. He had only 8 missed tackles with a 7.8% miss rate. Amos was also effective as a blitzer, creating pressure on half of his pass-rush snaps (5 of 10).
However, Amos tied for the lead among safeties with 6 touchdowns allowed in back-to-back seasons. Amos leads all safeties with 12 touchdowns allowed over the past two seasons.
Amos will turn 30 in April.
4. Taylor Rapp, Los Angeles Rams
- Deep safety: 53.7% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 26.3% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 17.2% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 2.0% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 0.7% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.136 (9th of 73 qualifiers)
A second-round pick in 2019, Taylor Rapp has started 33 games for the Rams over the past two seasons and 48 in his career.
I expect Rapp to be one of the most coveted safeties on the market. He just turned 25 years old in December and has recorded consistently strong numbers throughout each of his four seasons. For his career, Rapp has a missed tackle rate of 6.7%, never going above 8.7% in a season. In coverage, Rapp has snagged more interceptions (9) than he has allowed touchdowns (7), and he’s given up a modest passer rating of 86.1.
3. Mike Edwards, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Deep safety: 55.9% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 26.2% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 11.9% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 3.4% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 2.6% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.116 (8th of 73 qualifiers)
Mike Edwards was actually the Buccaneers’ free safety/primary deep safety. It goes to show how aggressive Todd Bowles’ Tampa Bay defense is compared to New York’s defense – the Bucs’ free safety is used similarly to the Jets’ strong safety.
Edwards started 12 of his 13 games after starting only 11 games over his first three seasons. It was a shaky campaign. He missed 12 tackles on a miss rate of 13.0%. In coverage, Edwards allowed 29-of-38 passing for 351 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (108.6 rating).
Edwards will turn 27 in May.
2. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
- Deep safety: 56.1% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 26.9% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 12.7% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 3.4% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 0.8% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.105 (7th of 73 qualifiers)
Jordan Poyer has been one of the best safeties in football since he signed with Buffalo in 2017. Poyer was named a first-team All-Pro in 2021 and made the Pro Bowl team this year.
Since 2017, Poyer is fourth among safeties in interceptions (22), fourth in forced fumbles (7), second in tackles for loss (33), and second in sacks (10.0).
Poyer missed only two games over his first five seasons with the Bills until he battled various injuries in 2022, causing him to miss five games over four separate stints.
The injuries did seem to affect Poyer’s performance as the season went on. Over his first four games, Poyer missed zero tackles while allowing 1 touchdown and getting 4 interceptions. Over his next eight games, Poyer missed 9 tackles (15.8% miss rate) while allowing 2 touchdowns and getting 0 interceptions. He proceeded to allow another touchdown in Buffalo’s Wild Card win over Miami.
However, Poyer’s coverage was still solid overall in 2022. Poyer rarely got targeted and did not allow many yards when he did, giving up 16 catches on 22 targets for 143 yards. It’s worth noting that 67 of those yards came on one catch, so outside of that, Poyer allowed 15-of-22 passing for 76 yards, which is incredibly good.
Poyer will turn 32 years old in April.
1. Andrew Adams, Tennessee Titans
- Deep safety: 54.4% (Whitehead: 54.6%)
- Box: 29.8% (Whitehead: 32.0%)
- Slot: 12.0% (Whitehead: 10.8%)
- Edge: 1.1% (Whitehead: 1.7%)
- Outside CB: 2.8% (Whitehead: 1.0%)
- Jordan Whitehead Similarity Index: 0.060 (3rd of 73 qualifiers)
A seventh-year veteran, Andrew Adams spent his first two seasons with the Giants before playing four seasons in Tampa Bay. He joined the Titans in 2022.
Playing in 13 games (11 starts), Adams had a mediocre season. Tackling was a major problem as he whiffed on 15 tackles with a 19.7% miss rate. In coverage, Adams allowed 31-of-40 passing for 302 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception (112.7 rating).
On the positive side, Adams had a fantastic resume in coverage prior to 2022. Over his first six seasons, Adams allowed 54-of-86 passing for 561 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions – a minuscule passer rating of 63.2.
Adams will be 31 in October.
The Jets should probably search for a better scheme fit at SS
As we discussed at the top of this article, I don’t think Jordan Whitehead is a good fit in the Jets’ scheme. And it was visibly apparent throughout the year. Whitehead was a liability for the Jets all season. The two safety positions were the main weaknesses holding the Jets back from having a legitimate claim to be the NFL’s best defense.
By releasing Whitehead, the Jets would net $7.3 million in cap savings while owing $3.0 million in dead money. Personally, I think releasing Whitehead is the correct move, but Joe Douglas does not care what I think. We shall see if Douglas agrees.
If the Jets do move on from Whitehead, they need to find a replacement who can be relied upon to handle the dual responsibilities that come with playing in the Jets’ scheme. New York needs a strong safety who is capable of playing not only near the line of scrimmage, but in deep coverage as well.
The Jets re-signed Will parks and Tony Adams played well down the stretch. I think addition by subtraction will be the route Joe D takes w/ safety. That’s not to say we don’t sign someone, but I don’t see us going big. I also think we’ll draft a safety.
Possibly, if they do go big for a QB.
Interesting analysis as usual.
From the numbers (also the one you did on free safety), it appears that a Similarity Index of 0.0 would an exact match, and the higher the number the further from 2022 scheme fit. If true, it might be worth explaining that when introducing the index.
Yep, that’s exactly right, great catch. I just added an explanation for that.
Any chance they tweak the scheme a bit? I think they are planning to add some wrinkles, and if so does that mean adding a new FS may make things better for Whitehead? I agree he was a problem but I did see some playmaking ability with him. Feels strange to say but they do have a bunch of needs elsewhere, is Whitehead serviceable enough to keep him while addressing other concerns?
I’m not sure this is the year to overhaul the entire safety group, even though it appears to be necessary. If they make the overhaul through the draft I could see it but it’s hard to believe that’s the route they take.
Saleh is “looking at everything” and I believe that includes the defensive scheme. I think they now have the base he wants but I do think we will see some changes to make that defense more dynamic. The key is they have the CB’s to be flexible. I’m not saying scrap everything and become Rex’s blitz package D but I do see something more like what they are doing in SF & Seattle coming to NY soon.