Could Chuck Clark’s skills eliminate the need for the New York Jets to bring back Kwon Alexander?
When the New York Jets traded a seventh-round pick for Chuck Clark, most fans had two reactions.
The first was to laud the trade as another savvy move from Joe Douglas. The second was to assume that this spelled the end of Jordan Whitehead‘s time with the team.
While the first still holds true, the latter is in doubt. The Jets have shown no signs of moving on from Whitehead. In fact, they seem to be confident that he’ll improve in Year 2 in the system.
That has led some to speculate that Clark and Whitehead will be the Jets’ starting safeties in 2023. However, could there be a different plan, one that could save cap space and open up snaps for younger players?
Clark’s primary 2022 role
Last offseason, Clark was listed as a cut candidate for the Ravens after they signed Marcus Williams to a big free-agent deal and drafted Kyle Hamilton in the first round. However, Clark remained with the Ravens and did not miss a defensive snap all season.
How did that happen? Part of the reason is that Baltimore phased Hamilton into a bigger role slowly. He played only 53% of the defensive snaps. However, part of it was also that the Ravens played all three safeties on the field a nice percentage of the time.
As I explained previously, Baltimore employed the third-most big nickel of any team at 68.5% of their nickel packages. They effectively used Clark as a hybrid player who could cover better than a linebacker but tackle better than a cornerback.
Advantage for Jets
Although the Jets ostensibly employ a 4-3 defense, 4-3 is really their sub-package. With the proliferation of 11 personnel, defenses are most often in nickel. Therefore, having only two linebackers and five defensive backs on the field is the Jets’ default. Three linebackers are a change of pace in response to heavier personnel.
Within the nickel package, though, it’s harder to defend against the run. The cornerback’s size disadvantage compared to a linebacker means that blockers will have an easier time getting to the second level. The Jets may also use Quinton Jefferson at DT in nickel rather than Al Woods, which weakens the middle of their defense significantly.
By keeping Clark on the field as opposed to Michael Carter II, the Jets can protect against the run when offenses are in 11 personnel. Clark is active in the run game, posting an above-average 2.66% run-stuff rate in 2022 with just a 5.3% missed tackle rate.
But what if the Jets take this a step further? Since the team already plays nickel as its primary package, what if they decide to have Clark play the weakside linebacker position in their base 4-3 defense, as well?
The idea is that Clark played enough of a hybrid role in the past that he would do no worse than a regular linebacker in those positions. The Jets tend to use safety-like linebackers, anyway. The average NFL linebacker is 240.7 pounds, while the Jets’ heaviest starting linebacker in 2022 was C.J. Mosley at 231 pounds. The team converted college safeties Hamsah Nasirildeen (215 pounds) and Jamien Sherwood (216) to linebacker.
The Jets’ website currently lists Clark at 210 pounds, which isn’t that much smaller than Nasirildeen or Sherwood. It’s 17 pounds lighter than Kwon Alexander was at linebacker last season, though.
Still, could Clark be a hybrid starter in the Jets’ offense, playing the weakside linebacker position in the base defense and the nickelback in nickel packages?
Pros and cons
The most obvious pro of this setup would be to save the Jets money. Per Over the Cap, the team currently has $7.6 million in cap space. That’s going to get tighter after they sign their top few draft picks and restructure Aaron Rodgers’ contract. Alexander played 2022 on the veteran minimum and will most likely want a raise.
However, playing a 210-pound player at the linebacker position has definitive drawbacks. It would weaken the Jets’ run defense in base personnel. No matter how good Clark is against the run, he’s not built to take on blocks at the point of attack. Since run defense is already a concern for the Jets, it wouldn’t be the wisest move to weaken it further.
Furthermore, if Clark plays linebacker, then he won’t take Whitehead’s place at strong safety. Clark brings some strengths to the position that Whitehead doesn’t, particularly in covering tight ends. Leaving Whitehead in that role full-time is likely to have similar results to the 2022 outcomes—namely, dreadful.
Of course, the Jets could be planning to play Whitehead on every snap again anyway, which would render this point moot. But bringing in Clark, whose skillset is somewhat redundant to Whitehead’s, would seemingly indicate that the Jets wanted more insurance for Whitehead’s weaknesses.
Another point to note is that Alexander was surprisingly effective in run defense last season. He didn’t show up on the stat sheet that often but played a critical role in filling gaps and taking on blocks.
Will Clark replace Alexander?
I do not think that Clark will be the base weakside linebacker. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich trust their ability to coach up linebackers a lot. Still, they’re unlikely to try to make that change with a veteran on a one-year deal.
It’s more likely that if the Jets want to save money, they’ll bring in a cheaper veteran or try to play one of their other linebackers. I think the veteran route is more likely. Nasirildeen hasn’t shown much in the NFL, Zaire Barnes is a liability in coverage, and Sherwood has played only middle linebacker in the league. Chazz Surratt is also an unknown.
Interestingly, Saleh brought up Alexander recently in a press conference. In debunking the Rodgers “wish list” idea, Saleh stated that it’s normal for those on a new team to request familiar faces to follow them. He said that he had his own wish list of several players when he came to the Jets. Saleh listed Solomon Thomas, Tevin Coleman, Laken Tomlinson—and Alexander.
Kwon seemed open to the possibility on Twitter recently, saying that the Jets have his number. The Jets did not officially sign Alexander until late July last year. A potential reunion could happen at any point during the spring into summer.
If Rodgers’ 2023 cap hit is less than $15.75 million, the Jets might have the space to fit Alexander without issue. Quinnen Williams’ anticipated contract extension could also clear enough space to sign the veteran linebacker.
Overall, while Clark’s versatility is highly useful for the Jets, I think they’ll have an actual third linebacker this season. What do you think, Jets fans?
I think Alexander is a must must must unless they want to get carved up on the run. This is a pass rush heavy D and while rated 5th, 3rd to 1st down conversions happened way too often. Especially on screens and over the middle.
Obviously Saleh knows more than I do but I don’t see Whitehead improving appreciably.
Get Kwon, cut Whitehead and maybe sign Adrian Amos at safety.
Yep. Big Nickel. It makes perfect sense for Saleh.
I’m hoping to see a lot of games like the first Miami game from last year, when the Jets patiently let the Dolphins run the football until their offense put the game out of reach. I’m pretty sure that’s where we are headed, with big Nickel being used a lot.