Safety hasn't been considered a position of strength for the New York Jets in recent history, however there is hope that 1st round pick Calvin Pryor and other defensive backs can reverse this trend. LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell played capably on inexpensive contracts before being signed away to other teams last offseason, but outside of these two you have to look back to Kerry Rhodes tenure with the team to find Safety play at an average or better level.
So how would you set the Jets Safety lineup to maximize results in 2014? Let's take a look at the state of the rosters, past and present.
A History of Hitters
The New York Jets carried 5 Safeties on the regular roster and 1 (Ronez Miles) on the practice squad in 2013, 4 full time Safeties and 1 practice squad Safety who would later be promoted in 2012 for 5 total, and 5 regular roster members with 1 practice squad member played Safety for the Jets in 2011. Counting Jim Leonhard, who went to IR two seasons in a row, the Jets carried 5 Safeties on the roster in 2010, although Dwight Lowery played a hybrid role of CB/S after Leonhard went down. The Jets carried 4 designated Safeties and 7 Cornerbacks in 2009, although again some of the players such as Lowery were frequently rotated to play as Safeties or extra backs when needed as Rex Ryan plays a very unique and flexible defensive scheme that has worked very well in the past.
For 2013; out of 1,100 total defensive snaps (source), Dawan Landry played far and away the most out of any players designated as a Safety with 1,081; or 98 percent of all defensive plays. Antonio Allen played nearly half as many snaps, at 534. Ed Reed played 368 snaps or 1/3 of all defensive plays, Jaiquawn Jarrett played 277 snaps, and Josh Bush played 70 snaps.
While Landry and Allen took the majority of snaps in the starting Safety roles through 2013 (partially due to Rex Ryan begrudgingly using zone coverage out of desperation), Ed Reed earned the most picks with 3, justifying his listing as a Free Safety although you don't typically associate range with older age. Reed and Jarrett maximized their value in situational, limited snaps. Josh Bush was relegated to limited run support and special teams plays.
SS vs FS & Why it Barely Matters on a Rex Ryan Defense
Strong Safety refers to the DB who stacks opposite the strong side of the offense, or alternatively lines up against the starting Tight End. Strong Safety is largely used in run support and defending against tight ends or extra receivers in man coverage. In zone coverage, the Strong often performs similar duties to the Free Safety on the opposite side of the field. Dawan Landry was designated the starting SS for the Jets on the 2013 depth chart. Solid tackling, ample physical size, and disruptive hits are desirable traits at the Strong position. Capable blitzing is preferred, however not all Safeties do this effectively.
Free Safety is more of a coverage back who must be more versatile in play while not sacrificing hard, disruptive hits. The Free Safety is frequently the last line of defense and has to take the right angle on a hit to either prevent the reception or to stop the ball carrier. When people refer to a player as ball hawk, they are often referring to a Free Safety. FS has to constantly keep their eye on the ball and the carrier, as they are frequently the sole unblocked defensive player. The player designated as FS is often a zone guy except in specific packages or looks, and given their unique position on the field they often (not always) call out the plays for the defense.
Rex Ryan will rotate backs based on their strengths, who is available, and what the opponent is throwing at them. Last season with coverage so weak from the Cornerbacks, Ryan had to frequently run Cover 2 or zone looks to compensate for the deficiency, while he has historically preferred man coverage. Some players transition from FS to SS or vice versa due to age or need, and some are defensive backs that switch between Corner and Safety. Players are used situationally, and are frequently switched in between the Free and Strong positions. Creative blitzing and coverage schemes make defining who plays what role even more difficult. What matters is how well all the Safeties on the field adjust and adapt with the looks from the opposing offense.
The Jets notoriously lack Safeties who are capable in coverage, and many of the players past and present listed as Free Safety play that position in name only. When they were drafted or signed, nearly all of the Jets playing Safety were considered strong "in the box" while typically weak in coverage.
It's safe to say the Jets will likely keep 5 players at Safety (and/or special teams) exclusively. Alternatively, New York could roll with 4 Safeties and keep an extra generic defensive back. The Jets currently have 7 players designated as Safety under contract, and 11 players listed as Cornerbacks. It's not yet known if any players already have a leg up on starting in 2014, but people like your favorite sports writer/sarcastic teenager trapped in a grown mans body Rich Cimini suggest Rex might rotate players in a DB timeshare. The players listed as Safety are:
Calvin Pryor (FS - projected position listed on most national sources except CBSSports which projects to SS)
The Jets 1st round 2014 draft pick. Pryor has the range, speed, and tackling ability to be the all purpose Safety that Rex Ryan desperately needs. Like LaRon Landry, Pryor is a hard hitter who is disruptive to receivers. Similar to the younger Landry, Calvin might make a questionable play here or there but he is arguably more consistent in tackling ability. Early indicators from OTAs have Pryor rising up the depth chart rapidly.
Pryor has been working with Antonio Allen and the 1st team so far, but Rex Ryan attributes this largely to the rookies need for field experience. Most project Pryor as the Jets starting FS, but he has the size and tackling ability to make him an option at Strong if necessity dictates it. Like virtually every Safety the Jets sign, Pryor's strength is in the box and thus he might fit in better at SS. What technical position Pryor plays may very well be dictated by the teams most pressing need.
Dawan Landry (SS)
Landry is signed through the end of the year to a fairly cheap contract, and some have even floated the idea of cutting Landry if other players at Safety demonstrate a lack of need for the 31 year old player. While Landry is arguably a mediocre player and generates very few flashy plays on the field, he is consistent. Dawan hasn't missed a game in nearly 6 years, not bad for an 8 year vet. Landry also consistently produces solo tackles in the 60-80 range every year. Landry often uses his veteran knowledge to line players up and essentially runs the defense on the field.
With reliability comes a low ceiling. Landry has been performing with the third team during OTAs, a notable demotion. Rex Ryan insisted we not overthink this move, and while Landry almost definitely will see a sharp reduction in field time after playing nearly every snap last year, Landry still has a niche to fill on this team. Unless Allen is moved to full-time Strong opposite Pryor, expect a player rotation in the box this season.
Antonio Allen (FS - at least technically, for now)
Allen nearly matched the production of Landry in half as many snaps in 2013. Allen was a 7th round draft pick homegrown into a passable starter, and it appears as if his role with the team will only expand. Allen has improved in coverage although he is still at his best average and lacks many qualities desired of a true Free Safety. Allen played Sam Linebacker in school, and considering how well he transitioned to FS, it's reasonable to think he can succeed in run support or opposite Tight Ends if moved to SS.
I personally expect either Pryor and Allen to split duties situationally and often play zone to compensate for the secondary, or for Allen and Landry to rotate at Strong and Pryor to see the most snaps at Free. Either way Allen will, barring injury, definitely be a prominent part of the Jets 2014 plans. Allen entered into the NFL a strong run defender, so don't be surprised to see his role change dramatically this year to better suit his strengths.
Jaiquawn Jarrett (FS but not really)
Jarrett is a Philadelphia Eagles-drafted retread who gave Antonio Allen strong competition for one of the starting Safety roles last season. While Jarrett provides capable depth, he also offers genuine relief, playing a quarter of defensive snaps last season. Jarrett was considered poor in coverage both in college and with the Eagles, but found himself competing with Allen for top dog opposite Landry. Jarrett is a decent depth DB at his best.
Josh Bush (SS?)
A lot of fans and football pundits expected Bush, not Allen, to take over a starting role at Safety. Bush initially was listed as a FS but has been moved behind Landry as a backup at SS. Bush went from Safety heir apparent to potential camp casualty in the span of about a year and played only 6 percent of snaps in 2013, even with the Jets limited options at his position. If Bush has a future with the team, it's likely as a part of the special teams unit.
Rontez Miles (Depends on who you ask)
A generic defensive back who spent ten days on the active roster in 2013 in between practice squad runs. Still PS eligible. Camp body.
Brandon Hardin (Listed as FS on NFL.com)
Hardin is oft-injured. He missed his entire final year of college play, then finished both seasons with the Chicago Bears on injured reserve with varying ailments. Hardin is here as a camp body in the unlikely case he can come back from these injuries and breakout, but first he has to demonstrate durability. Hardin has yet to outlast a preseason in the NFL. Hardin is to the Safety position what Glass Joe was to NES Punch-Out!(TM)
1. Pryor. I think the kid has a very bright future and will be an impact player for the Jets from game 1 on.
2. (TIE) Landry/Allen split. Landry offers mediocre consistency the Jets will not be able to live without, but Allen will ultimately supplant him by the end of the year and be the undisputed starter opposite Pryor.
3. Jarrett. Jaiquawn will be the clear 4th Safety, used only in relief or extra DB situations on defense.
4. Bush. Josh Bush is one camp body away from the unemployment line.
5. Miles. Still practice squad eligible, and that's exactly where I think he is headed.
6. Hardin. Keep chasing that rainbow. Camp casualty.
FS: 1. Calvin Pryor 2. Jaiquawn Jarrett
SS: 1-2. Antonio Allen 2-1. Dawan Landry 3. Josh Bush
As always at the end of the Armchair, we turn it over for you to decide. How would you structure the Jets depth chart at Safety? Is that what you think the Jets will do?