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The Jets need a healthy Marcus Maye in 2019

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NFL: New York Jets at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

After a promising rookie year, Marcus Maye’s 2018 season proved to be a bit of a washout. He eventually played in just six games and his absence loomed large in terms of the persistent breakdowns in the defensive secondary.

You might hope that a statistical comparison of the six games he played and the 10 in which he did not might reflect favorably upon how the team played when Maye was available. However, that wasn’t really the case.

While the team was 2-4 with Maye in the lineup and 2-8 without him and allowed slightly fewer yards against the run, the rest of the stats actually suggest that the team was better off without him. Surprisingly, they gave up more passing yards (277 with Maye, 240 without) and total yards (396 with Maye, 371 without). Offenses also had more success on 3rd down (40 percent success rate with Maye, 30 without) and the rate at which big plays were given up or passes intercepted were about equivalent.

This probably speaks to two things. First of all, Maye was probably not 100 percent for most of those six games. He looked rusty in the first game and, in the last three, was playing with a brace protecting a broken thumb which no doubt influenced his ability to tackle and make plays on the ball. Also, the team was desperate to figure things out in the defensive secondary with regard to communication issues but Maye simply wasn’t in the lineup for long enough to enable them to get that down.

You’ll recall that the team was having all kinds of issues at the start of the year in picking up assignments in zone coverage. That came to a head in the loss to Jacksonville, which was actually Maye’s first game of the year. Dede Westbrook, who otherwise has never had a hundred-yard game in the NFL, was left uncovered over and over again as he ended up with 130 yards on nine catches to lead the Jaguars to an easy win.

The players and coaches vowed to fix things and, following a well-publicized players-only meeting, it looked like they had for the next two weeks. Then Maye got hurt again and by the time he returned with the broken thumb two weeks later, any cohesion in the secondary had evaporated again.

Another issue with the team in the games Maye missed was that Trumaine Johnson was injured at that stage of the season, so the defense was never truly at 100 percent, personnel-wise. Ironically, the two games both played in were arguably the two worst performances of the season against Jacksonville and Buffalo. Again, that likely comes down to the fact that neither was fully healthy and that starting unit had no time to play together, including in preseason where Maye played in just one game.

Maye’s statistical production was in line with his rookie year and he graded out well, so there wasn’t a major issue with his performance despite the fact he perhaps wasn’t ever fully healthy. However, the constant blown coverages and communication breakdowns in the defensive secondary lasting throughout the year are testament to the fact that the team can’t afford to have him in and out of the lineup.

The obvious next question is whether Maye should be considered injury prone. When he entered the league, his senior year at Florida had been cut short due to an arm/shoulder issue that required surgery but he made an immediate impact in camp and started every game during the regular season. He’d previously been healthy during his first three years at Florida too.

Unfortunately, he injured an ankle in last year’s season finale and his rehabilitation from that injury took longer than expected. He then suffered another foot injury in his only preseason appearance. After returning in week four, he suffered the broken thumb, which had been reported to be a 4-6 week injury. He missed just one game and then made his return but lasted just three games before going onto injured reserve as he had also picked up a shoulder issue.

The Jets probably had to weigh up the best course of action for Maye. Either they could give him a chance to work his way back and hopefully iron out the communication issues before the season was over or just deactivate him and give him a chance to get fully healthy for 2019. With Todd Bowles on his way out and a new defensive scheme set to be installed, choosing to do the former was probably the wise choice.

While Maye was out, the Jets gave starts to Doug Middleton, Rontez Miles and Darryl Roberts in Maye’s free safety position and they held their own for the most part. However, all three are out of contract, although Terrence Brooks - who took over from Middleton when he got injured in the Vikings game - is not. It’s useful to know that players like these can fill in for Maye but far from ideal in a system where players are struggling to know their assignments.

Maye only has two years left on his rookie deal and has shown signs that he can be a difference maker who complements Jamal Adams well in the defensive secondary. However, if he struggles to stay on the field again in 2019, the Jets might have to start thinking about contingencies for the longer term.