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Envisioning Ashtyn Davis’ Role With the Jets

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California v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

To understand the Jets’ selection of Ashtyn Davis in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft I think you have to leave the mindset that the Draft is a team building tool focused on immediate results.

If you view the Draft only in terms of year one, Davis probably doesn’t make a ton of sense. The Jets are set at safety. That isn’t the way the Draft works, though. Third round picks rarely make an immediate impact.

Personally I would be a bit surprised if Davis did much as a rookie. I think aspects of his game need to be cleaned up. My read on the pick is that the Jets saw a track athlete with a great work ethic. They also saw an improvement trajectory that took him from walk on at the University of California to a day two NFL Draft selection in short time. Even if Davis isn’t a dynamic NFL player today, if his growth continues at the current pace he might be able to get there soon.

A few months back I discussed a trip to Cleveland Gil Brandt made in the 1990s. Brant was a legendary front office figure with the Cowboys. During that trip he outlined the Cowboys prospect grading system. Bill Belichick was the head coach of the Browns at the time. He uses a version of that system to this day.

The system has many components. In Ian O’Connor’s 2018 biography of Belichick cleverly titled Belichick, one Patriots scout described a key component of the grades prospects receive.

“When you put a grade on a player, it’s always what he’ll be in year two,” said one scout. “The reason is that you one is a learning curve for everybody.”

The smartest teams in the NFL are proactive with their drafting and think ahead. Many of their picks are immediately unpopular with fans and media who expect immediate results, though.

Ozzie Newsome was working in the Cleveland front office at the time of the meeting with Brandt. After the franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens Newsome was put in charge of personnel. He kept a version of the Brandt system. Jets general manager Joe Douglas, of course, grew up professionally working under Newsome.

Just a few weeks back the Daily News did a story on the Jets’ prospect grading system which looked a lot like what Joe Douglas learned from Newsome.

With this in mind I think it’s important to keep in mind that when the Jets are making a pick, it is important to think about where this player will fit the team in 2021 and beyond. That is the focus of the Draft, especially after the first few picks.

To appreciate the decision to select Davis, all one must do is look at the contract situations in the Jets’ secondary. Jamal Adams’ future with the team is uncertain due to his contract situation while Marcus Maye and Brian Poole are entering the final years of their respective contracts.

You might wonder why I’d include Poole in this list along with Adams and Maye. Davis is listed as a safety. Isn’t Poole a cornerback. What relevance would Davis have?

I think in many regards the way the media presents strategy to fans is behind the times. The Xs and Os of the NFL have evolved, but writers still talk about a team’s West Coast system or whether a player fits the 3-4 defense. This also goes for the ways positions are labeled.

In the secondary we are familiar with cornerbacks and safeties. Those are the positions we know.

However, if football analysis was to start from scratch today based only on the strategy of the NFL in 2020 I think we would have three different positions in the secondary.

You have outside cornerbacks.

These guys have to be fast enough to run down the field, but if they are strong they also have the benefit of being able to push the receiver to the sideline and make the window smaller where a quarterback can fit a pass.

The second position is inside (or slot) cornerback.

Players at this position generally have to be quick in a short area. Unlike their outside counterparts, they can’t use the sideline to help them. They line up in the middle of the field. The receivers they cover can break either way so these corners need to be quick.

Then you have the guys who line up deep and protect that part of the field. We can call them safeties.

There was a day in the NFL where you had your position, and you played only that role. Those days are gone. Most players naturally fit one of these three spots. They play this natural position most of the time, but there are always situations where they have to play a different role.

On the picture I just displayed you might notice that on this play Jamal Adams was playing outside corner because the tight end he was covering split wide. Even though Adams is a natural safety, he played corner on this snap.

Last week I shared in an article how Bless Austin, a natural outside corner, had snaps where he played a deep safety role.

And while we think about Brian Poole as purely a slot cornerback, in reality his usage by Gregg Williams a year ago was much closer to a slot cornerback/safety hybrid.

It leads me to wonder whether this is the type of role the Jets envision for Davis. At Cal last year most of his snaps came playing deep, but he did get over 100 out of the slot. In fact he even had an interception of sixth overall pick Justin Herbert from the slot.

Today the standard base defense in the NFL is the nickel, which is five defensive backs. Most teams have two natural outside corners, two natural safeties, and a natural slot corner like Poole. In the past slot corners were viewed as part time players, but those were the days when offenses only used two receivers on most plays. Poole had the fourth highest snap count of any Jets defender last year.

If you have a safety who can cover the slot it makes the defense better. There are advantages to a two outside corner, three safety nickel defense.

Because the slot corner is stationed in the middle of the field, he has to be a part of stopping the run more than outside corners. Remember, the fifth defensive back is typically replacing a linebacker.

Poole is a willing and effective tackler, but a safety is generally going to be better against the run than a slot cornerback.

Additionally, offenses in the league are looking to exploit the slot. Elite receiving tight ends like Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz are lining up as slot receivers 10 or more times a game (in some cases a lot more). Offenses are looking to exploit the smaller players who traditionally line up at slot corner like the 5’10” Poole. Putting a bigger safety against them would even the score a bit.

My guess is that the selection of Davis is a general hedge against the contractual uncertainty of the Jets’ secondary. Even if the Jets want to keep Adams or Maye, there is no telling whether they will be able to reach a deal that makes sense with either. Davis would become the fallback plan.

I am sure there is a Plan A for the Jets, though. What is the ideal scenario. My thought would be using Davis as the slot/safety hybrid who could replace Poole. Let Poole play out his one year deal as Davis sits and develops. Then in 2021 insert Davis into the lineup.

I don’t in any way mean to disparage the play of Brian Poole in this article because he did an excellent job for the Jets in 2019. I am hopeful he will again in 2020, but teams do need to prioritize players due to the salary cap.

I have seen some people suggest the Jets cannot afford to keep Adams and Maye because it would be unwise to allocate too much money at safety. I cannot agree with that. This isn’t your typical safety duo we are talking about. A lot of Adams’ future salary comes from a value that transcends his listed position. If the Jets were to pay both Adams and Maye, the expense of an pricey safety duo could be offset by having the inexpensive Davis in the slot instead of paying Poole the $7 million per year or so he might command on his next contract.

It is possible Joe Douglas’ Plan A is to let Adams go and use Davis as his replacement. I wouldn’t be in favor of that plan for reasons that have nothing to do with Davis.

The plan could also be to let Maye go and have Davis step in as the primary deep safety. I would find it disappointing if the Jets did not reward a homegrown plus starter with a new contract. In fact this scenario would take away a lot of the enthusiasm I have for the selection of Davis. Given the quantity of competent safeties typically available to replace somebody like Maye, Davis would have to become a near star for me to feel good about this selection in that scenario.

The idea that gets me really excited, though, is thinking to 2021 and envisioning a safety trio lifting the defense to new heights.

“Why would the Jets take a safety in the third round when they don’t need one?” Perhaps that is the reason.