Although the Jets have filled most of their holes in the lead up to the 2023 draft at the end of the month, one that remains is at the free safety position.
With 2022 starter Lamarcus Joyner not expected to return, the Jets did make one major move at safety. They were able to acquire Baltimore Ravens starter Chuck Clark for a late round pick.
Clark and incumbent starter Jordan Whitehead are both versatile players. However, each is known more for their run defense than their coverage abilities and would be primarily classed as a strong safety.
So, what’s the plan at this position? Can they play together? Is Whitehead on his way out? Or are there alternative options?
It’s important to note that while it’s often assumed that each team will have a box safety and a deep safety, that isn’t necessarily what most teams do. Instead, many teams will have a coverage safety who will play a versatile role that often requires them to play close to the line of scrimmage so they can match up directly with tight ends or slot receivers.
This means the other starter isn’t necessarily going to be in the box all the time. He’s more likely to be lined up deep in base packages, working in coverage support rather than being exposed to direct coverage matchups.
The need for a rangy, deep centerfielder arises mainly on passing downs where teams will often bring in a third safety to play this role. The other two starters can then be employed in the box and in direct coverage matchups accordingly.
As things stand it looks like both will be on the team in 2023, so let’s consider the options for that free safety position.
With both players possessing the versatility to play any role, the Jets could simply opt to use them interchangeably. This could add a dimension to the defense by making the secondary less predictable and opening up opportunities to set traps.
Make Clark the deep safety
Clark is definitely capable of playing as the deep safety. He was the box safety last year with Marcus Williams as the deep safety, but when Williams was injured, Clark had to play deep more often.
In these games, Clark didn’t play as well as he did when paired with Williams and made some high profile errors. However, the Ravens did have some good success, winning four in a row at one stage.
Make Whitehead the deep safety
Whitehead already played deeper more often last season than he had in any of his four seasons with the Bucs, so perhaps this is a transition that is already starting to happen.
Both Clark and Whitehead have similar workout numbers with the main difference between them being Clark’s superior three-cone drill. If anything, that might suggest he’s more athletically suited to being the one to range deep.
Work in some of the reserves
As noted above, sometimes teams who lack a natural center fielder will bring a third safety off the bench in passing situations. This would allow one of the starters to effectively be employed as an extra linebacker in the box with the other matching up in coverage. The Jets seem high on Tony Adams, who impressed at times as an undrafted rookie in 2022, so perhaps they are keen to increase his role.
The recently re-signed Will Parks is also an extremely useful reserve because he has extensive experience at both safety positions and has played in the box as an extra linebacker.
Make a signing
It may be a little late to bring a starter in via free agency. You’d probably be looking at someone like Rodney McLeod or Adrian Amos, but if you were going to bring in a player on that level, it might just be easier to bring Joyner back.
Jimmie Ward seems like someone the Jets would have liked to add in free agency, even after adding Clark, but he opted to sign an early deal with the Texans.
If the roster remains as it is now, drafting a potential starter would be a good option. However, even if you did this with a first-round pick, that wouldn’t necessary guarantee you a day one starter as Clark’s Ravens saw last year when they drafted Hamilton but kept Clark in the starting line-up.
With Parks, Whitehead and Clark all out of contract at the end of the season, this would be a logical move to make nevertheless.
Over the years, the Jets have had some interesting safety pairings with players like Eric Coleman, Kerry Rhodes and Marcus Maye all playing both as a free safety and as a strong safety depending on who they were paired with.
Pairing Clark and Whitehead together is perhaps most reminiscent of when the Jets entered the 2012 season with Laron Landry and Yeremiah Bell as their starters. In that case, both players were again best known for their work in the box. However, the Jets opted to convert Bell into a deep safety role.
On the face of it, this worked. Landry set career highs in tackles (100) and forced fumbles (four) as he went to the first (and only) pro bowl of his career. However, this production masked an inconsistent season from Landry as the Jets missed the playoffs at 6-10.
The Jets have plenty of options, as outlined above, and may not yet be done adding contributors. With Robert Saleh’s creativity and the positionless aspects of his defense, they could find a way to make this work. However, they also should be wary of forcing players into unfamiliar roles even if that’s the best way to get the best guys on the field.