New York Jets: Free Agent Safeties the team can pursue

jessie bates, jets, bengals

The New York Jets could certainly use a safety this offseason. When reviewing their already exceptional secondary, which was third in pass defense last year (189.4 yards per game), on paper, there is a lot to like.

The Jets have one of if not the best cornerback trios in the National Football League. On the outside, Sauce Gardner and DJ Reed are two of the best, and both played on All-Pro levels in 2022. In the slot, Michael Carter II took a year-two jump and asserted himself as one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL.

Then, at safety, the Jets have one starter in strong safety, Jordan Whitehead. There has been speculation as to whether or not he will be cut this offseason. The possibility cannot be ruled out, but for now, Whitehead, a player who has proven to be successful in the past, can still be counted on as an asset to this Jets secondary for his physicality.

The key to completing this already great secondary and firmly establishing it as the best in football is adding one more safety, preferably a free safety. One with some range on the backend, ball skills, and proven ball production, and some man-to-man coverage ability on running backs and tight ends.

Now, the Jets do have a young player in Tony Adams, who showed promise in limited action as an undrafted rookie. And even if Whitehead is retained and the Jets sign a veteran, Adams could still very well have a role. If anything, Adams and a new addition could allow Whitehead to roam more in the box in three safety looks, where some Jets fans would like to see Whitehead more in 2023.

While going over the group of safeties set to hit the free agent market, there is some reason for intrigue. Exciting, top-level talent is currently set to be available. Beyond the top players, there is much depth, which could give the Jets an opportunity to sign a veteran safety. Let’s go over the many players who are set to be free agents.

Safeties, the New York Jets, could target in free agency:

C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles:

C.J. Gardner-Johnson will likely be the most popular safety Jets fans mention over the next month. He will be going into year five of his career and just turned 25 in December. Gardner-Johnson is listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds with 30 7/8″ arm length.

He provides a lot of the skills the Jets could use to complete their secondary. Gardner-Johnson has extraordinary versatility, having played as a slot cornerback with the Saints in the first three years of his career (2019-21). This year, with the Eagles, he played safety and took on various roles. Whether it was playing as the single-high safety, in the box, or on tight ends in man-to-man coverage.

Gardner-Johnson has some speed to cover ground as a single-high free safety (4.48 40-yard dash). As much as anything, though, Gardner-Johnson offers the playmaking ability the Jets desperately need. In just 12 games played for the Eagles this year, Gardner-Johnson had six interceptions, and eight passes defended. He also played 12 games in 2021 and recorded three interceptions. So, over his last 24 games, Gardner-Johnson has tallied nine interceptions. On average, nearly one every two games. Lastly, Gardner-Johnson has had at least seven passes defended in all four years of his career, with a career-best of 13 in 2020.

Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals:

Jessie Bates was a well-discussed option for Jets fans last offseason before getting franchise-tagged. He is once again set to hit the market and will be going into his sixth year in the NFL and turns only 26 later this month. Bates has ideal physical traits for a free safety with his 6-foot-1 height, 31 5/8″ arm length, and he is listed at 200 pounds.

The first thing with Bates that will likely be appealing to Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh is the fact that he has started at least 15 games every year since his rookie season in 2018. Bates is a free safety with both the range and ball production the Jets need. He has 14 career interceptions. In four out of his five years, Bates has had at least three interceptions. From there, Bates has 43 career passes defended, with a whopping career-high of 15 in 2020. He has had at least seven pass breakups in four of five seasons as well.

Bates has solid 4.50 speed. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020. Over the last two years, Bates has gained invaluable experience, playing in seven playoff games.

Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills:

After a phenomenal six-year run in Buffalo with the Bills, in which he built a name for himself, could Jordan Poyer really join the Jets? If the price is right and knowing the Jets need for a veteran safety, it certainly cannot be ruled out.

Over the last two years, Poyer has earned high praise as a first-team All-Pro in 2021 and his first Pro Bowl this season. Since 2021, Poyer has intercepted nine passes and broken up 17 passes in 28 games. He picked off four passes and had eight passes defended in 12 games this year—certainly, recent success in terms of ball production, which the Jets could use.

The big question with Poyer is his older age. He will be going into his 11th NFL season and turns 32 in April. The idea with signing Poyer, though is to get an immediate difference-maker for short-term purposes.

Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers:

Jimmie Ward looks to have reached the end of his terrific, long, nine-year tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, in which he played in 106 games as their first-round draft pick in 2014. Knowing Ward was with Jets head coach Robert Saleh for four years (2017-20), the speculation on the Jets having an interest in Ward has been present. One of Ward’s former teammates for two years (2018-19), DJ Reed, has already been at work recruiting.

Ward offers great versatility as he has played all over the 49ers’ secondary throughout his nine years with the team. With some of his cornerback experience, and he played in the slot in 2022, Ward offers some of the man coverage ability that the Jets could use. Should the Jets sign Ward, he would likely align at free safety.

Ball production has been an area of growth for Ward over the last two years. He has seven career interceptions, but five have come since 2021 in 28 games played. Ward had six passes defended in 2021, and five in 12 games played this year.

The main concern with Ward is the same as Poyer. Ward will also turn 32 this offseason as he enters his 10th year in the NFL. He would once again though be a quick fix for a two to three-year stretch for the Jets.

Julian Love, New York Giants:

Julian Love was a full-time starter for the first time in four years with the New York Giants in 2022 and played good football. Love is one of the youngest players set to hit the free agent market, turning only 25 in March as he goes into year five of his career.

He is listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, and has 31 3/4″ arm length. As a former cornerback in college at Notre Dame, Love immediately provides the Jets with the man coverage skills needed. He had a new personal best in 2022 with two interceptions. Love also had five passes defended.

Love offers consistent, proven availability, having played in at least 15 games all four years with the Giants, 64 games in total. He wrapped up his fourth year with 124 tackles, only two safeties in the league had more. Love is a young player who should be entering his prime years with the man coverage ability and a physicality that could help the Jets at safety.

Vonn Bell, Cincinnati Bengals:

The second Cincinnati Bengals safety here, Vonn Bell, is also set to be one of the better players at the position on the market. Bell has played seven NFL seasons and just turned 28 in December.

Durability is a huge plus with Bell. In every year of his career aside from 2019 (13 games), Bell has played in 16 games every other season of his seven-year career. From there, Bell has proven himself to have a knack for creating fumbles. He has forced 15 fumbles with at least two in six years.

Interceptions were essentially non-existent in the first five years of Bell’s career (one INT). But, over the last two years, he has tallied five, with four in 2022. Also, in terms of ball production, Bell never had more than five passes defended over the first five seasons of his career. He has progressed since 2021 in that regard as well, totaling eight passes defended each of the last two seasons.

Taylor Rapp, Los Angeles Rams:

Taylor Rapp just finished his rookie contract after playing in 57 games for the Los Angeles Rams over the last four years. He played in at least 15 games in three of his first four NFL seasons. Rapp only turned 25 in December.

He has always been known for his physicality. Rapp has accumulated at least 92 tackles in the three healthy seasons he has had. Also, over those same three years, Rapp has totaled at least two interceptions, with a high of four in 2021.

In each full season that Rapp has played, he has recorded at least six passes defended, with a career-best of eight as a rookie in 2019. Rapp started all but one game for the Rams over the last two years and can be an asset both against the run and pass.

Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs:

Juan Thornhill has played his first four years in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs as a second-round draft pick in 2019. He has missed just one game since being drafted by the team over the last four seasons. Thornhill will enter year five of his career at 27 years old.

He offers great speed that the Jets could use at free safety (4.42 40-yard dash) to cover ground. In two of his four seasons, Thornhill has recorded three interceptions. Over the course of his first three years, Thornhill never had more than five passes defended. He improved significantly in 2022 with nine pass breakups, nearly doubling his prior career-best.

Thornhill’s proven durability, speed, and improved ball production all make him an enticing free safety on the market.

Tashaun Gipson, San Francisco 49ers:

Out of nowhere, Tashaun Gipson, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers in late August, had a wonderful season playing free safety at 32 years old. Gipson has 11 years of NFL experience.

Despite joining the 49ers very late in the summer, Gipson started all 17 games this season. He caused tons of turnovers, which the Jets could use, as he finished with five interceptions. On the ball, Gipson also had eight passes defended.

Gipson is not short on NFL experience having played 157 games in the league. Since 2019, Gipson has recorded at least two interceptions every year. His ability to take the ball away would be great for the Jets to have in their secondary.

Final thoughts:

Those are nine of the top safeties currently set for free agency. Below are several more that I wanted to make note of.

  • Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
  • Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • Mike Edwards, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Ryan Neal, Seattle Seahawks
  • Nasir Adderley, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Marcus Epps, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Nick Scott, Los Angeles Rams

So, in totality, there is no shortage of depth in this market for the Jets to not come away with someone. What will be fascinating is how much they are looking to invest in a safety. Will they throw top-dollar at a Gardner-Johnson or a Bates? Or, take more of a value approach?

Either way, it will be exciting if they sign someone. Adding a veteran safety who could provide a lift to the position group can put this Jets secondary in a position to be the best in football and only improve this defense that ranked fourth in the NFL last year.

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