With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and the 2014 New York Jets having begun their organized team activities (OTAs), it's time to being discussing what the final depth chart could look like.
First up, the Jets safeties:
Depth: (3) Dawan Landry , (4) Jaiquawn Jarrett, (5) Josh Bush, (6) Rontez Miles, (7) Brandon Hardin
Historically, the Jets have kept as many as five players on their roster at the safety position, but also as few as three at the outset of seasons like they did in 2012 when Antonio Allen started the year on the practice squad because they had such a veteran group at safety and cornerback. This year, I would expect a rather normal four players to make the roster at the safety spot with a player held in reserve on practice squad.
It's no secret that Rex Ryan has put an emphasis on the cornerback position during his tenure with the New York Jets. Has that changed? Maybe, but the trend seems to be modifying to all defensive backs. The Jets might feel good about second year corner Dee Milliner, but there was a lot of emphasis on the Jets not bringing in a top free agent cornerback to play opposite Milliner like Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. While many expected the Jets to draft a receiver in the first round, the team addressed the concerns in the secondary by drafting Calvin Pryor 18th overall.
Why Pryor? With the defensive front under control for the foreseeable future, and the Jets feeling like they have tolerable depth at the cornerback spot, the idea of the Big Nickel -- and specifically flexible safeties -- has to be considered.
Last year, Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports spoke to a number of coaches about the proliferation of the Big Nickel package around the NFL was a way to fight two tight end sets. Coaches spoke of needing flexible safeties who can play man if required to prevent tipping off the coverage scheme to the opposing quarterback.
I asked a number of defensive coaches about Big Nickel, when an extra safety is brought in to the game for a front seven player. The first thing I always hear is, "You gotta have the right kind of hybrid safety to do it right." The Big Nickel safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, and of course, he has to match up on a flexed tight end when they spread out the formation.Calvin Pryor might be better suited near the line, but can play up and back if required and will fit the Jets need for flexible, physical safeties perfectly. Idzik related after the fact, the draft room "erupted" when the Ravens let him slide to them at the 18th pick. One can safely assume that Pryor is going to be the leader in the safety group for years to come and the team wants to get as much out of the talented player as they can as soon as possible. To that end, Pryor will also likely be the teams signal caller of the secondary getting players positioned properly in the pre-snap alignments much as David Harris does with the defensive front.
As one coach said. "The Big Nickel is a hybrid defensive package that changes as the offense changes. The problem with not having a Big Nickel package is it can reduce the base defense to zone coverage calls, and the quarterback knows right away that there are a limited number of ways a team can play an offense like New England or San Francisco."
Paired with Calvin Pryor will be third-year Jet Antonio Allen. Allen played well in his first season as a starter, but saw his time marginalized with the addition of Ed Reed to the team. Allen seems to be best deployed at or near the line of scrimmage and generally on the strong side of the formation. In college, Alan saw time as an additional linebacker/safety hybrid in the "Spur" in the South Carolina Gamecock defense; a position comparable to Rex Ryan's "46" in his scheme. Allen is still young and has athleticism and speed to run in coverage, so should the Jets deploy a big nickel package he might be the one who slides into more of a coverage role.
As far as the third part of a Big Nickel package? Rex Ryan has spoken about how he fully expects that 2013 starter Dawan Landry, who will now work in more of a reserve role, will still be a major component of the Jets defense. Landry saw more than 1,100 defensive snaps in 2013, more than any other Jet player at safety combined. Landry could provide the team excellent depth, a coach's eyes from the sidelines (and field).
Behind Landry, the team has Jaiquawn Jarrett who saw more snaps than Josh Bush. Jarrett seems best suited as a run-stopping safety, while Bush might be better employed in coverage. The problem for Bush is that with good depth at cornerback already, it might be hard for him to see nickel / dime defense work with as many other competent coverage players on the team.
After Bush come Rontez Miles and Brandon Hardin. Miles showed promise last summer during training camp and is a big hitting safety, but both he and Hardin will need to demonstrate their worth as special teamers first to make this team's September roster.