The New York Jets were serious when they said that they wanted to run it back on defense in 2023.
Outside of — seemingly — letting veteran safety Lamarcus Joyner walk in free agency, Gang Green has at least shown interest in every UFA on the defensive side so far. Although they were unable to afford defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Nathan Shepherd, they have already worked out new contracts with linebacker Quincy Williams and D-tackle Solomon Thomas, plus they placed a high second-round tender on pass rusher Bryce Huff.
Head coach Robert Saleh also practically guaranteed that D-end Carl Lawson would not be released at the NFL League Meeting, and he had good things to say about fellow cut candidate Jordan Whitehead and the 2023 safety room as well.
“He’s getting into a safety room that we’re really excited about,” Saleh stated while talking about trade acquisition Chuck Clark, “I think Jordan’s [Whitehead] going to be a lot better playing in his second year in the system, and we got some young guys with Ashtyn Davis and T.A. [Tony Adams] — hopefully they’ll take another jump — so it’s a really good group.”
It may have been a passing comment to some, but the way this quote rolled right off Saleh’s tongue was a pretty clear indication that Whitehead is the presumptive starter at strong safety heading toward camp. Whether or not the Jets draft another free safety to compete with Clark, Davis, Adams and veteran Will Parks is another story altogether, but they do not appear to be targeting the position in free agency.
Robert Saleh Praises Jets New Safety Chuck Clark
When the Jets traded for Clark, many questioned whether or not he would be a starter in New York. After the way Saleh raved about him on March 27, however, you can probably pencil the former Baltimore Ravens contributor in next to Whitehead for now.
“Chuck, another one of those guys that frickin’ loves ball,” Saleh told reporters, continuing, “eats it, lives it, got a tremendous mindset to him, fights through pain, fights through injury — the guy’s got an iron man streak of over a thousand plays in a row or something like that — just an incredible talent, tackling machine.”
It was quite the introduction from the Jets HC. Clark, a former sixth-round pick in 2017, has worked his way up from role player to starter with the Ravens. Over the past three years, he’s been with the first team, starting all 49 appearances since 2020.
Clark also started another 12 games in 2019, when he first made the transition. He has not registered less than 80 tackles since turning into a full-time safety, with a career-high 101 tackles in 2022.
The veteran addition has forced 10 turnovers throughout his career (five interceptions, five forced fumbles), and has excelled as a tackler and run defender according to Pro Football Focus. Adams — who started one game late in his rookie campaign — is the most likely candidate to push Clark for a first-team role assuming the Jets don’t select a clearcut starter in round one or two of the NFL Draft.
Jets Confirm Interest in C Ben Jones, DT Calais Campbell
Adding some fuel to the theory that the Jets are not targeting a veteran safety in free agency, both Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas did confirm interest in center Ben Jones and defensive tackle Calais Campbell — as previously reported.
They also flirted with the idea of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. coming in for a chat at some point this cycle, although Douglas reiterated that no visit has been scheduled at this time. Despite all of those admissions, there was nothing more on the safety position.
This has become a polarizing position among fans over the past couple of years. Douglas and Saleh don’t seem to value a high-end safety in their current scheme, while critics feel the Jets should spend more time and money improving this unit.
Having said that, an opposing contingent of fans agrees with management, reminding safety enthusiasts of all the recent draft busts at the position (Davis, Calvin Pryor, Kyle Wilson). Of course, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye were hits, but the immediate issue became paying those players long-term — something this regime had no interest in doing.
Instead, Douglas and Saleh have built a safety room using low-level money and assets (Tony Adams, Parks, Clark, Joyner and Jason Pinnock in year’s past). The only bigger money signing was Whitehead, and his contract was considered modest compared to a top-of-the-line safety like Marcus Williams. Davis was also a third-round pick, but that was before Saleh entered the fold.