The New York Jets had all kinds of problems in the secondary this season, ranking just 22nd in the NFL in pass defense. They are set at strong safety with Dawan Landry, and Dee Milliner made massive strides over the final month of the season, allowing the Jets to be comfortable with him starting at one corner next season. However, Antonio Cromartie is looking more and more likely to be a cap casualty, and the Jets have a major need at free safety that must be addressed.
Let’s begin at corner, where even if Cromartie is released, he could return at a lower price. However, there is a very strong market of free agent corners, and the Jets should look to bring in another player. Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner are the top three players, but each will require a big contract and none of their current teams have any intentions of allowing them to leave. Charles Tillman is 32 and not a long term solution, and the idea of replacing Cromartie with his cousin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, is likely an uncomfortable situation for all parties.
That leaves Sam Shields, Walter Thurmond, Captain Munnerlyn and Tarell Brown as the top free agents the Jets will be looking at. Of those players, Thurmond and Shields are the most likely for the Jets to target, in my opinion. Thurmond would be the ideal signing, as John Idzik is very familiar with him and he would be a very good fit in Rex Ryan’s system. The Seattle Seahawks have quite a few top young players coming up for contract extensions in the near future, and they may deem Thurmond surplus. The Green Bay Packers are also a team that is running out of cap space, and they could decide to allow Shields to leave. Both Thurmond and Shields would be a long term solution and an upgrade over Cromartie.
I personally believe that the Jets should use free agency to upgrade their cornerbacks, not the draft. However, they could look to draft a young player, though first round prospects like Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard are not likely to be an option. Marcus Roberson, Bradley Roby, Louchiez Purifoy, Jason Verrett and LaMarcus Joyner may or may not be available when the Jets pick in the second, and even less likely in the third. Still, if the Jets are looking for a young player to develop, those are the names they will be targeting.
The Jets desperately need to upgrade their free safety position with a ballhawking centerfielder. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is the top safety in the draft, and he is a dark horse candidate for the Jets to take in the first round. If all the top receivers are off the board, don’t be surprised if the Jets take Clinton-Dix. In the second round, Calvin Murphy would be a fantastic option if he’s still available, but that doesn’t seem particularly likely. After them, Ahmad Dixon profiles more like a strong safety, but Terrence Brooks and Craig Loston could be fourth round options.
Just like with the corners, the Jets may have more luck in free agency. Jairus Byrd would be a perfect fit, but he will probably command a very large contract. However, the Jets are very familiar with the Buffalo Bills safety, and they should at least feel out the market and potentially make an offer, if only because Byrd is the ideal player to solve their problems.
If they can’t get Byrd, Antoine Bethea, Malcom Jenkins, Major Wright, Stevie Brown and Nate Allen could all make for upgrades at the free safety position. Jenkins has familiarity with Rex Ryan’s system from playing under Rob Ryan, while Brown was a takeaway machine in 2012 (he missed this season with a torn ACL). Any of these five players would offer a major upgrade for the Jets and give them much better ball skills in the secondary.
The Jets need to make some big improvements in the secondary, and in a perfect world they would be able to sign Thurmond and Byrd to reasonable contracts. However, there are plenty of other options, and look for Idzik and the Jets to make a few big moves in their secondary as they try to improve their pass defense.