Sophmore FS Jon McGraw (38) hopes to bring consistency to the Jets secondary
During this frenzied off-season for the Jets there is one personnel change that could have a great impact on the team. A move that has gone relatively under the radar and ignored by most, the elevation of Jon McGraw to starting Free Safety.
It is obvious that the Jets needed to upgrade themselves at that position due to the lack luster performance of last year’s starter Damien Robinson who seemed to make much more news off the field than on it. In his mediocre two seasons with the Jets he appeared to make an ill advised decision every game, be it a costly penalty or a lapse in coverage.
Most Jet fans can remember how easily he was fooled not once but twice by Rich Gannon pump fakes in the 30-10 divisional round playoff loss to the Raiders. So while it is good news that he has been released it also leads to questions regarding his replacement.
Jon McGraw seems to have the tools that are needed to succeed at the free safety position with deceptive speed and great size at 6-3 and 206lbs. McGraw is probably the Jets best performer out of the 2002 draft but has limited experience and only started one game. In his first season he totaled 43 tackles (27 solo) one interception and one forced fumble.
Obviously general manager Terry Bradway and head coach Herman Edwards have faith McGraw can perform at the level that is required to start that position everyday. McGraw did show some flashes last year in his limited role and showcased a flair for the dramatic when he picked off Denver quarterback Brian Griese providing a game clinching interception during the closing minutes of the Jets 19-13 win over the Broncos. At the time it was the most important game of the season and he answered the call aiding his team towards their second consecutive playoff berth.
But what if he falters? Where do the Jets go then?
Currently the only clear cut depth at the safety position behind McGraw is Jamie Henderson (a converted cornerback), Tyrone Carter (a seldom-used three-year veteran signed away from the Vikings) and Derek Pagel (the teams pick in the fifth round of this years draft).
Henderson will try to change positions this year moving to safety for the first time in his short professional career. He never played the position during his collegiate career, which was split between Georgia and Mississippi Gulf Coast College. Edwards seems to believe that he possesses the size (6-2, 202lbs) speed and mentality for the position but Henderson already has a history of being injury prone. He missed all of the 2002 season getting placed on the injury-reserved list early in the year due to a recurrent shoulder dislocation. There really is no telling as to whether he can not only play the position but also if he can stay healthy enough to be a valuable backup to McGraw.
Carter on the other hand has experienced only limited action during his time with the Vikings. He has started an average of seven games a year and netted himself roughly forty-two tackles each of those seasons. He also only has one interception and one forced fumble in that time. Carter truly seems to be an unknown quantity and could even struggle just to gain himself a roster spot.
Lastly we have Pagel who was the 140th selection overall in the 2003 NFL draft. His ability at safety is the most uncertain. He seems to be a strong and intelligent player but lacks some basic natural instincts to flourish at the position. There is a chance that he finds a home with the special teams unit.
With all of these questions arising this early in the year we can see how tenuous the safety position really is for this team.
What Jet fans have to hope for is that Bradway and Edwards have not made any miscalculations concerning Jon McGraws abilities. In only his second year he must become a viable contributor and playmaker for this defense to work successfully, a defensive scheme that relies heavily on the intelligence and playmaking ability of the secondary to create turnovers and confuse the opponents passing attack.
Obviously this off-season is not over and the Jets may still acquire more depth in the secondary but from where? The remaining free agent pool is thin. There seems to only be situational role players left looking for contracts. No one who can really step up if McGraw cannot perform at the level required. It is also doubtful that they find themselves a promising safety among the rookies who remain roaming around the NFL looking for a place to play. Can an unsigned player truly be counted on as a contingency plan?
This season may not really be decided by whether Curtis Conway can fill the gap at wide receiver or if a viable kickoff return specialist can be found. The x-factor for this year’s success could be a second year player picked in the second round of the 2002 draft out of Kansas State. It seems that for now McGraw is the gamble that Edwards and Bradway are banking on. The Jets hope he is up to the task.