COVID-19 could leave the Jets with a little-known acting head coach on Sunday.
But at least Ron Middleton was in Florham Park when this week began, which is more than can be said for one or two of the Jets’ potential starting safeties on Sunday against the Jaguars.
The safety position has been a revolving door for the Jets this season because of injuries. But now as they deal with a rash of COVID-19 cases, it has been stretched to the limit. They are left with only a few options, including a rookie cornerback who has been working on converting to safety, two new safeties who signed on Tuesday and Thursday, and a safety from the practice squad.
“We are in new territory, for me and I think for anybody involved with football,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said Thursday after practice. “I cannot tell you today who’s going to be the starting safeties. We’re going to still keep balancing the reps as much as we can amongst the guys that we have available and at the end of the week make a decision based upon who’s going to give us the best opportunity to play well.”
Last Sunday against the Dolphins, Ashtyn Davis and Elijah Riley started at safety together for the fifth straight week. But Riley left the game on a stretcher after taking a scary hit, and while he traveled back with the team, he missed a second straight practice Thursday with a concussion. Davis and Sharrod Neasman, who filled in for Riley after he went out, have both landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week.
To make up for the losses, the Jets on Tuesday signed safety Will Parks, whom the Dolphins had cut on Monday, and on Thursday signed safety Kai Nacua from the 49ers’ practice squad. Nacua also spent last season in San Francisco under then-defensive coordinator and current Jets coach Robert Saleh.
In house, the Jets have rookie Jason Pinnock, who was drafted as a cornerback but has recently been working on transitioning to safety, and Elijah Benton, who was signed to the practice squad earlier month.
It has all left Ulbrich and his staff working around the clock to try to get the safety room up to speed on the fly.
“I don’t know if this is a violation of the NFLPA [NFL Players Association], but a lot of early-morning meetings, a lot of late-night meetings,” Ulbrich said. “Just a lot of extra. Lot of pre-practice, post-practice. [Defensive backs/safeties coach] Marquand Manuel and [defensive assistant] Chip Vaughn, they absolutely have their hands full this week. So it’s going to be a tireless process, but two coaches that are absolutely up for it.”
Pinnock, despite being new to the position, may have the upper hand as the only healthy safety who has spent the whole season with the Jets. He has mostly seen action in dime packages, but his ability to cover wide receivers and tight ends is something the Jets also ask their free safety to do.
“It just made sense: here’s a guy who’s got the body, the length, size, all that to play safety,” Ulbrich said of the 6-foot, 205-pound Pinnock. “Now it’s a matter of getting him up to speed as far as all the technique is concerned.”
To begin the season, the Jets had a solid starting safety tandem in Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Maye. But Joyner suffered a torn triceps in the season opener that required season-ending surgery before Maye tore his Achilles in Week 9.
Overall, the Jets have had seven different starting safeties and seven different starting safety combinations, both of which figure to grow this Sunday for the league’s 32nd-ranked defense against Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars — the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense.
“It’s an enormous challenge for this defensive coaching staff and for these players as well,” Ulbrich said, as 11 of the 19 Jets on the COVID-19 list are defensive players. “You got guys that not only have they not taken reps as a Jet, they just got here within 48 hours.”