Meet Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, the Jets' Legion of Vroom
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — On the first defensive series of the game, Jamal Adams met LeSean McCoy in the hole and brought down one of the NFL’s shiftiest runners with an off-balance, shoestring tackle for no gain. The first teammate to congratulate him was Marcus Maye, who sprinted 30 yards after the whistle to share the moment with him.
Later, in the third quarter, Maye ripped the ball out of the hands of tight end Nick O’Leary on a downfield reception. The first player on the scene was Adams, who pounced on the fumble and won possession amid a tangle of bodies. Maye emerged from the pile, pounding his chest in celebration.
Nearly 3,000 miles away, Ronnie Lott took note. Arguably the greatest safety to ever walk the planet, Lott was watching from northern California on Thursday night as Adams and Maye — rookie safeties for the New York Jets — made their prime-time debuts against the Buffalo Bills. The Hall of Famer was impressed.
“A lot of safeties don’t take advantage of their athletic ability because they have fear,” Lott told ESPN. “The fear is centered around all the issues of playing that position. These two guys are both gifted athletes, and they’re not afraid of the moment.”
Adams and Maye. Maye and Adams. Either way, they have a chance to be special.
They were drafted with the Jets’ first and second picks in 2017 (sixth overall and 39th overall), and they became the first rookie safety tandem to start on opening day since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, infusing the organization with much-needed energy. There are many reasons the once-lampooned Jets are a surprising 4-5, but no list would be complete without a prominent mention of the precocious kids on the back end of the defense.
In many ways, they represent the new Jets: young, fast and fearless.
“You could say the sky’s the limit,” Maye said of himself and Adams, “but there are footprints on the moon. So who knows?”
They almost played together in college. As a freshman at Florida, Maye tried to recruit Adams, one of the top high school players in the country. Adams was leaning toward Florida — his godfather, Joker Phillips, was the Gators’ receivers coach — but he decided to attend LSU.
Three years later, the Jets brought them together, picking Adams in the first round and Maye the second. There was some criticism — who in their right mind picks two safeties at the top of the draft? — but the Jets felt the double dip was warranted because there was such strong conviction about both players.
Coach Todd Bowles was so smitten with the rookies that he made them immediate starters and jettisoned the incumbents, Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor. Adams and Maye quickly earned the trust of their coach, which is no easy task. After all, Bowles is a former NFL safety, and he isn’t in the habit of giving starting jobs to rookies.
“The Jets drafted us to make plays and take control of their secondary, their defense,” Adams said. “Each and every day, we’re getting better. We’re not perfect — we make mistakes — but we have fun.”
The game is changing, and the safety position is growing in importance. With spread offenses and freakishly gifted tight ends, defenses need safeties who can play in space and cover man-to-man without sacrificing toughness and tackling ability. A dominant safety tandem can be the backbone to a championship defense, as the Seattle Seahawks proved with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas — part of the celebrated “Legion of Boom.”
“More than ever, the safety position is so critical,” said former Seattle defensive coordinator and current Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who believes Adams and Maye have that versatility.
The Jets have a ways to go before their blueprint matches that of the Seahawks, but at least they have hope at safety — double hope — and that hasn’t been the case in a long time. Their last homegrown safety to make the Pro Bowl was Erik McMillan in 1989.
For Adams and Maye, the goal is to be the new version of Chancellor and Thomas.
“The way Seattle did it with those two guys, it led to a championship team and championship defense,” Maye said. “I feel like that’s one of those key position you have to have, that safety position. Just having me and Jamal there is great.”
Neither Maye nor Adams is as big as Chancellor, at 6-foot-3, but there’s something to be said for speed. Maybe their nickname should be the “Legion of Vroom.”
Adams and Maye are ideal complements. The Jets like to say that they’re interchangeable, but they’re at their best when Adams is near the line of scrimmage and Maye is patrolling the deep middle. After nine games, Adams has two sacks, two fumble recoveries and four pass breakups; Maye has two interceptions, one forced fumble and two breakups.
In the classroom, they’re attentive and copious note-takers.
“If they don’t understand something, they’ll ask questions, and they want the answers,” secondary coach Dennard Wilson said.
Off the field, they’re the Odd Couple. Maye is quiet and reserved. Adams has a big, vibrant personality. In the locker room, he’s like the guy in your neighborhood who is friendly with everybody. He bounces around the room, talking and joking with different position groups. He’s the same way on the field, showing boundless energy and swagger.
“He has what Odell Beckham Jr. has, what Jarvis Landry has, whatever it is those guys have at LSU in terms of their confidence on the NFL field,” former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said. “They act like they belong. It’s obvious and evident.”
The Jets have been saying that about both players since they were drafted. Adams and Maye are 21 and 24, respectively, but they act like they’ve been around. Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said, “They don’t sulk after a bad play. That’s what it’s about — being charismatic and having the same energy even though you just messed up. That’s special.”
They haven’t messed up too many times, and they’ve already made signature plays. Wilson’s favorite Adams play occurred in Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins, when he broke up a deep sideline pass to DeVante Parker. He likes that one because it showed that Adams is more than a “box” safety. It was a two-deep look, with Adams eyeing a receiver in the deep seam. When he sensed the ball was going to the sideline, he swiveled his hips and darted toward Parker, leaping at the last instant to deflect the pass.
On the next play, Adams sacked Jay Cutler. How many safeties could do that on back-to-back plays? The previous week, he made a highlight-film tackle on Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, sprinting 30 yards from the backside (and hurdling two players) to bring down Beast Mode on a goal-line sweep.
“Man, that safety is a legit player,” former coach and ESPN analyst Rex Ryan said. “Holy s—, that kid is good.”
Maye made one of the biggest defensive plays of the season when he intercepted a pass at the Jets’ 2-yard line in a Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns. The Jets prepared for the play — a half-roll by Deshone Kizer — but it also required quick thinking by Maye. The Browns ran it out of a different personnel grouping than the Jets had anticipated, yet Maye was able to notice the wrinkle and adjust on the fly.
“I always talk about anticipating and not guessing,” Wilson said. “He saw it coming, and he made a play on it — an outstanding play.”
They haven’t been perfect. Adams has allowed three touchdown passes, prompting him to avoid social media. He called it “canceling out the noise.” He has learned that even a player with his draft pedigree (No. 6) can go from hero to goat on a play-to-play basis.
“I love every minute of it, even the lows, but I’ll tell you this: There will be some good days that come out of the bad ones,” Adams said.
There has been more good than bad. From his faraway chair, Lott, who watches the Jets because of his friendship with fellow USC alumnus Leonard Williams, sees two well-coached safeties who behave like veterans and have the physical talent to back it up.
“Those two guys have this belief they can out-athlete guys,” Lott said. “That’s kind of what [Landon Collins] did last year for the Giants. They know how to play big.”