Camp Countdown '09: Safeties
The Jets Safety group came under significant attack for failure to stand out in any meaningful way in 2008. Much of the criticism was directed at Kerry Rhodes, fresh off a huge 33.5 million dollar extension that made him one of the wealthiest safeties in the NFL, for failing to justify his contract. Rhodes had his worst season as a pro, having a hard time finding an identity in the defense. Was he supposed to be in coverage? Was he supposed to attack the line? Where was he supposed to line up? Rhodes impact plays were way down as he forced no fumbles and only picked up two interceptions on the season. He never got his hands on the football and never really got his hands on the QB. Rhodes expects to benefit immensely from Rex Ryanís defense where he hopes to play the Ed Reed role and be allowed more freedom than Eric Manginiís schemes allowed. The Jets need Rhodes to be a playmaker and provide the support to whomever lines up opposite Darrelle Revis at corner. If Rhodes can not become a player that intercepts 5 or 6 passes a year he could have a hard time ever justifying his contract and the Jets fan base wonít give him another free pass if he plays poorly for the second consecutive season.
The team expects to get a boost at the other safety spot with the addition of Jim Leonhard from the Ravens. Leonhard is undersized but plays hard and is a strong hitter. Leonhard has some problems with physical players due to his size, but is a much more complete player than anyone the Jets had on the roster last season. His primary competition comes from 4th year pro Eric Smith who had a tremendous minicamp. Smith was in and out of a starting role last season and dealt with some injuries most of the season. Like Leonhard, Smith is a big hitter, but Leonhard is much stronger in coverage. Smith often got lost in coverage and had a hard time recovering from mistakes. Both should see a good deal of playing time this season.
At least one other safety should make the team with special teams participation/potential being the deciding factor. The only incumbent is James Ihedigbo who will need to put up a good fight to keep his job. Ihedigbo has never stood out in preseason and last year was a disaster on special teams to the point where it was surprising he remained active. Emanuel Cook was considered a decent find as an UDFA and is supposed to be stout against the run. Cooks is limited athletically, but could find a role on special teams. Keith Fitzhugh, also a UDFA, is a relatively strong tackler with limited coverage skills. He should be less of a polished product than either Ihedigbo or Cook, but is known to be a hard worker. CB Dwight Lowery could also see some reps at safety.
The Jets are hoping that the addition of Leonhard and maturation of Smith leads to an improvement over last season. The Jets were decimated in the passing game against both running backs and tight ends, areas where a safety should be giving solid support. This defense needs two things from their safeties. One is the ability to make mistakes by the QB matter and that is almost entirely on Rhodes. The second is to make any receiver who catches the ball realize how much it hurts to catch a ball on this defense. All three of the safeties who are going to see the big playing time are all big hitters and they need to close fast and hard this season to make it work. If the same problems that were evident at this position last year remain in 2009, the Jets defense is going to have a hard time becoming the improved version everyone anticipates they become.