Jets Need Improved Secondary to Step Up

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First a few updates:

1. I am starting to get concerned about these new wedge rules on kickoff returns. Leon Washington has been a beast in Mike Westoff’s scheme, which now has to be altered because of the NFL’s decision.

2. Thomas Jones is supposed to show up at OTAs tomorrow and then will have his chance to discuss his contract with the media on Thursday. The real question now is when is Leon Washington going to show up?

3. The Cavs are winning tonight…both of these conference finals are going to 7 games.

Jets Need Improved Secondary to Step Up

Despite having a pro-bowl cornerback in Darrelle Revis and a very good safety in Kerry Rhodes, the Jets secondary struggled heavily last season. Teams routinely beat them by throwing the ball all over the field on their defense, part of the problem was a weak pass rush that fell off late in the year but more of the problem was the coverage.

In an effort to improve their secondary, the Jets traded for corner Lito Sheppard, who is a former pro-bowler that is coming off a difficult season where he was knocked out of the starting line-up in Philadelphia by a high priced acquisition in Asante Samuel. Jim Leonhard was also signed from Baltimore to start alongside Kerry Rhodes at safety, and finally veteran Donald Strickland was added to play nickel-back.

The newly constructed secondary will face a difficult schedule in 2009. They will have to match up against Randy Moss and Wes Welker twice, Terrell Owens and Lee Evans twice, and Ted Ginn Jr and Devon Bess twice (just kidding). Beyond that, the Jets face superstars like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Steve Smith, and Andre Johnson this season. Teams are going to test the Jets secondary early and often to see whether the new acquisitions have made a difference.

Darrelle Revis is as good as it gets at one cornerback spot. He is a top five player in the league at his position (regardless of what Sporting News says, Cortland Finnegan and Nate Clements? I don’t think so) and has the ability to lock down his side of the field. The real pressure at corner is on Lito Sheppard to handle the increased number of balls that will be thrown his way. Sheppard was a pro-bowl player in both 2004 and 2006, but has struggled recently with injuries. If Sheppard can return to his 2006 form when he had 19 passes defensed and 6 interceptions, the Jets will be good in shape.

Donald Strickland has looked good so far in mini-camp and will compete for reps with second year player Dwight Lowery, who began 2008 very strongly but tailed off as the year went on. Strickland has been a good nickel back throughout his career and is a reliable player if Lowery can’t return to his early 2008 form. Hopefully, Lowery can continue to develop into a quality NFL corner and provide good reps in both the nickel and dime package. Another corner to keep an eye on is Ahmad Carroll. A former first round pick, Carroll was re-signed because of his special teams ability but has great natural talent and has played well on defense so far in OTAs. Maybe Rex Ryan can find a role for him on the Jets defense in 2009.

At safety, Jim Leonhard is coming off a breakout year in Baltimore. He is comfortable in Rex Ryan’s system and the Jets are hoping he will provide Kerry Rhodes with the freedom to roam around and make plays. Leonhard worked well with pro-bowl safety Ed Reed on the Ravens, so there is a hope he will help return Rhodes to his 2006 form. He will provide better range in pass coverage than Abram Elam, which should make it harder for teams to throw on the Jets. Eric Smith provides decent depth at safety because he has a good amount of playing experience. Beyond him, the Jets don’t have anybody else with experience as a backup.

Teams will be attacking Sheppard and Leonhard often. Both players have plenty to prove. Sheppard needs to show he can bounce back from 2 sub par seasons on the Eagles and Leonhard needs to show he can handle being a full time starter for an entire season. In terms of the incumbents, Revis just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing and Rhodes need to find a way to play at his 2006 level. Hopefully, a 2008 weakness can turn into a 2009 strength for the Jets defense.