For the second year in a row, the New York Jets have lost starting safety and punt returner Jim Leonhard for the last stretch of the season. They managed to overcome his injury in 2010 and still make a run to the AFC Championship Game but replacing Leonhard will be a more difficult task this time around.
Last year, the Jets had Eric Smith, Brodney Pool, and Dwight Lowery all rolling through as Leonhard’s replacements on defense. Lowery was traded to Jacksonville before this season started, leaving the Jets with just Smith, who has been below average all year and Pool, who has been hurt most of the season. Their number three safety is currently Tracy Wilson who was just signed to the active roster two weeks ago, after the team surprisingly released Emmanuel Cook who had been with the team since last season. Basically, they have absolutely no depth behind Smith and Pool, who are question marks themselves.
The Jets will have to bring in another body, but the options are slim at this point of the year. It will be on Smith and Pool to elevate their play and stay healthy. Rex Ryan will also have to get creative and may need to move somebody like Marquice Cole over to safety in certain packages.
On special teams, the Jets have been a nightmare returning punts all season when Leonhard hasn’t been back there. Jeremy Kerley, Antonio Cromartie, and Joe McKnight have all muffed kicks. Kerley will be the primary option to replace Leonhard now and looked good yesterday, but can he be trusted in the swirling winds of Philadelphia and MetLife Stadium the next two weeks? The Jets no longer have Jerricho Cotchery to drop deep as a reliable option when a team is trying to pin them deep, so it will be on Kerley, a rookie, to assume the full responsibility of replacing Leonahrd on special teams.
Injuries are never an excuse. Every team is dealing with them at this point of the season. Now it is going to be about Pool playing to his potential in Rex Ryan’s defense as the free safety and Eric Smith handling the strong safety roll full time, without giving up too many back breaking plays. Kerley has a chance to be a great punt returner, we have seen flashes of that this season but he needs to remember that nothing exceeds the importance of avoiding turnovers.