The weakest part of the New York Jets defense in 2011 was the safety position. The bulk of reps were taken by Eric Smith, Brodney Pool, and Jim Leonhard. Smith has thrived as a role player in Rex Ryan’s defense but is overextended as a full time starter because of his limitations in coverage. Pool was never able to distinguish himself in either run support or in pass coverage, along with being prone to mental lapses. Leonhard suffered a season ending leg injury for the second year in a row and prior to that was struggling in coverage similar to Smith.
After a failed pursuit of Reggie Nelson in free agency, the Jets shifted their focus and signed LaRon Landry. If healthy, Landry is a very good in the box safety who is built more like a linebacker. Rex Ryan should make him a major factor in stopping the run game and going after the quarterback. His durability is a major, major question mark however.
In the draft, the Jets added two more safeties. In the sixth round they selected Josh Bush from Wake Forest. Bush is a hybrid corner/safety who is built to play the centerfield position on passing downs. In the seventh round they took South Carolina’s Antonio Allen who fell much further than expected. Allen’s game is very similar to Landry, in that he plays more like a linebacker than a safety and hopefully projects as a long term answer at strong safety.
Finally, the Jets signed veteran Yeremiah Bell, likely passing over bringing Leonhard back in the process. In comparison to Leonhard, the Bell signing is a good move. He is more durable, athletic, and has better size than Leonhard. Even if he is a traditional strong safety, he fills the free safety void better than Leonhard would have. Bell also provides depth behind Landry at strong safety if he misses time due to injury. Similar to Landry, Smith and Allen, Bell is an in the box safety who excels in run support but has questions in coverage.
On the whole, the Jets have collected four players with similar skill sets at different positions of their career. Bell is 34 years old but is probably the most reliable. Smith is 29 and has the most experience in the defense. Landry is 27, has the highest ceiling but the most question marks and Allen is a rookie. The only player who projects to being a true free safety is the rookie sixth round pick, Josh Bush.
The reported plan is for Landry and Bell to start together, while using Smith in the role he excelled at off the bench during the 2009 season. Bush should have every opportunity to play in nickel and dime situations in the centerfield position.
How will the Jets stop tight ends? The most logical approach remains to keep their safeties out of man to man situations. Ryan will have to get creative about bracketing them with a linebacker with speed, perhaps rookie Demario Davis or with Landry or Smith underneath. Bell will likely see more time playing over the top than he did in Miami and then Bush will also be lined up deep off the ball when he is on the field. Also don’t be surprised to see Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, or Kyle Wilson used to help slow down tight ends in certain situations. Wilson and Cromartie in particular could line up at safety in select packages.