The Safety Conundrum of the New York Jets

Cole Patterson examines free agent options the New York Jets could consider at safety

Jets fans, you have been duped! Bamboozled! The wool has been pulled over your eyes! The all-world performance by a deep group of cornerbacks has been the light that blinded you to the truth. The truth is that the New York Jets have been managing with mediocre to poor safety play ever since 2010. Okay, maybe the issue has been more obvious than that. Most of you are keenly aware of the void at safety. As has been previously addressed, new General Manager John Idzik has deftly addressed many positions of weakness on the roster through added talent and competition. Yet, safety is one of the spots Idzik has avoided so far.

The 2009 trio of Kerry Rhodes, Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith proved a capable combination of athleticism, football IQ and tenacity that fit Rex’s defensive scheme perfectly. However, the departure of Kerry Rhodes for the desert marked a steady decline of talent at the position. For the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons the Jets relied on Jim Leonhard, the limited abilities of Eric Smith and Brodney Pool, and the one year mercenaries LeRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. The safety play the past three seasons was excusable due to the tremendous performance of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, a tandem that has now been broken up and replaced with an underachiever and a rookie.

In 2013 the young guns, Antonio Allen and Josh Bush, look to team with reliable vet Dawan Landry to create a theoretically similar trio to the 2009 safety group. However, this group of safeties does not inspire confidence and its long term viability is in question. With that in mind we take a look at the available safety talent and start with two former Jets.

Kerry Rhodes: The devil you know. Rhodes came to the Jets in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. Some questions surrounded his athleticism and tenacity coming out of Louisville that easily explain his draft status. However, after taking the starting job his rookie year, Rhodes showed good fluidity and ability in both man and zone coverage. He proved to be a reliable and ball hawking free safety, recording 15 interceptions in his 5 years with the Jets. However, his hollywood attitude and lack of tenacity didn’t fit well with the early Rex Ryan defense and Rhodes was traded to the Cardinals for a 4th and 7th round pick in 2010. Rhodes continued his success in Arizona where he recorded 4 interceptions in 2010 and 2012. His 2011 season was derailed by injury but other than that his play has declined little. Perhaps Rhodes has matured during his sojourn in the Arizona sun. Perhaps Ryan’s stubbornness has waned after a humiliating 6-10 campaign. Perhaps fences can be mended and Rhodes makes his triumphant return to New York on the cheap, providing veteran leadership and valuable coverage ability to a desperately weak safety group. Or, perhaps, this is hoping for too much.

Abram Elam: Rhodes’ partner in crime in the Jets secondary, Elam began his career as a un-drafted free agent for the Dolphins in 2005. He didn’t make Miami’s roster and found a home on special teams with Dallas in 2006. After being waved by the Cowboys in favor of Alan Ball (whoops), Elam stuck with the Jets and started 8 games in 2007 and 9 in 2008. Elam was part of the Mark Sanchez trade with the Browns and followed former head coach Eric Mangini to success with his 3-4 defense in Cleveland. Elam had his best year with Rob Ryan, recording 79 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. When Ryan went to Dallas he brought Elam with him, hoping to replicate this success. However, Elam could not put together an equally impressive season and spent 2012 buried in a deep Chiefs’ secondary. Elam continues to find work because he is smart and consistent, not often giving up the big play. In 2009, Elam was only beaten 20 out of 41 targets for a low 309 yards.

Quintin Mikkell: The ten year vet started his career with the Eagles in 2003. He spent most of his early years behind pro-bowlers Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis. He made a niche for himself on special teams and bided his time to make an impact on defense. Following Lewis’ departure, Mikkell finally got to show his worth and had extended success at strong safety. After inking a big deal with Phildelphia and playing like he deserved it, Mikkell took his talents to St. Louis through 2012. Mikkell was rated as the 5th best safety last year by Pro Football Focus. Mikkell is terrific in the box, both in run support and pass rushing. Last year he recorded 75 tackles, four forced fumbles, and three sacks.

Nate Clements: Clements started his career as a corner back for the Bills where he had great success as a cover man and recorded six interceptions, twice. That success translated into an eight year, $80 million deal with the 49rs in 2007 (the largest contract for a defensive player in history at the time). After more success in the Bay Area, Clements’ skills began to deteriorate and was released following the 2010 season. Clements spent the past two years with the Bengals. What makes Clements’ case so interesting is that after about a year and a half with Cincinnati, Clements began to see less playing time and see more work at safety. This moved seemed to be more to ensure Clements’ health and provide a back up plan for Taylor Mays. However, when Mays flopped and Clements was forced into action he struggled greatly. Forcing him into the strong safety spot was a mistake and his deficiency at run stopping was evident. Clements’ skills translate far better to free safety where he can cover in the slot and play man to man. However, the Bengals free safety spot is well manned with Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. The same cannot be said for the Jets. The transition to safety after 11 years at corner is obviously tedious but it may be worth taking a flier on the former pro-bowler as insurance in the coverage safety spot.

Honorable Mention: Chris Crocker, Jordan Babineaux, OJ Atogwe

Can we expect management to address the issue of safety, with future success in mind, given the available talent? Can they find a stop gap or insurance player should the sixth and seventh round picks from a year ago fail?

I don’t believe that the available safety talent provides any real options for the future as almost all the players have at least eight years under their belt and their skills are not what they used to be. However, given that the Jets are working with an aging veteran of their own and two sophomore unknowns, it may be worth giving this crop a look.

If bygones could be bygones, Rhodes would obviously be the best fit considering his style of play compared to the talent the Jets currently employ. However, I find this unlikely. Besides Rhodes, Mikkell has had the greatest success of the group but is more of a strong safety mold and looks to be headed back to the Rams (they haven’t removed his name plate from his locker). However, Bell and Landry showed last year that two of these type of players is functional. I believe the most interesting path, yet most risky, would be to try Nate Clements out at free safety. His skills compliment Landry’s well if he were to be forced into a starting role and if he sits behind Bush all year, he can provide insurance and cornerback depth.