Jets Positional Analysis: Safeties

First a few updates:

1. Yankees are one game out of first place because no matter what they can’t beat the Angels. The Mets would have a good shot of being in first place right now if they were in a AA league.

2. If you read the comments under the article on the home page entitled “End of the Weekend Jets Ramblings” you can find a prolonged debate between reader dmd13 and myself about Leon Washington. I am carving him up right now like Will Ferrell carved up James Carville in Old School.

Jets Positional Analysis: Safeties

Over the next 6 weeks, I am going to go through all of the Jets positions and assess each player, continuing today with the safeties:

1. Kerry Rhodes #25, Last Season: 84 Tackles, 1 Sack, 8 Tackles For Loss, 5 Passes Defensed, 2 Interceptions

History: Rhodes has been starting for the Jets since his rookie season in 2005, after the Jets selected him in the fourth round. He had a breakout season in 2006 and was robbed by not being selected to the pro-bowl for a season that saw him record 5 sacks, 4 INTs, 3 Forced Fumbles, 13 Passes Defensed, and 98 tackles. His numbers dipped slightly the year after and even further this past season. Many people blame Rhodes lack of big play production on Eric Mangini/Bob Sutton’s poor use of him and him lacking a partner at safety with range to cover and stop the run. The Jets signed Jim Leonhard this season to allow Rhodes to have more freedom and make plays for the defense.

Chance of Making Roster: 100%

Best Case Scenario for 2009: Rhodes becomes New York’s version of Ed Reed and is constantly creating big plays in Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. He makes his first pro-bowl appearance and establishes himself as one of the elite safeties in the game.

Worst Case Scenario for 2009: His numbers continue to decline, making it look like 2006-2007 were fluke seasons for Rhodes.

Prediction: I think Rhodes is going to thrive in Rex Ryan’s system and he will be greatly aided by having Jim Leonhard, someone with strong pass coverage skills, next to him. Expect his numbers to be very similar to what they were in 2006.

2. Jim Leonhard #36, Last Season: 69 Tackles, 1 Sack, 1 Tackle For Loss, 6 Passes Defensed, 1 INT, 1 Touchdown

History: Leonhard didn’t do much his first two seasons in the NFL but did an excellent job of stepping in for an injured Dawan Landry last season, showing his ability to play at this level. His play improved as the season went on and he had a huge impact in Baltimore’s playoff run. He is comfortable with Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme and should help Kerry Rhodes make plays in the same way his abilities helped Ed Reed make plays.

Chance of Making Roster: 100%

Best Case Scenario for 2009: Leonhard builds on last season and gives the Jets consistent play at safety opposite Rhodes for the first time in years. He helps teach Ryan’s defense to the entire secondary, easing their transition to a new scheme.

Worst Case Scenario for 2009: Leonhard struggles adjusting to becoming a full time starter for an entire season. He eventually loses his job to Eric Smith, meaning the Jets wasted money signing him in the off-season.

Prediction: Leonhard will be a steady, consistent player in the Jets secondary. I dont’ expect tons of big plays from him but definitely a major improvement in pass coverage from Abram Elam last year.

3. Eric Smith #33, Last Season: 32 Tackles, 1 Tackle For Loss, 4 Passes Defensed, 1 INT

History: Smith was drafted by the Jets in 2006 and had a pretty good rookie season. He has struggled with injuries the past couple of season and didn’t seize the starting job last year when given the opportunity. However, he did have a good mini-camp/OTA’s recording numerous interceptions and impressing Rex Ryan.

Chance of Making Roster: 100%

Best Case Scenario for 2009: Smith develops into a valuable role player on defense and continues to play well on special teams. If Jim Leonhard or Kerry Rhodes gets hurt he is able to step in and do the job adequately.

Worst Case Scenario for 2009: Smith struggles to find a role on the defense and doesn’t provide any valuable reps to the unit.

Prediction: Smith will be a quality third safety for the Jets and contribute in some nickle and dime packages, while also playing special teams.

4. James Ihedigbo #44, Last Season: 8 Tackles, 1 Killer Holding Penalty on Special Teams

History: Ihedigbo has bounced around the Jets practice squad and inactive roster the past couple of years. However, he was active for a few games last season but unfortunately his most memorable play was a holding call that brought back a Leon Washington kick return touchdown against the 49ers. Rex Ryan did say he liked what he saw from him during OTA’s as the Jets #4 safety.

Chance of Making Roster: 75%

Best Case Scenario for 2009: Ihedigbo is the Jets #4 safety and a core special teams player.

Worst Case Scenario for 2009: He gets cut because he is beat out by one of the Jets UDFA’s.

Prediction: I expect him to make the roster and be the number 4 safety.

The Rest of the Guys:

5. Emanuel Cook #38 – A UDFA who probably should have been drafted but has some character issues. He has some talent and has been compared to Abram Elam because of his hard hitting style of play.

6. Keith Fitzhugh #37 – Another UDFA who will compete for a roster spot as a special teams player and reserve DB.

Overall Position Analysis: Rhodes and Leonhard will be the starters, with Smith providing a quality backup to both spots. Ihedigbo should be the fourth safety but keep an eye on Cook during training camp.

Highlight of New Jets Player of the Day: Safety Jim Leonhard records a sack and has a nice punt return on consecutive plays last year:

Jets Need Improved Secondary to Step Up

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.

What are Reasonable Expectations for the Jets?

First a few updates:

1. The TOJ Hall of Fame and TOJ Hall of Shame are now fully up and running. Take the time to check out the pages, which are linked across the top of the web-site.

2. For some reason, NFL Films is running a replay of the Jets/Bills regular season game in Buffalo from this past season. A few observations after re-watching the game today: Drew Coleman is awful, Kris Jenkins is unstoppable when he is at his best, Brian Schottenheimer is way too conservative, Calvin Pace doesn’t get enough for credit for how good he is, Jerricho Cotchery has great hands but has a tough time getting separation, Dustin Keller needs to increase his football IQ, and Thomas Jones is quicker than he gets credit for.

3. Pacman Jones to the Jets? I don’t buy this rumor for a second. The Jets have no need for him, as they have good depth at corner and obviously don’t need a guy like that in the locker room.

What are Reasonable Expectations for the Jets?

The Jets were a 9 win team last season who just missed making the playoffs. After this off-season, I believe it is fair to expect them to be a 10+ win team and strongly contend not just for a playoff spot but also for a deep run into January. It may sound like a bold statement, but let me argue why that isn’t necessarily the case.

I look at their defense and see a unit that was very good last season. They have improved at inside linebacker by upgrading from Eric Barton to Bart Scott. Vernon Gholston has nowhere to go but up from last year, and if Rex Ryan can get anything out of him this year, the Jets will be upgraded at outside linebacker also. The Jets other returning outside linebackers, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are both former 4-3 defensive ends, which means they have strong pass rushing skills. Rex Ryan’s new defensive scheme is more conducive to their talents, than Eric Mangini’s defense which often asked them to drop into pass coverage. 

In the secondary, the Jets have upgraded at both cornerback and safety. Lito Sheppard is a better starter than Dwight Lowery, and Donald Strickland will provide a veteran nickel-back who will also push Lowery to become better. Basically, last year’s #2 corner (Lowery) is now bumped down to being their #4 corner. Abram Elam wasn’t an awful starter at safety last year but Jim Leonhard’s skill set is a better fit for the defense, and he provides better pass coverage skills along with a similar presence inside the box against the run. 

They are thinner on the defensive line this season. However, Kris Jenkins has recently went on record to say that Rex Ryan’s defense won’t be as physically demanding on his body. If Jenkins can remain fully healthy all season, the Jets will be getting a major improvement at defensive tackle over the last 5 games of the regular season compared to 2008. There is pressure on Marques Douglas and Mike DeVito to match Kenyon Coleman’s production on defense, although the only production he really had was against the run. He only managed 0.5 sacks last year, so it shouldn’t be hard for the two of them to match his pass rushing skills. 

On offense, the Jets improved their depth at running back and added another short yardage/goal-line threat by drafting Shonn Greene. They are returning their entire starting offensive line, and added more depth by drafting Matt Slauson in the 6th round. Their top two backups from last year (Robert Turner and Wayne Hunter) are also returning with more experience under their belt. At quarterback, Mark Sanchez/Kellen Clemens can’t play any worse than Brett Favre did in the last 5 games of the regular season last year. When the Jets were winning last season, Favre was managing the game in a similar way that the Jets quarterback will be asked to this year. Look at Favre’s numbers in the Jets key wins last year:

Week 1 vs Miami: 15/22, 194 yards, 2 TD’s.

Week 6 vs. Cincinnati: 25/33, 189 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT’s

Week 8 vs. Kansas City: 28/40, 290 yards, 2 TD’s, 3 INT’s

Week 9 vs. Buffalo: 19/28, 201 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Week 10 vs. St. Louis: 14/19, 167 yards, 1 TD

Week 12 vs. Tennessee: 25/32, 224 yards, 2 TD’s, 1 INT

Week 15 vs. Buffalo: 17/30, 207 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT’s

The point is outside of two Jets wins (Arizona and New England) Favre never really put up great numbers when the Jets won games. I think Mark Sanchez or Kellen Clemens can handle going 15/21 for 190 yards and that they are going to throw less interceptions. If whomever the Jets quarterback is next year can throw 12 INT’s instead of 22, it is going to make a big difference in a positive way for the team. 

The Jets are weaker at tight end and wide receiver than they were in 2008. They haven’t replaced Chris Baker (a strong blocker and 21 catches) or Laveranues Coles (70 catches, 850 yards, 7 TD’s). However, at tight end Dustin Keller should be improved in his second year and at wide receiver, a guy like David Clowney (pictured to the left) could turn into a big time playmaker now that he is being given an opportunity. Regardless, the Jets still need to add depth at both positions. 

 

The 2009 schedule isn’t a friendly one but it certainly is manageable. Outside of their division, 6 of their 10 games are against teams who didn’t make the playoffs last year. Within the division, New England is always tough, the Bills added TO but beyond that had a weak overall off-season and have major questions at the offensive line and running back. The Dolphins are going to struggle this year. They were the 2006 Jets last year, and are going to be the 2007 Jets this year. I love Chad Pennington but teams are going to be all over their gimmick based offense and their lack of talent on that side of the ball will hurt them this year. 

Right now I’d say the Jets are a 10 win team and if they add another tight end and receiver, they could be a 11-12 win team. Right out of the gate we will find out where they stand since in their first 6 games they play all three divisional opponents and 2 other quality teams (Tennessee and New Orleans).