By the end of last season, the Jets roster faced no shortage of holes. An anemic pass rush, shallow depth at safety and a lack of speed in the linebacking corps were among these. Of the positions of need, safety was identified as the important heading into 2012. Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan revamped the position by signing veterans Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry, as well as drafting Josh Bush and Antonio Allen. These four, plus returning safeties Eric Smith and Tracy Wilson, make up this year’s unit. After being torched by athletic tight ends last year, especially the Patriots duo of Gronkowski and Hernandez, more athleticism was necessary in the defensive backfield. Can this group get the job done?
Bell is a smart veteran who by all accounts has been able to quickly grasp the defensive schemes in training camp. He’s a blue collar, physical player who is known for his ability to play the run but not necessarily his coverage abilities. The same can be said for Landry, the former Redskins star who is looking to return to form after an Achilles injury sidelined him the past two seasons. While Bell may lack the speed to be effective in coverage, Landry has the physical tools to do anything asked of him. Remaining healthy is the concern for him. Bush has been working with the first team defense on days that Landry sits out and seems to be progressing, while Allen has been impressing coaches with his ball hawking in camp. Eric Smith remains sidelined with a knee sprain and likely won’t be available until week one.
The question marks for this group lie mainly in whether they can stay healthy. Landry was well on his way to a being a pro bowler before his injuries started and if he stays on the field he will be the star safety that Rex Ryan has been missing since coming to New York. He is a ferocious hitter and has the speed to cover tight ends. With his explosive physical traits I expect to see him used as a blitzer too. They could perceivably line him up as a linebacker in some packages to give a different look. From there he can drop into coverage, rush or jam tight ends. His physical abilities make him very versatile.
Bell seems able to fill the role that Jim Leonhard vacated as the “brain of the defense” which is essential. But he also brings size (6’0”, 205) and a track record of good play. He has played full seasons in each of the last four years, recording over a hundred tackles in each of those. If he truly does grasp the schemes and his leadership qualities are as impressive as both Ryan and Tony Sparano have said they are, he will be a definite upgrade over Leonhard. Smith, Bush and Allen add depth and while Smith could potentially start again he better serves the team coming off the bench. Allen has been getting rave reviews in camp after being drafted in the seventh round despite being a highly touted prospect. Teams believed that he lacked the coverage skills to be an effective NFL safety but he was very productive at South Carolina and could end up being a steal for the Jets.
There is much criticism about the safeties and whether they can cover elite tight ends but I find those claims unfounded. The truth is that none of these players have really been asked to up until now. Bell, Landry and Allen were all used as “in the box” safeties for their previous teams, but that does not mean they can’t cover. If this group can remain healthy I think safety will be strength for the Jets. Landry can be a dynamic playmaker when on the field and Rex can use him all over the place on defense. They have more depth than they have had to work with the last few years. Bell and Landry have claimed they will be physical with the Patriots tight ends and they certainly have the size to do just that. If these guys can play to their ability it will solidify the defensive backfield and make the Jets defense a scary unit to have to face.