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Assessing the Depth Charts at Safety, Nickel


03/12 – Here is the final part of Eric Allen's two-part story on the Jets' secondary after interviews with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and DBs coach Dennis Thurman:

Part II: Safety and Nickelback

Sometimes a trade is necessary, and there's no other way to view the Jets' recent dealing of safety Kerry Rhodes to Arizona in exchange for a fourth-round pick in April's draft and a seventh-rounder in 2011. Both sides needed a change and this happened quickly after the crosstown Giants signed former Cardinals S Antrel Rolle to a lucrative contract.

"Kerry played well for us here. He didn't play as well as I'm sure he wanted to play and didn't play as well as we thought he could play," said Jets DBs coach Dennis Thurman. "I just believe a new scenario and a new environment for Kerry will be good."

This upcoming draft is loaded with talent, so general manager Mike Tannenbaum has to be pleased that he got into the fourth round while clearing some money in the process by parting ways with Rhodes. Sure, there is no salary cap in 2010, but teams have to prepare themselves for a potential cap and the Green & White have a number of youngsters (see Revis, Darrelle) whom they'd probably like to lock up long-term.

Who will take Rhodes' spot in the backfield? Eric Smith, who racked up 25 special-teams tackles last season for coordinator Mike Westhoff, started four games defensively and collected 34 tackles, 6 PDs and one interception. There's also the aggressive James Ihedigbo, who paced the Green & White with 26 kick-coverage stops and posted two sacks in dime duty in 2009.

"At this point, we're not real sure the route that we're going to replace that position, whether it's from within — we have two quality players in Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo," said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. "We also can obviously look to the draft, we can look to players that have been released, whether we replace them with a veteran guy."

Then Thursday night the Jets announced they had reached an agreement in principle to sign former Cleveland S Brodney Pool. The 6'2", 210-pounder, who had four picks last season and 11 in his five-year pro career, was eligible to become a restricted free agent but was not tendered a contract by the Browns, so the Jets do not own the Browns any compensation.

"The biggest thing back there that we're looking for is chemistry, understanding of the defense and the ability to communicate," Pettine said. "It's a big part of what we do, making sure everybody is on the same page. It's a big issue for the corners to make sure the safety next to them does a nice job of having it all orchestrated and being on the same page."

Last season, the rangy Rhodes recorded 62 tackles, 13 PDs and three interceptions. But he was benched for a pair of games after his Week 11 performance against the Patriots, and he had no interceptions and five PDs in the Jets' first 10 games.

"What we're looking for is a guy who is going to come in here, grasp our system, communicate OK and then make plays on the ball," said Thurman. "You don't have to be a knock-down-drag-out tackler. You have to be an efficient tackler, you have to be someone who is aware of what's going on there at all times, help people get lined up and make sure we're doing the right thing.

"Then when he gets opportunities to make plays on the ball — he has to make plays."

Pettine said the defense is looking for a playmaker who has range and can make plays when the ball is in the air.

"We're not sure how we're going to replace that," the DC said, "but we're confident that the secondary we trot out there in the fall is going to be one of the best — if not the best — in the league."

At nickelback, Donald Strickland was effective when he played for the Jets, but he had problems staying on the field. In his lone season with the Green & White, Strickland was limited to nine regular-season games, and his groin injury in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts was a critical setback for the defense. So the Jets have moved on and Dwight Lowery, the third-year player from San Jose State, will get the first shot in the slot.

"Right now, you'd have to say that Dwight will be the starting nickel. He gave us some quality reps as a backup this year as well," said Pettine of Lowery, who had 32 tackles, 10 PDs and three INTs in 2009. "Again, that's our starting point. Whether that changes draft day, we're not sure, but we're confident in Dwight and Drew [Coleman] as they both played very well for us last year, especially when they were inside on the slot."

"We expect Dwight to make another jump," added Thurman. "If he does, we'll all be happy because he's a very good football player."

And here's another name to keep in mind before training camp starts — Marquice Cole.

"One of the reasons we were so successful on the back end last year was our depth, the ability for a guy like Drew to step in and give us quality reps," Pettine said. "And a young guy nobody knows too much about is Marquice Cole. I think he gave Mike Westhoff some real quality reps on special teams [13 tackles] and we're thinking he can step up and transition and play some in the secondary for us as well."

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