Eric Smith has never started more than six regular-season games in any of his previous five professional seasons, but that could change in 2011.
"Eric has always been a starter-caliber safety. But he does so many things for us on special teams and all these other things that you'd prefer him in all those roles," head coach Rex Ryan said today. "But now it's just going to be, you know what? He's going to start."
It was a mild surprise that Ryan didn't wait to make that call. The Jets continue to tinker with their roster and it's early in camp, but anyone who watched Smith last January shouldn't wonder why Ryan made the decision.
"I'm pretty excited about it," Smitty said following the morning walkthrough. "Usually I'm here fighting for a spot, fighting for positioning. To know I have a starting point right now, it feels good. It builds a lot of confidence in me. But I can't just go out there, throw my shorts on and expect to keep my spot."
Smith has patiently waited for his turn as a defensive regular the past couple of seasons. He was inserted into the starting lineup late in 2009 when Kerry Rhodes was demoted and was a starter early last fall while Brodney Pool recovered from an ankle injury. Pool regained the job in Week 4, but the landscape changed in the backfield on Dec. 3 when Jim Leonhard broke his fibula in practice.
Smith would go down with a concussion after a Week 13 loss vs. the Dolphins and Dwight Lowery started down the stretch with Pool. But a healthy Smith returned for the playoffs and he was nothing short of excellent, posting 21 tackles and five pass defenses in three contests. He was dominant against the Colts, amassing eight solo stops and two PDs and followed up with a seven-tackle, one-PD effort in the divisional-round win over the Patriots.
"This guy is a hitter, he has range," said Ryan. "You know what we can do. We blitz him, we do different things, play zone, play man, do all those kind of things."
His talents aren't limited to just defense. A mainstay on special teams, Smith has 77 career kick-coverage tackles and has two blocked punts on his résumé. You could easily make a case that he's one of the top special teams players in football, but Coach Ryan intends to scale back his time there just a tad.
"We're going to get him off kickoff return. You can write that down, that he will not go out on kickoff return. And if [Mike] Westhoff is waiting for him, because I know he's listed him on the depth chart as a starter, then we're going to have 10 out there. Because I told Smith that I'll give him one break on special teams and that'll be on kickoff return so he will not be on that group. I have to break that to Westhoff."
Both Smith and Pool were UFAs, but the Jets elected to make a move on Smith over the weekend. Smitty, who spoke to a few clubs, described the experience as short and enjoyable.
"I knew that's where I wanted to be," he said. "I was just waiting on them to make an offer. Before the lockout, they said they wanted me back. We just had to wait and see what happened."
Now Smith is penciled in as the starter and he'll pair up with a healthy Leonhard. On Thursday, the wait will be over and he'll finally get a chance to start practice once again.
"It's miserable standing here watching these guys," he said in reference to the new CBA that prevented UFAs from practicing with teams until Aug. 4. "You sign the contract, you're all excited and now we can't practice until Thursday? It's miserable watching these guys run around for three hours and you're just standing there with a script in your hand."
The script has changed for Smith. He's a leading man now.