2006-09-01 / Sports

Jets Hope a (Kerry) Rhodes Scholar Can Lead The Way

By Brian Bohl

HEMPSTEAD, NY- Strong safety is not considered to be a glamour position in the NFL. Menacing linebackers like Ray Lewis or pass-rushing defense ends like Jason Taylor get most of the attention.

For the Jets, the training camp controversies at quarterback and running back have taken up most of the attention, while the talk on defense has been limited to the unit's adjustment to a 3-4 scheme.

But while the offense might struggle to put up points and the front seven takes time to get comfortable in new roles, it will be up to the secondary to keep Gang Green in games. This is where second-year SS Kerry Rhodes comes in, and don't bet against the 6-3, 210 pound defensive back.

There were minimal expectations on Rhodes during his rookie season, when the former Louisville free-safety standout was an unheralded fourth-round draft pick just trying to make the roster.

Not only did the Bessemer, Alabama native make the cut, he became one of the most consistent players in the secondary. Playing in all 16 games, Rhodes recorded 100 total tackles to go along with a forced fumble and a sack.

Standing on the sideline after the team concluded its final practice of training camp Wednesday, Rhodes said having one full season under his belt is an advantage that should correlate to a more productive regular-season. "I'm definitely more comfortable," he said. "Being able to start every game and the situations I was in last year, it's been great. I came out this year and things have drastically slowed down for me, so it's been fun so far."

That familiarity with the league has transcended the practice field, with game-film and strategy meetings also becoming more informative for the second-year safety.

"I'm just a smarter player," he added. "That's why everyone wants a veteran player on their team."

It would be an oversimplification to say Rhodes excelled in every facet of the game last season. Though he was solid in run support and played extensively on obvious passing situations, the 24-year-old only was able to intercept one pass.

The Jets had an offense that was ranked second-to-last in 2005, with only San Francisco struggling more. With running back Curtis Martin unlikely to play at all this season, the defense will need to generate more turnovers if there is any chance to improve on last season's 4-12 record. That starts with tough coverage on opposing receivers.

"Nah, I'm trying to get picks too," Rhodes said when asked if he would focus on support coverage and leave the cornerbacks to force the interceptions. "I'm trying to go out and make plays. I had opportunities to have more than one last year, I just couldn't make them. With another year under my belt, I should be better."

David Barrett, Justin Miller and free-agent acquisition Andre Dyson are the most likely to be named by coach Eric Mangini as the top three CBs. Along with free safety Erik Coleman, the Jets have a combination of youth and experience in the secondary that should make pass defense an asset rather than a liability.

All five of the aforementioned players are under-30, with Dyson the elder statesman at 27 years of age. Miller, a second-round pick in 2005, is also entering his second year and should see an improvement that's similar to the one expected of Rhodes.

"Justin is working at it and it comes down to the same issues, combining talent with technique," Mangini said. "The quicker he is able to get the technique down, the quicker you will see the talent that he has. He has done some positive things, but it is different than it was last year, so there is learning there for him as well."

For the beginning portion of camp, Coleman could not join his teammates on the practice field at Hofstra University because he was out of action due to an appendectomy. But since his return in mid-August, Rhodes said having another talented safety makes everyone else better.

"He definitely makes my job easier," Rhodes said. "He has another year on me, so both of us together, we're both on the same page and we know what each other is thinking. Playing the whole year together last year was tough, but we learned a lot, so we're more comfortable together."

Last season, the Jets ranked second in total pass defense, allowing only 172 passing yards per game. That number is skewed by the fact the team often trailed and opposing teams chose to run the ball and take time off the clock.

Though the numbers might be inflated, there is no denying that the defensive backfield has more depth than any other unit on the team, and Mangini highlighted the importance versatility in the secondary during a press conference last week.

"What I always look for in the secondary is versatility," Mangini said. "Can you play corner outside, can you move inside, can you go back and play safety, do you understand the whole concept of the defense, do you know where the run-support issues are, do you know how everything fits, and what the patterns are? The corners usually are just required to learn their spot. That to me isn't what I'm looking for."

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