The New York Jets had arguably the worst safety tandem in the AFC East this past season.
After the Jets traded away two of their top performing safeties (Kerry Rhodes and Dwight Lowery) in back-to-back offseasons, the damage had finally taken its toll on the unit. At a diminutive 5'8" and 188 pounds, Jim Leonhard, the team's best remaining safety, was given the role of leading a substandard group at the position.
Rex Ryan expected Leonhard, with the aid of fellow starter Eric Smith and backup Brodney Pool, to be able to cover some of the most talented running backs and tight ends in the NFL. Ryan watched as his team was dominated in the middle of the field while his safeties were dodged by quarterbacks (i.e. Tim Tebow's game winning touchdown against the Jets) and run over by running backs (like in the play shown in this video).
When Leonhard, who struggled in 2011, injured his knee in early December, the team collapsed. Faced with the difficult task of covering tall, strong and explosive playmaking tight ends, such as Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots) and Brent Celek (Philadelphia Eagles), Pool and Smith proved their talents to be inadequate.
With the injury-prone Leonhard now set to become a free agent, the team has no remaining quality players at the position. The situation looks even more distressing based on recent news of the Jets having only $464,000 of space under the projected salary cap, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.
Based on a report by nyjetscap.com the team will be able to clear up additional room under the cap, but general manager Mike Tannenbaum will not have the luxury of acquiring two premium safeties via free agency. Unfortunately for the Jets, the safety draft class in 2012 is not particularly strong, and there is only one prospect who will definitely be ready to start in the NFL from day one, Mark Barron of Alabama.
Barron has elite instincts, premier tackling ability, solid size (the University of Alabama lists him at 6'2" and 218 pounds) and has played in a pro-style defense under former NFL coach Nick Saban. Most draft experts, including ESPN's Mel Kiper, expect the Alabama safety to be selected in the first round.
With one first-round pick the Jets need to figure out a way to maximize the value of the 16th overall selection and still draft Barron. If the team is confident Barron will slide to the latter part of the first round, then they will have to figure out a way to acquire a pick before the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots (both teams are expected to draft at the position) can select the safety.
With limited cap space and a need for two starting-caliber safeties, the Jets will have to draft at least one prospect at the position, specifically Barron, if they want to get back to the playoffs.