NFL: New York Jets' Eric Smith Turning Heads, Making a Name for Himself

former writerCorrespondent IAugust 26, 2010

SEATTLE - DECEMBER 21:  Eric Smith #33 of the New York Jets walks with the ball during the game against the Seattle Seahawks on December 21, 2008 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Jets 13-3. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

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Jets safety Eric Smith has quietly become an important part of head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s aggressive defense, and his role is set to expand in 2010.

It’s a far cry from where he was in terms of the depth chart and on the coaches’ radar a few years ago, to say the least.

Around the NFL, Smith is far from a household name. His biggest claim to fame is being the guy who laid a vicious hit on then Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin in 2008 that left Boldin with fractures in his skull near his nasal cavity that somehow only cost him two games.

As you can see in the clip, Boldin was shoved in the back by Kerry Rhodes, leading to the accidental helmet-to-helmet collision with Smith. Smith ended up unconscious with a concussion himself, as well as a $50,000 fine and a one-game suspension.

Ironically enough, with Boldin now traded to the Baltimore Ravens, Smith and Boldin will be reunited in Week One’s Monday Night Football matchup at New Meadowlands Stadium.

For Smith it’s an interesting subplot that’s easily overlooked, especially since not many people believed Smith would still be on the Jets roster, much less an integral part of the defense in 2010.

Jane McManus of ESPN New York had a fantastic read about the fifth-year safety out of Michigan State, and how his mental makeup impressed coach Ryan when Ryan was hired prior to the 2009 season.

A year and a half ago, when Rex Ryan got to the Jets, Smith was a safety on the roster, but Ryan had his safety and that guy was Jim Leonhard. Who was Eric Smith? Some guy about to be cut.

“Eh,” Ryan remembered thinking. “Probably move on from this guy.”

Said Smith: “[Ryan] wanted to get his guys in here and for a while it was a little nerve-racking. I felt like I had to change his opinion of me. I knew I wasn’t the guy that he thought I was.”

It didn’t take long for Ryan to see why Smith, who could figure out a season’s worth of offensive schemes in less time than it takes for dinner and a movie, was his kind of player.

“When he decided he was going to show us what kind of player he was, that’s what turned my head,” Ryan said.

Smith’s grasp of the defense was evident midway through last season when the Jets boldly benched Kerry Rhodes in favor of Smith, and now in 2010, Rhodes has been shipped out of town in favor of Eric Smith and free agent addition Brodney Pool.

Eric Smith’s determination to get better every day has gotten him from roster fodder to a key member of the NFL’s best defense.

Smith’s defensive versatility was on full display once he got his opportunity to play last year. He ended up taking snaps at nickel corner, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker, along with his primary position of safety.

This year he’s a special teams captain as well, having blocked a punt in the preseason opener against the Giants. Last year he also caught a pass off a fake punt on a throw from fellow special teams ace Brad Smith, no relation.

His climb up the depth chart and his versatility is not lost on Ryan, who is now a full fledged supporter of Smith.

“He’s smart, he’s instinctive, and he’s got great hands for interceptions,” Ryan said this week. “He’ll hit you. He does all those things and, by the way, he’s one of the premier special teams guys in this league. He is a very valuable player for us.”