LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell could make or break Jets’ defense

Granted, this year’s training camp is still in its infancy, but thus far, the Jets have had no better development than this one:

“Physically,” said LaRon Landry after Saturday’s workout, “I feel 100 percent.”

It’s almost impossible to avoid Tebowmania right now in New York; a lot of NFL eyes also will fall on first-round pick Quinton Coples, a risky selection who will be asked to fill a huge role on the Jets’ defensive line.

When it comes right down to it, believe it or not, more of the Jets’ 2012 hopes may hinge on Landry and fellow new acquisition Yeremiah Bell. The Jets entered the offseason with major questions about their safety positions. They’ll likely exit it with Landry and Bell penciled into the starting lineup, which means many of those questions will still be there.

Can Landry stay healthy for an entire season? Does Bell, at age 34, have anything left in the tank following a disappointing season in Miami? And what happens if Eric Smith winds up having to start again?

While those uncertainties might be enough to keep Jets fans up at night, consider the alternatives that were in place four months ago: Smith as a full-time starter after proving overextended in that role in 2011, and Antonio Cromartie hinting at a shift to the other safety spot.

The knee injury that Jim Leonhard suffered in Week 14 last season, right before entering unrestricted free agency, left the Jets in a bind then and forced them to reevaluate their options in the months following their 8-8 finish. Their pass defense failed them at some key moments last season, but overall, it was strong (having Darrelle Revis helps) — New York finished fifth in yards allowed and second in passing TDs against, with just 15 surrendered all season.

That was with Smith scratching and clawing his way through 14 starts. Pro Football Focus rated him as the worst Jets’ defender in 2011 by a wide margin, with only CB Kyle Wilson and DL Marcus Dixon in the same vicinity; both of those players saw far less action than Smith.

The Jets believe they’ve substantially upgraded at safety with the arrivals of Landry and Bell, which will push Smith back into a part-time role — “You’ll love Eric Smith at 300 snaps,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine told the New York Post. “You don’t like him at 1,000.”

Landry is a physical dynamo, who brings speed and elite hitting ability to the table when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, it’s been awhile since Landry put it all together. He missed seven games in 2010, then eight more in 2011 with an Achilles injury. To say counting on Landry as a permanent starter is a roll of the dice is like saying Tebow’s arrival will provide friendly competition for Mark Sanchez. It’s just nowhere near strong enough verbiage.

Bell, on the other hand, has missed just one game since 2007. But those Pro Football Focus rankings that were so unkind to Smith? They had Bell rated in a similar territory (minus-12 for the season compared to Smith’s minus-14.5). Durability shouldn’t be a concern in Bell’s case, but are the Jets getting the player who made the Pro Bowl in 2009 or the one who struggled so mightily last season?

As with just about every spot on the Jets’ depth chart, including the Sanchez/Tebow tandem at QB, there is the definite potential for greatness at safety in 2012. To get there, though, just about everything has to go right.


Chris Burke on the NFL, Audibles ... Sports Illustrated.