Jets to unleash Rhodes to be playmaker again

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Twice last year, Kerry Rhodes went to Eric Mangini to express dismay over the way he was being used.

After establishing himself as game-changing safety, the New York Jets wanted him to play center field. Stay back. Play it safe. Make sure opponents don't score when another defensive back would inevitably get charred.

The strategy defused an explosive player.

"I didn't like it, of course," Rhodes said after Friday morning's rainy practice at SUNY Cortland. "When I make plays, I help this team. That's been true since I've been here. Not being able to make as many plays as I wanted to, I was frustrated."

Rhodes is hoping for a rebirth under new head coach Rex Ryan and with the help of a reformed secondary.

The Jets dismissed Mangini after starting last season 8-3 and then failing to reach the playoffs. Nobody was happier than Rhodes when the Jets hired Ryan, who believes in an attacking defense that frequently triggers dramatic moments.

"You never want to see a coach get fired," Rhodes said. "That wasn't ever in my plan. But knowing the work Rex has done before and seeing the type of players he's had and made them do in his system ... I know I'm that type of player that will get it done in those opportunities. He's going to give me opportunities."

Rhodes amassed some impressive numbers in 2006 and 2007. He recorded 160 tackles, seven sacks, nine interceptions, 16 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and two recoveries -- one for a touchdown.

He wasn't nearly that sort of playmaker last year. He led the Jets with 81 tackles, but he had one sack, two interceptions, five passes defenses, zero forced fumbles and two recoveries.

"It definitely creeps into your mind," Rhodes said of last year's relatively meager stat line. "You know and the coach knows. [Mangini] even said 'This is one of your best years. You're getting everybody lined up. You're doing all this stuff' and blah, blah, blah.

"But from the outside, looking in, the numbers aren't adding up. That equated to the perception I wasn't the same player. That hurt."

Rhodes, a second-team All Pro in 2006, tried to convince Mangini to unleash him. About halfway into the season Rhodes was concerned when it was clear his numbers were well of his usual pace. He went to Mangini again late in the year, while the Jets were mired in a season-ending 1-4 slump.

"When you get adversity in those situations, you think, 'Come on, now. If I make some plays, we win these games,' " Rhodes said.

But the coaching staff was too concerned with the Jets' slipshod pass coverage to turn Rhodes loose. The Jets ranked 29th in pass defense, yielding 234.5 yards a game.

Left cornerback Darrelle Revis had a Pro Bowl season, but there was little help elsewhere. Fourth-round draft pick Dwight Lowery won the right cornerback job out of camp, but Mangini's confidence evaporated to the point he signed Ty Law off the street in Week 10.

The other safety position was shared by Eric Smith and Abram Elam, serviceable players, but not good enough to free up Rhodes to do what he wanted.

"When you're used to doing a certain thing and being a playmaker, and you're not being asked to do those types of things anymore, it made it a little bit frustrating," Rhodes said. "But I'm trying to put that in the past now.

"Coach [Ryan] wants me to be aggressive and do all those things this year. I'm expecting big things."

Ryan brought in safety Jim Leonhard from the Baltimore Ravens. The Jets traded Elam to the Cleveland Browns in the package that allowed them to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez.

The Jets also traded for Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard, a two-time Pro Bowler who lost his job last year but has a nose for the ball.

Ryan offered no specifics when I asked what he expected of Rhodes this year. Ryan said he's not looking for individual stars, rather a monster team defense.

"I just want Kerry to be part of a great unit and not put the pressure on himself," Ryan said. "I don't want to put any pressure on Kerry saying I think he'll get 10 interceptions. He may very well get 10 interceptions, but I want him to be part of this unit.

"The individual claims you guys will see. Playmakers make plays, and I'm sure Kerry will end up making a lot of plays."