By William Botchway
In 2014, the Jets had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. In fact, it was one of the worst in recent memory. They ended the year with four cornerbacks, two of whom I had never heard of prior to them appearing in their Jets uniforms for the first time — Phillip Adams and Marcus Williams. Another one of those four corners was Kyle Wilson, who has been bad his entire career since the Jets spent a first round pick on him in 2010.
The reason why the Jets were so thin and so bad at corner was partially due to John Idzik failing to upgrade the position significantly during the offseason, but also due to other circumstances. The Jets cut Antonio Cromartie last year because he was terrible in 2013. It’s now clear that his abysmal performance was because he was playing hobbled all year, and after a short stint in Arizona he is now back with the Jets. Many cornerbacks were on the market in the spring of 2014, but most notably Aqib Talib and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie — the cousin of the then-former, now current Jet Antonio. Idzik stayed away from those guys, and, for a team that needed multiple corners, only signed Dimitri Patterson from the Dolphins. I wasn’t in love with the acquisition, but I was fine with it because Patterson is a decent enough player. In the third round of the draft, Idzik took Dex McDougle out of Maryland. This meant that the Jets were set to pin the starting #1 corner job on the second year player out of Alabama, Dee Milliner.
After trading away Darrelle Revis, the Jets found themselves with two first round picks in 2013. The one that came from the Bucs, the 13th selection was used on star defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. Before the Jets got there, they figured they had to replace Revis somehow. Enter: unanimous First-Team All-American, Bronko Nagurski Trophy finalist, and Jim Thorpe Award finalist: DeMarcus Milliner.
Milliner was very bad to begin his first season in the NFL. He was even benched a few times because Rex Ryan felt he couldn’t afford to have him out there hemorrhaging yards to opposing receivers, especially since Cromartie wasn’t any better on the other side.
But here’s something that gets overlooked often. This is the same reason why the Calvin Pryor panic is very unwarranted right now. It’s very hard for rookie defensive backs to transition to the NFL. I’m not sure exactly why, but there is a very short list of guys who were thrown in the league as starters and immediately became stars. The King of Cornerbacks himself, Darrelle Revis, wasn’t so good in his first season, and it took two years for him to ascend to the star status he’s earned today. A lot of times, the best thing to do for a first year corner or safety is trial by fire. Let them be bad for a year while making adjustments on the fly, then use their experience to make more holistic changes during training camp the next year. The jump from college to the pros is hard to handle at any position (except wide receiver, it seems), but it tends to be worse for those in the secondary. I’m not an expert so I’m not going to act like I know why that’s the case, but it is what it is.
So, watching Milliner turn his fortunes around at the end of his rookie season, winning Defensive Rookie of the Month and Defensive Player of the Week during December was a pleasant surprise. There was a lot of hope for him coming into last season, because it seemed like his professional performance finally caught up with his college pedigree.
The 2014 Jets secondary was very thin to begin with, but it fell apart during camp. At the same practice that McDougle tore his ACL, wiping out his entire rookie season, Milliner tweaked his ankle, keeping him out of the first game of the season. As the preseason was winding to a close, Patterson, the guy who just moved from MIA, actually went MIA. No one will ever understand what happened there, but needless to say, he was cut as soon as he returned to the team.
Milliner played in only three games last season before tearing his Achilles in Week 6. He was okay when he was around, though it was clear that his ankle was never right.
He missed a few games due to injury in his rookie campaign as well, so overall he’s played exactly 16 games over two years in the NFL. That is too small a sample size for him to be receiving negative feedback. I’m encouraged by what I saw from him to close out his first season, but other than that the slate is pretty much blank for Milliner. It’s also too early to call him injury prone. Sure, he had trouble remaining fully healthy in each of his first two years, but an Achilles tear is such a freak injury there’s no way to use that as the base of an argument against his ability to stay on the field consistently.
As we head into 2015, and going forward, his role will be interesting to monitor. Todd Bowles likes to use his defensive backs for multiple purposes, either covering the pass as any traditional DB would, blitzing from the outside, or even in a hybrid linebacker role which is very difficult to explain. Revis and Cromartie are set as the two outside corners. Buster Skrine will likely be the starting slot corner, leaving Milliner as the backup outside cornerback. This will allow Bowles to do as he pleases and turn Milliner into a weapon in whatever way he sees fit. Bowles regularly used six defensive backs last year in Arizona. Milliner may seem like a forgotten man according to the depth chart, but come gameday, the way Bowles treats his secondary, the name Dee Milliner will be heard many times.
This is why the Jets have been receiving trade offers for him recently. It’s way too early to give up on him, and other teams certainly believe in his talent if they’re contacting the Jets despite the fact that they’re not shopping him. Clearly, the Jets still believe in him, or at least they believe in how Bowles will help him develop. They know not to give up on a potentially great player like him at this point in his career. Only time will tell if he is actually that good, but it’s absolutely not panic time yet.