Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects Who Fill New York Jets' Biggest Need
For what seems like years, draft analysts have agreed that wide receiver was the New York Jets' biggest need in the 2014 draft. Team officials' attendance at various pro days and workouts supports that view.
Free agency has changed that. The Jets' primary draft need has shifted from wide receiver to starting cornerback. It's a consequence of what they did and did not do during the league year's first couple of weeks.
- The Jets did begin to upgrade the receiving corps by signing Eric Decker.
- They did solidify the quarterback position by signing Michael Vick, a legitimate competitor and mentor for Geno Smith.
- They did not re-sign Antonio Cromartie after releasing him on salary-cap grounds. Cromartie signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
- They did not sign a prominent free-agent cornerback such as Vontae Davis, Darrelle Revis or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
If the Jets began the season today, their starting cornerbacks would be second-year player Dee Milliner and either Kyle Wilson or Darrin Walls. Wilson and Walls should both have roles in 2014 but would have to upgrade their play to be starters on a Rex Ryan defense where a cornerback's role is to provide man-to-man coverage.
So don't be surprised if the Jets' first-round pick is a defensive player for the seventh time in eight years. That's because of the good and bad news about the 2014 draft.
The good news is that the draft is rich in cornerbacks. Six of NFL.com's top 73 prospects are cornerbacks. Drafttek.com includes seven cornerbacks in its top 59 prospects and 10 cornerbacks in its top 99.
Here's the bad news: The Jets are one of 11 teams who number cornerback as one of their top three needs. If they want an elite prospect, they need to strike quickly. They have a better chance of getting a top receiver in the second round than they have of getting a cornerback.
These rankings consider the following factors:
- Ability to play man-to-man: Rex Ryan's defensive schemes assume that cornerbacks can shut down receivers on their own. That frees safeties to either pressure the quarterback or engage in other coverage responsibilities such as tight ends or pattern-running backs.
- Size: Wide receivers are getting bigger. Cornerbacks such as 6'3", 195-pound Richard Sherman are becoming trendy. The biggest shortcoming among the leading prospects may be their relative lack of height.
- Turnovers: The Jets' minus-14 turnover ratio placed 30th in the NFL. While Geno Smith's 25 turnovers were the major factor, the defense could do better than 2013's 13 interceptions and two recovered fumbles.
- Health: While injuries are part of football, loss of a half-season or more because of injury won't help a player's cause.
- Attitude: Players' contributions to team morale and locker-room harmony play a role in their selection. Otherwise, DeSean Jackson's potential acquisition wouldn't cause such controversy. He might not even be available.
There's a good chance that the No. 1 player on this list will be gone by the time the Jets select. But at least four players in this top-10 list have a good shot at earning an NFL starting job. Let's meet them.
These cornerbacks will probably not be first-round material but could find roles in specialty coverage or special teams.
Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compares Colvin to Cincinnati's Leon Hall. In Colvin's Pro Player Comparison video, Miller says this 5'11", 177-pound corner has everything it takes to start in a man-to-man role, until his man gets in space. Then his tendency to guess often gets the better of him.
Bashaud Breeland, Clemson
Breeland's aggressiveness, quick reactions and run defense have attracted scouts' attention. But this 5'11", 197-pound corner tends to let bigger blockers dominate him.
Travis Carrie, Ohio
The 6'0", 206-pound Carrie is a 24-year-old rookie because he missed two collegiate seasons with injuries. He has the build and hands to be an interception threat but needs to improve his footwork and transitioning. He should be an asset on special teams.
Marcus Roberson, Florida
When he's healthy, the 6'0", 191-pound Roberson can effectively stop the pass. He set a school record with 12 pass breakups as a sophomore. He'll need to improve his tackling skills and route recognition to succeed in the pros. Teams may welcome him as an experienced punt returner.
Keith McGill, Utah
Despite his height and athletic ability, the 6'3", 211-pound McGill is somewhat of a project. He is a junior college transfer, and his technique reflects that. On the plus side, he is experienced at safety as well as cornerback and could fill a useful backup role.
Dontae Johnson, North Carolina State
The 6'2", 200-pound Johnson offers experience at special teams, linebacker and free safety in addition to cornerback. His versatility suits him for a backup role, but his lack of speed and issues with tracking and tackling receivers in space make him better suited for zone coverage than man-to-man.
10. Jaylen Watkins, Florida
According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller's analysis in this Pro Player Comparison video, the 5'11", 194-pound Jaylen Watkins was Florida's No. 3 cornerback. But he displayed enough athleticism and physicality to evoke comparisons with New Orleans' Keenan Lewis.
His biggest problem was in turning and pursuing receivers beyond the line of scrimmage. It may be why he played such a limited role.
NFL.com sees Watkins as a potential slot cornerback who can use his physicality against the run and short-area coverage skills against receivers in short- to medium-range pass plays. His ability to play safety and special teams is a plus. But he lacks the range and tackling ability to play as a starter in a Rex Ryan defense. Combining that with his spot on the Florida depth chart explains his ranking.
9. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
If the 6'0", 190-pound Kyle Fuller were better at man-to-man coverage, he might join fellow Virginia Tech alumnus Michael Vick on the Jets. As it is, he'd be another backup cornerback and special teams player.
Fuller's game suits a zone scheme better, as he plays zone boundaries well. His good vision, ball awareness and leaping ability make him a potential interception threat. His value doesn't end there, as he supports run defense as well and his special teams' background includes roles as both gunner and jammer.
His problems in a man-to-man situation concern a lack of strength and speed. Receivers can elude him with quick double moves. His tackling needs work, especially on runners in space.
Fuller most likely knows what it takes to succeed in the NFL. His two older brothers, Vincent and Corey, have NFL experience.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller likens Fuller to the Giants' Prince Amukamara but not in a flattering way. In the Pro Player Comparison video, Miller notes that injuries have impaired the development of both men. Miller sees potential for Fuller to become a starter in his second year, provided he stays healthy.
Fuller's advantage over Watkins is size, but he'd have to be proficient in man-to-man coverage to be a viable starter for the Jets.
8. Ross Cockrell, Duke
Ross Cockerell is a valuable zone-coverage cornerback. He'll give a team good value in the slot and on special teams. But that's not enough to fill the Jets' current need.
The 6'0", 191-pounder is a smart, disciplined player who knows the game. He recognizes pass routes well and keeps up with most receivers even through complex patterns. His leaping ability serves him well both in pass defense and as a jammer on special teams.
His main issues stem from a lack of strength, particularly in his lower body. That translates to a lack of physicality, particularly against bigger receivers and against blockers.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller likens him to Indianapolis cornerback Greg Toler. Unlike many draft prospects, Cockerell's footwork is not his biggest weakness. Instead, his physicality and play on the line of scrimmage need work. Miller sees him starting in his second year.
If he does, it probably won't be for the Jets. Cockerell has the intelligence and dedication that the NFL requires, but he needs more physicality to achieve a higher ranking.
7. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
If only the 5'8", 184-pound Lamarcus Joyner were three inches taller, his ball-hawking and coverage skills could satisfy the Jets' cornerback need. As he is, he will give someone a good slot corner who defends against both the run and pass.
He is everything you might want in a player. He plays bigger than he is, is a leader in the locker room and is surprisingly durable, having never missed a game in college. He's versatile as well, having played safety and special teams in addition to cornerback.
That's fortunate, because special teams is where Joyner will have to make his mark in the NFL. He's been both a gunner and return man. He's a heady player but isn't fast enough to react well when a receiver outruns him.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller praises Joyner's ball-hawking skills and likens him to Buffalo's Nickell Robey but maintains that his lack of size prevents him from being more than a slot corner in the NFL. Miller does note his potential usefulness as a return man as well as a slot corner.
His potential in the return game makes Joyner a potential middle-round or late-round pickup for the Jets. His build prevents him from attaining bigger and better things.
6. Jason Verrett, TCU
Jason Verrett is a dynamo who plays bigger than his 5'9" and 189 pounds. He has all the moves to be an outstanding man-to-man cornerback. He's great in coverage and displays superb technique and instincts. His run defense and ball skills make him an attractive option.
Any misgivings about him relate to size, strength and durability. His ability to handle larger receivers and blockers is the biggest mark against him. Like Dee Milliner in 2013, he's also coming off shoulder surgery. That may affect his ability to participate in preseason activities.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compares Verrett with Tampa Bay's Alterraun Verner. Miller praises Verrett's man-to-man coverage skills, turnover generation and ability to play behind the line of scrimmage. Miller's biggest question is if a player of his height can cover receivers who are six to seven inches taller than him.
Verrett could help the Jets, provided he gets appropriate coverage assignments. He may be better suited to be a slot corner at the NFL level though, which is not their biggest need.
5. Antone Exum, Virginia Tech
If Antone Exum joins his fellow Virginia Tech alumnus Michael Vick on the Jets, they'll be getting a bright, athletic cornerback who's built to play the part, if his ankles and ACL cooperate.
The 6'0", 213-pounder has played gunner and jammer on special teams as well as cornerback and free safety. He's both intimidating at the line of scrimmage and sufficiently athletic in coverage to adjust to a ball's flight.
As accomplished as he is, he doesn't improvise well when technique fails him. That's a surprising trait for a player who some find arrogant and headstrong. Nevertheless, he's at his weakest when confronting complex schemes where his knowledge offers no ready solution.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller likens Exum to the Giants' Antrel Rolle in this Pro Player Comparison video. Miller sees Exum as fiercely intimidating at the line of scrimmage but vulnerable in catch-up situations.
Although they play on opposite sides of the ball, it would be great to see more of Vick's improvisational skills in Exum's play. That's what he would need to move up in the rankings.
4. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
NFL.com calls the 6'3", 218-pound Jean-Baptiste "a receiver-turned-cornerback in a safety’s body." That's a good summation of his career. Between high school and college, he spent a year as a receiver with North Carolina Tech Prep, where he caught 36 passes for 580 yards.
Once he became a starting cornerback, he intercepted six passes and broke up 21 in 17 games. That ball-hawking ability, propensity to match size with bigger receivers and sure-handed tackling are the sources of his appeal.
Speedy receivers who change directions quickly offer Jean-Baptiste problems. He must also improve against the run.
In this Pro Player Comparison Video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compares him to New England's Brandon Browner. Miller sees the Nebraska corner as ideal for teams that need someone to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage, but he's not so good at tracking speedy receivers who elude the initial contact.
If that's the role the Jets envision for their No. 2 cornerback, Jean-Baptiste should get consideration. If they need more versatile coverage skills, they'll have to check out the top three prospects.
3. Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Many of the cornerbacks in the 2014 draft suffer from "tight hips" and a lack of "suddenness," which impairs their ability to handle quick receivers. The 5'11", 194-pound Bradley Roby is an exception. He also shows "make-up" speed that many others on this list lack. He can catch up to his man if beaten.
He has a two-year record of solid pass defense, defending 35 passes in that time.
In addition to his defensive flexibility, he adds an aggressiveness that makes him a formidable blitzer and tackler. He plays bigger than his size and will contribute on special teams as a gunner.
But no one is perfect. Roby misses the occasional tackle in space and, like many other prospects, is susceptible to double moves and vulnerable to bigger receivers.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compares Roby favorably with Baltimore's Lardarius Webb. Miller likes Roby's build, aggressiveness and ability to move the ball after interceptions.
Despite his physical shortcomings, Roby could be a candidate for the Jets' No. 2 cornerback job. He's the first viable first-round pick on this list.
2. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Darqueze Dennard may be the best cornerback on the board by the time the Jets make their first selection in the 2014 draft. The 5'11", 199-pounder has man-to-man coverage skills, ball-hawking ability and an attitude that will delight the team.
He had 10 interceptions in three collegiate seasons. He has the physical build, vision and speed to be an interception threat in the pros. He has played man-to-man coverage throughout his collegiate career and should be a perfect candidate for a Rex Ryan defense. In addition to his on-field performance, Dennard is a likable teammate and leader who should be a locker-room asset.
His biggest issue, according to NFL.com, is durability. He has had double hernia surgery, and the team that drafts him will have to evaluate its effect on his play carefully. It's the only black mark that's relevant to the Jets. His lack of zone-coverage experience isn't the issue it would be with other teams.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller makes an unfavorable comparison of Dennard to Cleveland's Joe Haden, citing occasional mental lapses and a lack of athletic fluidity. However, Miller maintains that Dennard's aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage and ability to make plays in the backfield more than outweigh these weaknesses.
He may lack the smooth athleticism that would give him the No. 1 ranking, but his intangibles make him an acceptable alternate. There's a good chance that Dennard will wear green and white in 2014.
1. Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
If he makes the mental adjustments he must to succeed in the NFL, the 6'0', 202-pound Justin Gilbert has all the tools to be worthy of a first-round selection.
He is exactly what a team seeking a man-to-man cornerback needs. He has the size to match up with big receivers and the athleticism to make it look easy. If he plays up to his senior-year form, when he intercepted seven passes, he'll excel at generating turnovers as well as in coverage. He could even be the Jets' answer in the return game, having scored six touchdowns on kickoffs.
What might prevent him from realizing his potential is his attitude. Up until now, he has relied on his physical talent to succeed. Coaches have grown frustrated at times by his mental mistakes. Gilbert must devote himself to mental preparation to get the most from his physical abilities in the NFL.
In this Pro Player Comparison video, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compares Gilbert with Atlanta's Desmond Trufant. Miller praises Gilbert's man-to-man coverage ability and his ability to jump routes to get interceptions. He only questions his consistency, noting that he played better in 2011 and 2013 than he did in 2012.
There's a good chance that Gilbert will be gone by the 18th pick in the draft. If not, the Jets should grab him. Darqueze Dennard probably has a better attitude, but Gilbert has the physical skills that separate him from the rest of the prospect crowd.
Note: Scouting information comes from the draft prospect profiles on NFL.com and Bleacher Report's Pro Player Comparison videos. Since there isn't a video available for all players, statistics such as height, weight and accomplishments come from NFL.com to maintain consistency.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.