New York Jets quarterbacks get all of the attention in training camp, and rightfully so. However, there is a player on the other side of the ball who will have as much of an impact on the defense as his quarterback counterpart will have on the offense.
The first draft selection of the John Idzik era, there is as much pressure on Dee Milliner to perform as anyone else on the team.
Benched on three separate occasions during a tumultuous rookie season, Milliner's NFL initiation was hardly a smooth experience. Months after breezing past Notre Dame on the way to a BCS National Championship, Milliner was grasping for straws as he struggled to hang with the likes of Aaron Dobson.
Milliner was ranked as the 68th-best cornerback (subscription required) and 87th-best coverage man in football as a rookie.
He is hardly the first rookie cornerback to struggle in their first season. When combining the unconventional coverage techniques taught at Alabama with a shoulder surgery that stunted any development in his rookie offseason, it would have been more shocking had Milliner avoided the bench in 2013.
Even as a top-10 pick, Milliner had legitimate excuses as to why his performance did not reflect his draft status.
There are countless examples of great cornerbacks who struggled as rookies. Even Darrelle Revis allowed 183 yards to Randy Moss in his NFL baptism by fire.
However, no longer armed with the luxury of playing the "rookie card," Milliner won't get as much sympathy for his mistakes as a sophomore. Simply showing improvement from last year will not suffice—Milliner needs to transform into a star overnight.
Because he was taken so high in the draft, it is implied that the Jets expect Milliner to be among the best players at his position in due time.
However, given the Jets' dire situation at such a vital position in head coach Rex Ryan's defense, Milliner will not be afforded the luxury of a normal learning curve.
Ryan has always been able to craft strong, elite defenses in New York without a strong pass rush. Despite not having a double-digit sack artist on the roster until this past season, Ryan's defenses have consistently hovered around the top five in pass defense.
Ryan's idea of building a defense around defensive backs goes against the current of conventional wisdom, but the results are undeniable.
He does not just need quality cornerbacks like any other coordinator—he needs elite cover men who can blanket receivers for abnormal amounts of time. This allows him to be as complex and unpredictable as possible in other facets of his defense.
For his defense to work, Ryan needs to be able to run aggressive, Cover 1- or Cover 0-style defenses. This puts extra pressure on the defensive backs, but allows the rest of the defense to be dominant.
When the cornerbacks perform up to standard, Ryan's defense has been among the NFL's best. Otherwise, these are the types of results they are left with:
The 2013 season was a testament to what could happen when Ryan's cornerbacks perform at a less than stellar level. Playing the injured Antonio Cromartie opposite Milliner, the Jets' pass defense plummeted to 22nd despite having two 10-sack players on the roster (Muhammad Wilkerson and Calvin Pace).
After replacing Cromartie with the oft-injured and out-of-position Dimitri Patterson, the Jets don't just need Milliner to avoid a repeat of his rookie season—they need him to be a dominant player from the start.
There is encouraging news for Milliner: As much as he struggled in 2013, he put on his best performances in the final month of the season after logging three interceptions in as many games.
The Jets' pass defense returned to its stingy ways as Milliner began to blanket the same receivers that gave him so much trouble in prior weeks.
What is even more encouraging is how consistently Milliner played to finish the season, suggesting that his improved play was more a trend than an anomaly. At this point, all the Jets can hope for is more of the same trend when they open the season against the Oakland Raiders.
|Dee Milliner's 2013 Development|
|Week||Opponet||QB Rating Against|
|1||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||106.3|
|2||New England Patriots||94.0|
|7||New England Patriots||61.8|
|9||New Orleans Saints||90.2|
|Pro Football Focus|
Those strong final weeks of the season have morphed Milliner from a weekly scapegoat to a confident, unwavering cover man. He displayed that confidence when speaking with reporters in late July:
I’m not going to say somebody that plays the same position is better than me...Don’t care if they’ve been in the league 10 years and I’ve been here five months. That’s how it’s going to go. I’m the best. I’m not going to say that another man that plays the same position… and say he’s better than me? I can’t do that.
Milliner is now armed with the attitude he needs to go to-to-toe with the best receivers in the game, and the proof that he is capable of playing at a high level. The next step is to combine these tools to accelerate Milliner's development far beyond any normal rate.
According to Brian Costello of the New York Post, even defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman knows that Milliner's on-field performance will be all that matters:
As strongly as he finished the 2013 season, Milliner has yet to convince anyone that he is ready to make such a dramatic jump in his play. Hamstring injuries in spring stripped him of invaluable development time that he was not able to take advantage of as a rookie.
Knowing how much the Jets are depending on Milliner take massive developmental strides this year, Ryan did not hold back when calling out his prized cornerback project.
As training camp has worn on, signs have not improved for Milliner taking a big jump in his second year.
This is not to say that Milliner can never develop into a top-notch player—he certainly can. The problem is the Jets are a team that will be in the business of winning immediately, while their most important defensive back still appears to be lagging behind in his development.
If Milliner can find a way to turn his offseason around and become the player the Jets need him to be, there won't be many yards to be had against the Jets defense.
Already armed with the third-ranked run defense from a year ago, this young, up-and-coming unit has a chance to be special.
A developed Milliner will allow Ryan to utilize many of the concepts that brought his team so much success from 2009 to 2012—defensively, at least. The only difference now is that Ryan finally has a quality defensive front to work with.
Eyes will be on Geno Smith and the offense to make big strides in this season, but it will all be for naught if Ryan's defense cannot play up to par.
Combining the importance of his position with the extreme variance in his play, no defender will have a bigger impact on the Jets' success on a week-to-week basis than Milliner.
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