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Can the New York Jets Survive Rash of Injuries at Cornerback?

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Can the New York Jets Survive Rash of Injuries at Cornerback?
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Last year, the New York Jets were the luckiest team in the NFL from a health perspective. 

Now, they can't seem to catch a break when it comes to maintaining a healthy defensive back depth chart. Rookie Dexter McDougle was lost to an ACL injury and is likely out for the season, and former top-10 selection Dee Milliner was sidelined with a high-ankle sprain, according to the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta.

The Jets were already shorthanded coming into this practice with Dimitri Patterson and Jeremy Reeves nursing injuries of their own, per Kimberly Martin of Newsday.

In just a few short hours, the Jets went from having a small surplus of depth at the cornerback position to being, once again, one of the thinnest teams in the league in the defensive backfield. 

USA TODAY Sports

However, to say the Jets can easily afford to lose any of their cornerbacks—nevermind multiple players at the top of the depth chart—and come away completely unscathed is being far too optimistic. In a highly aggressive defense that is so reliant on quality man coverage on the back end, the result of losing the few quality defensive backs on the roster will only have magnified consequences.

The Jets' doctors know more than anyone ever will about the severity of these injuries, but it is safe to assume that McDougle is out for the reminder of the season, and Milliner will miss at least the season opener.

Bleacher Report's Dave Siebert approximates a six-week recovery for a "mild" high-ankle sprain—to assume Milliner will only miss the opener would be considered a highly optimistic prognosis. 

The injuries of these two players come at particularly poor times, and not just because of their youth. Milliner is on the heels of a strong preseason opener in which he defended two passes and yielded none; McDougle is just a few months removed from drawing Darrelle Revis comparisons in the spring: 

Even when working under the assumption Patterson returns from his calf injury in time, the Jets' opening day depth chart for the defensive backfield is hardly a "no-fly-zone":

Projected Week 1 Secondary
Position Player
LCB Darrin Walls
RCB Dimitri Patterson
Slot CB Kyle Wilson
Dime CB Ellis Lankster
Strong Safety Dawan Landry
Free Safety Antonio Allen

NFL.com

There is some young talent littered in the above chart, but nothing about the Jets' starting lineup scares opposing offenses. If teams like the Oakland Raiders, the Jets' Week 1 opponent, are going to have any resemblance of offensive success this year, they will look to do it against the paper-thin secondary in New York.

At this moment, the Jets' secondary situation looks about as bare as it gets. Players like Darrin Walls and Antonio Allen only have limited experience in starting roles with 14 starts between the two of them. Even the most seasoned players, such as Dawan Landry, are hardly in their prime—Landry was the 81st-ranked safety in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

As bleak as the situation looks, there is a crack of optimism amid their misfortune. A good portion of the Jets secondary is young and inexperienced, but there is untapped talent that will have a chance to shine in these circumstances. 

If there are any positives to take from this newfound misfortune, it is the fact that Darrin Walls will get a chance to shine in a highlighted role after being unfairly cast aside as a depth player over the past two seasons. 

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Since getting added to the roster in the second half of the lost 2012 season, Walls has steadily climbed the depth chart to the verge of the starting lineup. However, the Jets have been reluctant to hand him a full-time role, electing to use a high draft pick on Milliner and bringing in new free agents like Patterson instead. 

However, Walls has had the chance to play, and he has produced as well as anyone could expect from a former undrafted free agent. He was the top-rated cornerback in preseason in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, sticking with some of the (formerly) top-rated receivers in the league on his own. 

NFL Preseason Live

When asked to play in the regular season (in place of the oft-benched Milliner), Walls delivered at least solid results. He allowed a completion percentage of 59.4 with an average reception of just 8.6 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. His only "negative" performance was in a Week 4 blowout against the Tennessee Titans in which he allowed five catches.

Barring a remarkable recovery from Milliner, Walls will have his chance to shine in a starting role. The Jets may have lost one young, starting-caliber player but revealing an alternate young talent will go a long way in softening the blow.

As much promise as they have shown, leaning on the likes of unproven players like Walls is hardly a proven method of sustaining winning in the NFL. The best weapon the Jets have to combat their secondary woes is still their young, dominant front seven that has the potential to be great in 2013. 

Elsa/Getty Images
The Jets' defensive front can counter their bad secondary.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Jets had a player breach the 10-sack mark, as both Calvin Pace and Muhammad Wilkerson hit doubled-digit sacks. (John Abraham was the last player to do so in a Jets uniform in 2005.)

Also, a member of this front is 25-year old nose tackle Damon Harrison, who was rated the best run-defender at his position by Pro Football Focus. Flanking him is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sheldon Richardson, who is still years away from reaching his full potential.

Adding more potency to the Jets' antidote to a bad secondary is their edge pass-rush upgrades. In his second season at outside linebacker, a leaner, healthier Quinton Coples is back into the lineup with something to prove:

Jason Babin is a character risk, but he is only a couple years removed from an 18.5-sack season. If the Jets can sprinkle this kind of speed into their third-down pass rush, the Jets will just need their defensive backs to hold up for a few quick seconds.

NFL Game Rewind

Outside of Babin and Pace, all of the Jets' defenders are in their prime or too young to have come close to hitting it. Combined with their past production, the potential of this group gives them a chance to be associated with the likes of the New York Sack Exchange.

Make no mistake about it—losing two young cornerbacks for any extended period is potentially catastrophic news for the team and each player's careers. Like any ACL injury, the lingering effects of a surgically repaired knee vary greatly from each individual—such a procedure could be career-altering. 

Milliner should be able to return in due time, but this is a key offseason of development for him. After missing the bulk of the 2013 offseason, missing out on several weeks of training camp does nothing to help him improve upon a turbulent 2014 season. 

The Jets do have a few (potential) solutions up their sleeve that do no involve making a desperate trade for replacements. If the Jets' cornerback depth surpasses expectations while the defensive line lives up to their potential, the Jets may survive "Bloody Sunday" after all. 

 

Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).

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