What Does the Future Hold for the Jets at Cornerback?

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What Does the Future Hold for the Jets at Cornerback?
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With a top-notch defensive line that features Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison, it's going to be tough to run against the New York Jets defense. With a patchwork secondary that is currently without cornerbacks Dee Milliner, Dimitri Patterson and Dexter McDougle, the defense resembles a car with brand new tires that have great traction on a car that has no brakes.

The sight of safety Antonio Allen in man coverage out wide against Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green is probably one the Jets and their fans would rather not see again.

Fortunately for the Jets, help is on the way. McDougle is lost for the season with a torn ACL, but Milliner is out with a high-ankle sprain and is questionable for Week 1, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, and Patterson says he will "no doubt" be ready for Week 1 despite dealing with three different leg injuries, according to Darryl Slater of NJ.com.

Milliner struggled last season before finishing strong. Those were not just any receivers he was stifling in the final two weeks of the season; those receivers were Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Gordon (the league's leader in receiving yards last season) and Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace.

If Milliner continues to develop and stays healthy, the Jets defense has a chance to be successful. If he fails to either grow or stay healthy, the Jets could be in trouble. In either case, he will be back early in the season, so we won't have to wait long to learn whether he has the ability to carry the torch as the team's top cornerback.

The same can't be said of McDougle, who will not return at all in 2014 after being placed on season-ending injured reserve with that torn ACL. The good news is that he suffered the injury in training camp, which makes his prospects bright for a Week 1 return in 2015. The bad news is that not only has this injury dealt another blow to the Jets' already lacking depth in the secondary, but McDougle will have played only one game in the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined.

New York Jets cornerback depth chart
Player Height Weight (lbs) Year in NFL
Dee Milliner 6'0" 201 2
Dimitri Patterson 6'0" 200 9
Antonio Allen * 6'1" 210 3
Kyle Wilson 5'10" 190 5
Ellis Lankster 5'9" 190 5
Darrin Walls 6'0" 190 4
Ras-I Dowling 6'1" 210 3
Johnny Patrick 5'11" 190 4
Brandon Dixon 5'11" 203 R
Jeremy Reeves 5'7" 176 1

* = safety

It's telling that the hopes of the Jets defense ride so heavily on Milliner's shoulders. Give general manager John Idzik credit for aggressively addressing the cornerback spot last year by drafting Milliner after losing All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. This year, however, after losing Antonio Cromartie to free agency, the Jets were passive at the position.

Maddeningly passive for Ryan, according to Mehta of the New York Daily News:

They had opportunities to land cornerbacks like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Alterraun Verner and even Revis, but chose to do little else besides the additions of Patterson and McDougle—two players who have been mired in injuries of their own.

Ryan is a defensive mastermind, but how much can he be expected to do for this defense? In the days when Revis and Cromartie were locking down the perimeter, Ryan had the freedom to be as exotic as he wanted in the front seven, with confidence that the coverage would hold up. Clearly, that is no longer the case.

The only thing Ryan can do now is try to make it work with what he has, and as a result, we could see the Jets start to mix things up pretty significantly, according to Dom Cosentino of NJ.com:

Head coach Rex Ryan said he'd tinker with different combinations in the secondary till he figures out how to account for injuries to Dee Milliner, Dimitri Patterson, and Dexter McDougle. Monday, the Jets stuck with what they did last week, with Dawan Landry and Jaiqwuan Jarrett at first-team safety and Antonio Allen and Ellis Lankster at the corner spots. Rookie Calvin Pryor got some first-team safety reps in 7-on-7s, but might Ryan try giving someone else—Darrin Walls, perhaps?—some reps on the outside?

Sure enough, on Wednesday at practice, the Jets were giving multiple players an opportunity to line up at cornerback. Seth Walder of the New York Daily News explains what the secondary looked like, with some noteworthy changes in the lineup:

It's not a surprise that the Jets are taking this approach at cornerback, given their injury woes.

To be fair, Allen has shown some potential at cornerback. He has the long frame (6'1", 32.5" arms) to get inside a receiver's pads and get a good jam on him to knock him off his route, but playing cornerback is about more than just size. Footwork is a key element that Allen still feels he can improve.

"If you can move well, it doesn't matter the size," Patterson said, via Darryl Slater of NJ.com. "That's really what it comes down to, is your feet."

Revis, for example, is not the biggest cornerback in the NFL (5'11", 198 pounds, 32.38" arms) but his footwork gives him the ability to run with receivers step for step. Allen may never reach that level, but he will have to improve his footwork if the Jets plan to make a success story out of their project at cornerback.

The Jets depth in the secondary is troubling, to be sure, and as outlined by Bleacher Report's Ryan Alfieri, Idzik has only himself to blame. As mentioned earlier, Milliner and Patterson will return sooner than later, but that doesn't help the troubling lack of depth in the secondary if either suffers another injury or ends up being less effective than the Jets hope.

Free-agent cornerbacks
Player Height Weight (lbs) Year in NFL
Asante Samuel 5'10" 185 12
Chris Houston 5'10" 185 8
Corey Webster 6'0" 204 10
Dunta Robinson 5'10" 172 11
Quentin Jammer 6'0" 204 13
Drayton Florence 6'0" 200 12

Source: NFL.com

There are still some respectable big-name cornerbacks on the market, including Asante Samuel, Chris Houston, Corey Webster, Dunta Robinson, Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence. Those players are all closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, though, so those solutions would be little more than a Band-Aid on what could be a gaping wound in the Jets' defense.

The Jets' best option may be to stick with the players they have on the roster. They already know the system, and are young options that could potentially develop into contributors for the secondary. The key word, however, is contributors. Asking those players to bear the burden of the secondary, at any point in the season, would be a foolhardy move.

Certainly, Idzik and Ryan are hoping it never comes to that.

 

Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained via team news release.

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