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Why Darrin Walls Is the New York Jets' Biggest X-Factor in 2014

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Why Darrin Walls Is the New York Jets' Biggest X-Factor in 2014
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The New York Jets have improved significantly in many areas over the past year. 

At quarterback, Geno Smith looks more mature and refined from a season ago, and Michael Vick gives the team one of the league's best running backs. 

At running back and wide receiver, free-agent additions Chris Johnson and Eric Decker should pay dividends and give Smith some more dangerous weapons. 

The defensive line and linebacker corps, both solid to extraordinary in 2013, should also be better with more experience playing alongside one another. 

However, there's one area in which the Jets should be extremely worried about heading into the regular season—cornerback. 

The position has been a concern all offseason, and that unease has only intensified as Week 1 draws near. 

Firstly, rookie Dexter McDougle tore his ACL in practice just ahead of the preseason. McDougle, a third-round selection in this year's draft, will miss the entire season. 

Following McDougle's injury, second-year man Dee Milliner suffered a high-ankle sprain. Milliner's a big question mark for Week 1, and even if he plays, he probably won't be 100 percent. 

Milliner struggled in his rookie season, but the first-round pick was expected to be the leader in the secondary in 2014. Now, injuries may derail his development. 

To add to the injury concerns, free-agent addition Dimitri Patterson - who is expected to start alongside Milliner this season—is dealing with nagging leg injuries

Uncredited/Associated Press

Patterson also mysteriously disappeared before last Friday's preseason game against the Giants, and he didn't reappear until 48 hours later. The details around his departure are uncertain, but it raises questions about his dedication and mentality nonetheless. 

Kyle Wilson, the former first-round selection turned bust, has also been terrible in the preseason thus far, and converted safety Antonio Allen wasn't much better before suffering a concussion in the game against the Giants. 

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So, if you're counting at home, you probably realize that Gang Green will be without five of their top defensive backs, at least for the time being. 

That means some guys who perhaps would have been on the roster bubble earlier in the offseason must step up and contribute. 

The most promising of those guys is Darrin Walls. 

Walls, an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2011, was solid in relief of Milliner a year ago, and at times, he looked like the team's most consistent cover man. 

At 6'0'' and with a 4.43 40-time, the 26-year-old also has the physical tools to shut down some of the bigger and faster wideouts on the outside. 

And the Jets will be facing a lot of those receivers come the regular season. 

Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Sammy Watkins and Antonio Brown are just some of the Pro Bowl-level talents New York's set to face in the season's first half. 

Chances are Walls will see significant playing time against some, or even most, of those guys, as Patterson is looking like an awful signing and Milliner can't seem to stay on the field. 

Walls' commitment to the team also can't be questioned. In a profile by Tom Pedulla of The New York Times, the Pittsburgh native talks about coming to terms with the losses of four loved ones in the last year-and-a-half. 

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Despite his hardships, Walls continues to leave it all on the field and make the most of his opportunity. In the same article, Rex Ryan credits his cover skills, on-field smarts and tackling ability, but states that Walls needs to improve his ball skills. 

Ryan has a point. Despite his strong year a season ago, Walls failed to record an interception. He's also had several drops in training camp thus far. 

The Jets defense needs to force more turnovers to give the offense a short field to work with, and if Walls can be a part of that, he might win the starting job outright.

At the present moment, it appears New York's uncertainty at cornerback could cost the team big time this coming season. 

However, that could all change if Walls steps up and contributes like the player he has the desire, and ability, to be.  

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