All offseason long, the New York Jets have tried to sell their new philosophy of "fair and open competition," where the best players will play and no job is safe, no matter where a player was drafted or how much money he is making.
When Darrin Walls was signed to the Jets' practice squad in late September 2012, he was supposed to be nothing more than an extra practice body after Darrelle Revis was lost for the season.
A year later, and Walls is knocking on the door of a full-time starting gig.
The Notre Dame product actually began to flash with the Jets at the end of last year. When he was finally activated to the 53-man roster, Walls played 82 snaps without giving up a single catch and graded out as the best cornerback on the roster behind Revis and Cromartie, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Now that he has the attention of his coaches, Walls is slowly starting to be looked upon as a serious option at boundary corner. He got a significant amount of snaps opposite Kyle Wilson with the first team against the Giants in place of a nicked-up Cromartie. He gave up just two catches in 66 snaps and defended two passes.
Meanwhile, the two players ahead of him on the depth chart, Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner—both first-round picks—are tied for 137th out of 148.
Why is Walls playing at such a high level while two first-round picks are struggling in the same spot? Walls is simply playing with better balance and technique and is confident enough to challenge his receivers at the line of scrimmage—and winning.
Balance and Patience
The most impressive part of Walls' game is how disciplined he is when playing press coverage, which is Rex Ryan's preferred style of man coverage in his aggressive, blitz-happy defense.
Many young corners have trouble adjusting to the NFL because of how well-developed the wide receivers' moves are. Too often, they take false steps and start guessing where the receiver is going to be rather than anticipating and reacting.
In this 3rd-and-10 situation, the Jets were set to run a Cover-1 Man Under—a fancy way of saying there is one deep safety with man coverage underneath. In third-down situations, this is Rex Ryan's bread and butter, as he uses the majority of his resources to apply pressure.
The ball was snapped, and the receiver tried to shake Walls with shifty stutter steps. Walls was able to maintain balance by keeping his hips at an angle just over 90 degrees and ready to move in any direction by keeping his feet square to the receiver.
As a result, Walls was able to get a hand on the receiver and pin him to the sideline, eliminating him as a viable target for Eli Manning.
Meanwhile, on Kyle Wilson's side of the field:
While Walls is certainly not the caliber of Darrelle Revis, he is very similar in his movement ability and balance. Like Revis, Walls is excellent at staying low without compromising his position.
Fluidity and Change of Direction
Both of these qualities are held in high regard when it comes to scouting college prospects, which only makes it more mind-boggling that Walls went undrafted.
Once again, Walls was in man coverage on the perimeter. Walls anticipated the go route the receiver ran and stayed stride-for-stride with him along the sideline. His first step was a near 180 degrees, which shows great fluidity that minimizes wasted movement.
The quarterback was attempting to hit a back-shoulder throw while Walls wasn't looking. The pass was promptly thrown before the receiver even began to make a comeback for the ball.
The receiver was looking for the ball, but Walls was still unaware that he was already being targeted. This pass is difficult to execute, but when the timing is right, it can be unstoppable against even the best coverage.
When the receiver stopped to make a play on the ball, Walls had the explosiveness and balance to keep his position on the receiver.
When the ball finally arrived, Walls was able to play the ball without initiating early contact with the receiver to get the incompletion.
The back-shoulder fade is one of the most difficult throws to defend for a cornerback, but here, Walls was up to every task the route threw at him.
Ignoring Draft Position
Choosing to start Walls over two first-round picks would be perceived as an admission of failure. After all, the Jets drafted Dee Milliner in the first round to ease the blow of losing Darrelle Revis—replacing Revis with an undrafted free agent would make it seem as if Revis was traded away for virtually nothing.
Still, as much backlash as Ryan would face from fans and perhaps even his own general manager, playing Walls over Milliner or Kyle Wilson would keep Ryan to his word of playing the best 11 players, which ultimately gives him a better chance to win—and keep his job.
Besides, starting Walls over Milliner not only increases the team's odds of winning—it could assist in Milliner's development as well.
Despite running over the BCS on a yearly basis, Alabama prospects have underwhelmed in the NFL ranks.
Thanks to Nick Saban's rigorous practice regimen, Alabama players are so worn down after a college football season and draft training that their bodies start to break down by the time they reach an NFL facility. Milliner was already dealing with a shoulder problem before he was drafted, and he missed the final two preseason games with a calf injury.
Even if Milliner has declared himself fully healed and ready for the season opener, per Michael J. Fensom of The Star Ledger, history shows that Milliner is highly likely to be nicked up with another injury before he finally has a full offseason to rest his body.
If Milliner does manage to stay out of the trainer's room, he could certainly struggle mightily in the process. Alabama cornerbacks are not taught how to backpedal properly, a technique that is vital to success in a press-man-heavy system.
Milliner's discomfort moving backward was evident in his only preseason action against the Jaguars, in which he consistently gave too much cushion so he would only have to move forward—to make a tackle after a completion. Milliner's technique was bad enough to draw public criticism from Rex Ryan, per Dan Hanzus of NFL.com:
I didn't like the way we competed and challenged on the outside—not so much Cromartie, but from Dee. When we call on him, I want him to get up there. Let's go. Let's play. We were off a little too much, and it's not as if you game plan them like crazy, but give them credit.
This is not to say Milliner can never develop into a quality cornerback. Milliner, the first cornerback taken in the draft, is a tremendous talent—but it may be a while before he can be trusted like a seasoned veteran. After all, even Darrelle Revis was torched in his rookie debut against Randy Moss.
Rex Ryan is a smart football man, and he appreciates the talent he has in Walls. After all, why else would he start off his press conference with a video breakdown of how well Walls is playing?
Despite the thick layers of politics that would prevent such a move from happening, starting Darrin Walls against the Buccaneers next Sunday would be a move that benefits just about every member of the organization, no matter how bad it would make John Idzik look for the short term.
Rex Ryan needs to win to keep his job, and he needs to play his best players to have a chance at winning. Starting Darrin Walls is one small step in the process for Ryan to have a future with the Jets beyond 2013.
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