One by one, the New York Jets' options have dwindled in their endeavor to replace the recently released Antonio Cromartie at the top cornerback spot.
According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Jets head coach Rex Ryan was none too pleased with the team's inability to sign a top-flight cornerback.
But the more time the Jets spend wallowing in the past, the less time they have to answer the serious long-term questions facing the team. And now that they've failed to sign any of the top-notch corners on the market, they have one major long-term question that trumps them all: Can Dee Milliner comfortably handle the top cornerback spot if necessary?
Milliner got off to a rough start to his career and was benched three times for poor play. The way he performed down the stretch, though, suggests he could be ready to take the next step.
"Milliner was behind from the start; he was coming off an injury and missed a lot of practice time," says former Jets scout Joe Bommarito, who was part of the group that drafted Milliner with the ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft.
"[He] wasn't full strength, then was pressed into playing when he wasn't ready. To me, early on, he looked like he was playing scared while learning on the job. Then, towards the end of season, he started to get some confidence back and was able to practice more."
Milliner won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, closing out the season on a high note with strong performances against Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon and Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Cromartie was the defender responsible for an offense's No. 1 wide receiver for most of the 2013 season, and in the lead-in to the Jets' Week 16 game against the Browns, CBS announcer Marv Albert mistakenly said Cromartie would be dealing with Gordon. That responsibility was shifted to Milliner, though, and he rose to the challenge.
|Dee Milliner, final two games of season|
|Yards downfield||Catches||Targets||Catch %||Yards||YAC||TD||INT||PBU|
|Source: Personal research|
Gordon won his share of those matchups, catching five passes against Milliner in coverage, but Milliner finished the game with five passes defensed and an interception.
Milliner showed he has the ability to cover No. 1 receivers downfield on this particular play. Gordon ran a double-move to try to fake out Milliner and get past him. Unfortunately for Gordon, Milliner kept his hips open to the receiver, which allowed him to react to Gordon's moves ahead of time instead of being caught in trail technique.
As a result, Milliner won inside leverage and forced a perfect throw from Browns quarterback Jason Campbell down the right sideline. Jets safety Ed Reed came in to help on the deep throw, and Milliner and Reed combined for the pass breakup. It was all made possible, though, by Milliner's sound technique in coverage.
Milliner was exposed in deep coverage at times in 2013, so the Jets have to be thrilled that he finished with his two best performances of the season against two top-notch deep threats.
It wasn't always the big plays he made that demonstrated he had improved in that facet of his game.
The Browns faced a 3rd-and-7 from their own 40-yard line in the first quarter. Gordon lined up wide to the left, with Milliner playing seven yards away from him in off-man coverage.
Milliner watched Gordon eat the cushion before sinking his hips as he broke off his route for the curl. Milliner did a great job of keeping his hips square to the receiver and keeping his feet under him as well. That allowed him to come down on Gordon and prevent him from gaining any extra yards after a six-yard gain.
As a rookie, Milliner struggled with tackling at times; he missed nine on the season. During those final two games, though, he made 13 tackles and missed just one. This means that even when Milliner was allowing the reception, his coverage and fundamentals were both good enough that he was still in position to make the tackle.
That being said, big plays never hurt.
Even if Wallace hadn't slipped and fallen while running this curl route, Milliner probably still would have made the interception. He played the receiver the whole time, watching his hips and feet and waiting for Wallace to make his break. As soon as he did, Milliner broke on the route and was able to come away with the diving interception, alertly keeping the ball from touching the ground.
There are still some areas of Milliner's game that need work, however. Wallace got past Milliner a couple of times with double-moves, including on his touchdown catch. There aren't many defensive backs that excel at defending double-moves, particularly in man coverage where they are particularly effective.
He also got away with not turning to look for the ball on several occasions in those final two games of the year. There were enough signs of hope in those games, though, that Milliner should be expected to continue his progress in his second year—especially if he can stay healthy.
Asking him to guard a team's No. 1 receiver for a full season may be too much at this stage in his career, but with time, Milliner could get there. The question then becomes how long it takes him to get there, and whether the Jets have enough depth at cornerback to field a competent No. 2 option.
As the Jets learned in the Revis years, when you have a solid No. 1 cornerback, the bull's-eye on the No. 2 cornerback gets a little bigger. It's not just Milliner who will have to step up. The Jets could use some contributions from cornerbacks like Kyle Wilson and Darrin Walls.
The Jets should still be in the market for a cornerback. Whether it's a No. 1 or No. 2 depends on their assessment of Milliner's performance. Those last two games were a great start for Milliner, but they mean nothing if his progress doesn't continue. And if that's the case, the Jets could be in trouble.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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