Cornerback was a huge problem for the New York Jets last season, as Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner both struggled to play at the level Rex Ryan’s press man scheme requires. The Jets ranked 22nd in the NFL in pass defense, by far their lowest rank under Ryan, and they have failed to upgrade the position. Cromartie departed as a free agent, leaving the Jets with Milliner and a host of backup corners who don’t have starting caliber talent.
We’ll begin with Milliner, who is the one guaranteed starter the Jets have. Milliner was basically an unmitigated disaster for the first 12 weeks of last season, as he dealt with injuries and benchings and was generally torched when he was on the field. However, something clicked late and he played very good football in the final month. Milliner won AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for December and AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 17, and now the Jets desperately need him to continue to develop.
Kyle Wilson and the newly signed Dimitri Patterson are the next players in line after Milliner. Wilson is a former first round pick who gets more criticism than he deserves, but he is by no means a safe bet as a starter. The same can be said of the journeyman Patterson, who hasn’t started much in his career, but has some experience in the slot as well. It will be interesting to see if both these players make the team.
The Jets have an intriguing array of backups as well. Darrin Walls filled in for Milliner quite a bit last season, but he showed the struggles you would expect from an inexperienced player. Ellis Lankster is a special teams ace who offers little in the way of actual cornerback play, but he will be on the roster. The Jets also have former second round pick Ras-I Dowling, former third round pick Johnny Patrick and Jeremy Reeves, who was undrafted last season but ran a 4.29 40 in workouts this offseason. The Jets will be looking to develop all those players, but it is unlikely that any will become impact players.
The Jets were reportedly interested in a variety of top free agent corners, including Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and former Jet superstar Darrelle Revis. However, they failed to land any of those players, and at this point the free agent market is completely picked over. The Jets will have to target a starting cornerback in the draft, likely in the first two rounds. Luckily for them, this draft class has a very deep group of corners.
The consensus top two players are Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard, and there is a chance one or both of those players could be available at No. 18. Gilbert has a bit of higher ceiling than Dennard, but he is inconsistent. Dennard is a fantastic fit for the Jets, and it would be hard to pass on him in the first round. If the top two corners are gone, there is a large second tier that will come off the board from the late first through the early third round. You can find all kinds of differing opinions on how to rank these players, but they include (in no particular order) Bradley Roby, Jason Verrett, Lamarcus Joyner and Kyle Fuller, among a few others.
Roby has the most pure talent but is the highest risk, Fuller is a recent riser on draft boards, and Verrett and Joyner are safer players who are better fits in the slot. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Keith McGill, Marcus Roberson and Louchiez Purifoy could all be under consideration in the second round as well. Any of these players would have a chance to earn an immediate starting job, and in truth each would be favored for one.
There is no doubt that cornerback remains a huge need for the Jets, and it must be addressed in the first two rounds. If Milliner develops, the Jets land a quality rookie and one or two of the role players step up, the Jets could have a very good secondary. If not, the pass defense will once again be a disaster that cripples the Jets’ playoff chances.