Cornerback was arguably the New York Jets’ biggest need in the NFL Draft, as they lost Antonio Cromartie in free agency and had no viable option to start opposite Dee Milliner. Despite that, the Jets passed on a few outstanding cornerback prospects in first and second rounds before making a huge reach for Dexter McDougle in the third, a player widely regarded as a fifth round prospect. McDougle joins a large group of corners (and question marks) who will be battling for a roster spot and the starting job opposite Milliner.
Right now, Dimitri Patterson is the favorite to start, with Kyle Wilson resuming his duties in the slot. That leaves McDougle, Darrin Walls, Ellis Lankster, Ras-I Dowling, Jeremy Reeves, Johnny Patrick and sixth round pick Brandon Dixon fighting for two or three roster spots. Dowling and Patrick are former second and third round picks, Walls is a player the Jets like, and Lankster is a special teams ace, so McDougle is not guaranteed anything.
Very few coaches ask more from their corners than Rex Ryan, as his preferred defense involves his corners playing press man coverage with a single high safety on nearly every snap. In fact, Ryan was prone to using zero coverages, meaning no deep safeties, when he had Cromartie and Darrelle Revis in their primes. Obviously the Jets don’t have that capability right now, but it highlights how much Ryan expects from his corners.
McDougle is at his best in man to man, and he was making very good progress as senior before a shoulder injury ended his season. If he’s healthy, he could easily live up to his draft status, but first he must prove that he can stay on the field. Assuming he can, McDougle is a good athlete with natural cover skills, and he should fit nicely into the Jets’ scheme. He had three interceptions in the three games he played as a senior, demonstrating above average ball skills. Finally, he is smart and high character, and he will be able to quickly absorb the playbook and be willing to work to get better.
Patterson is a journeyman on a one year contract, and Wilson is a former first round pick who probably won’t be back next season. That means they aren’t guaranteed anything either, so the competition at cornerback is wide open. There is a very real chance McDougle could be the Week 1 starter with an impressive preseason. He will need to show that he won’t make mistakes and is capable of handling more physical receivers, but he has the highest upside of any corner other than Milliner.
Long term, McDougle could end up as the Jets’ slot corner, given his lack of size. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if he forces Wilson out of that role early on, as the Jets don’t figure to have him in their long term plans. Given how open the competition is, McDougle will have a chance to earn a big role. On the other hand, there is also a chance others will outplay him and he won’t see the field except on special teams. As a third round pick, McDougle is almost guaranteed to make to the team, but the role he plays will depend entirely on his preseason performance.