Milliner struggled throughout most of his rookie season, but the light bulb seemed to go on for him in December as he won the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award, intercepting three passes and helping the Jets win three out of their last four games. Heading into the 2014 season, the Jets will be relying on Milliner to continue to step up, especially after having released Antonio Cromartie.
Ever since the Jets drafted Milliner with the 9th pick in last year’s draft, comparisons to departing all-pro Darrelle Revis have been inevitable. While my sense is that these should be regarded with scepticism, their most useful function is to highlight differences between the two. Rather than a device to facilitate an accurate projection of how Milliner’s career will play out (which would be impossible) any such comparison should be seen as an indicator of where Milliner stands in terms of his learning curve with reference to where Revis was at the same point in his career. This allows us to evaluate Milliner against the benchmark of an elite cornerback and look at where in particular he still has to develop.
With all that in mind, I’ve been watching detailed footage from Milliner’s rookie season last year and Revis’ rookie season back in 2007. A comprehensive look into what this could tell us about where Milliner stands heading into his second season follows after the jump.
Depending on your perspective, it’s not difficult to look back on Revis’ 2007 and portray it in such a way so as to suit any narrative. That’s whether you base your assessment on a seven-year old recollection of events, a look into the numbers or an assessment of the footage. In each case, it’s an inexact science. Here we’ll consider all three, with a main focus on potential for misinterpretations.
Perception of Revis’ rookie year
When people look back to Revis’ rookie year, they can highlight the fact that he started 16 games and was never benched. He also showed progress throughout the season, intercepting three passes in the last nine games after recording no picks in his first seven games.
There was a marked contrast between Revis and another cornerback who was a high draft pick two years before, Justin Miller. Miller looked embarrassingly out of his depth as a rookie, registering just two passes defensed despite starting eight games. This definitely helped fuel the perception that Revis was developing well. Revis looked smooth and under control from the start and, although he did have some negative plays against elite receivers, he held his own.
On the other hand, the Jets went 4-12 with Revis starting every game and their pass defense had issues all year. They ended up giving up 7.2 yards per pass play, 8th highest in the NFL or – if you prefer – the 18th ranked pass defense in the league per Football Outsiders.)
We obviously need to delve a little deeper to accurately contrast this to Milliner’s rookie year, but you can see how there’s enough ambiguity to play both the “Revis settled in right away as a rookie” and “Revis had his own struggles as a rookie” card.
Perception of Milliner’s rookie year
Milliner’s rookie year is a lot fresher in the memory. Initial struggles led to a couple of benchings with the year culminating in a late-season surge to end 2013 on a positive note. His offseason was impacted by injuries and the fact they didn’t manage to get his contract done before camp opened, which conspired to slow down his progress.
Milliner was beaten for several big plays including a handful of touchdowns as he was routinely letting his man get behind him during the first three months of the season. Perhaps even more disconcerting was the fact that he wasn’t making any plays on the ball. As it happens, the only pass defensed he had in the entire first half of the season actually should have been a forced fumble, although the replay booth in New England felt otherwise.
Milliner gradually started to break on the ball better over the next few games, but still continued to give up big plays. However, over the last month he settled down and really started to make plays on a regular basis, despite some tough matchups – notably Josh Gordon and Mike Wallace.
Are we overreacting to how bad he was at the start of the year though? Or how good he was at the end of the year? Or both?
The next section compares the coverage numbers for each of them from their first season. Naturally there are weaknesses in a pure numerical comparison, but we’ll address those in the next section. In their rawest form, the numbers do make for an interesting and revealing comparison, especially if you divide them up between the first 12 games and the last four.
Through 12 games:
Revis - 49-70-638 yards (3TD, 2INT)
Milliner - 34-65-578 yards (6TD, 0INT)
Surprisingly, as badly as we recall Milliner’s performance over those first 12 games, his numbers are actually better than Revis in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt. However, you can immediately see that Milliner gave up twice as many touchdowns and didn’t intercept any passes and that was the major difference between the two.
It is surprising to note that Revis gave up more yards and catches, although there are plenty of reasons behind this, which we’ll get to in the next few sections.
What about the last four games, though? How strongly did Milliner finish and how did Revis’ final month compare?
Last four games:
Revis - 9-24-109 (1TD, 1INT)
Milliner - 19-38-192 (1TD, 3INT)
This time, Revis actually has more impressive numbers than Milliner in terms of yardage surrendered and completion percentage. That translated to 27.3 yards per game – the kind of numbers you’d associate with the veteran Revis. Milliner cashed in with a few interceptions and only gave up one score but did give up more plays than Revis did in that final month. However, a 50% completion percentage and 5.1 yards per attempt are still pretty impressive.
Again, there are reasons behind why Revis gave up fewer yards over that period, but even so the numbers would suggest that each of them finished the year on an upwards curve.
Where the numbers lie
The trouble with just looking at coverage numbers is that they don’t take into account where a player gets beaten or otherwise makes a mistake but the play is still unsuccessful (due, for example, to a bad throw or a drop by the receiver). In fact, the defensive player effectively gets credit despite making a bad play. Similarly, if the defensive player has blanket coverage but the receiver makes an amazing catch, that counts the same as if the defender was badly beaten.
This is why sites like PFF suggest that you should pay attention to their grades, because they would give a player who gets beaten a negative grade even if the play was unsuccessful and a player would get a worse negative grade on a play where they were badly beaten than on a play with the same result where the defender did a good job but the pass was still completed.
Sure enough, PFF’s grades do align more closely to our original perspective than the final numbers. Revis was grading out negatively but his late surge pushed him into positive numbers. Milliner still ended up with a negative grade even in spite of his late surge, underlining the fact that he didn’t perform as well as Revis in the first three months of his career.
As we look at the final numbers, we can see that – other than the fact he gave up three more touchdowns – Milliner’s numbers compare favourably with Revis’ numbers. He even bests him in terms of yards per attempt (just) and completion
percentage (pretty comfortably).
Revis - 58-94-747 yards (4TD, 3INT)
Milliner - 53-103-770 yards (7TD, 3INT)
However, as noted, these numbers don’t account for near misses by the offense and Milliner did benefit from such near misses. In this recent profile on PFF, there’s a couple of examples. All told, Milliner was the beneficiary of seven drops which would have increased his completion percentage allowed from just over 50% to just under 60% (and obviously increased his numbers for yardage and touchdowns conceded).
That doesn’t mean Revis didn’t also benefit from being fortunate on a few plays where he got beaten, but the grades seem to reflect the fact that this was not as often.
Even the grades can be misleading at times. For example, even if a cornerback blankets his man with perfect coverage all day and doesn’t give up a catch, he could still theoretically end up with a negative grade because of mistakes he made as a tackler. Furthermore, if these mistakes happened on pass plays (for example if he came off his man to make a tackle in the flat, but missed that tackle) then this would go down as a negative play in the coverage category. So, the coverage grade won’t always just reflect how well a player covered his man. One such example involving Milliner was the long DeAngelo Williams touchdown where he failed to get off a block downfield and let Williams past him down the sideline.
In terms of missed tackles, it’s interesting to note that Revis had six, but none in the second half of the season. Milliner’s nine were spread more evenly over the course of the year.
Two other factors at play were the fact that Milliner missed three games, was benched in two others and operated as a nickel corner in one. This means he only played approximately 70% of the amount of snaps that Revis did in his rookie year. While that doesn’t affect the numbers for completion percentage or yards per target, it’s worth emphasising that Milliner likely would have given up much more yardage had he played the same amount of time as Revis. He did get targeted more than Revis though and again, there are reasons for this that we will get into.
The reality of Revis rookie year
The best way to analyse how well Revis played as a rookie is to go back and watch the footage from 2007, so I’ve been doing that since the end of the season. I’ll focus here on how well he played, but we’ll go into his role and situation further down.
Over the first four games, Revis was picked on a lot. He gave up a total of 21 catches, including eight for over 100 yards in week four against the Bills. To put that into perspective, he gave up 22 catches all season in 2010. He was also giving up a completion percentage of 75%, among the worst in the league at that time. Most of the damage was done on quick slants and plays where Revis was too far off and the receiver stopped his route and looked back for the ball. Obviously Revis was keeping things in front of him well to avoid any big plays (none of the 21 completions went for a touchdown), but this allowed the offense to take what he gave them and rack up yardage on him.
Over the next four games, he gave up fewer catches (15) but did have his first three penalties of the season. In week eight, I was fortunate enough to be in the house as Revis made his first career interception. However, he was also the victim of a freak play that led to him giving up an 85-yard touchdown to Lee Evans. You should be able to see this from the clip here but Revis had another interception in his hands, only for Abram Elam to collide with him and knock him off the ball, allowing Evans to spin away with the ball and go the distance. I had a perfect view of this play which unfolded right in front of me. The Jets lost 13-3.
Over the next four games, Revis did get beaten for two scores, but had two good games where he didn’t allow much damage. The Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys, while it ended in a humiliating 34-3 loss, was a watershed game for Revis as he matched up with Terrell Owens for much of the day and held his own for the most part. However, Owens got the last laugh, reaching over him for a 22-yard touchdown catch at the pylon. He had four catches for 52 yards on Revis in that game (6-65 overall). Still, that was somewhat reminiscent of the Jets throwing Milliner in at the deep end towards the end of 2013. In the 12th game, Revis intercepted his second pass of the year on a tipped ball.
The week 13 clash against Cleveland was one of the most interesting games all season. Braylon Edwards had three big catches on Revis, two of which you can see on this video at 1:52 and 3:08. As you can see, he gave up a 45 yard catch on a long bomb and a short touchdown. In each case, Revis was in a good position, but the much bigger receiver was able to make the catch over him, much like with the Owens touchdown a couple of weeks prior. Clearly the ability to shadow a much bigger and physical receiver was one limitation in his game at that stage of his career. The third catch he gave up was even more surprising than the other two as Edwards ran an out pattern and Revis never got his head turned around in time. It’s still quite jarring to see any deficiency in technique from Revis. Despite these three plays, Revis was impressive the rest of the way, with one perfectly timed pass breakup.
Worth noting is the fact that the long pass in this game and the freak collision with Abram Elam were the only plays of over 30 yards that Revis gave up all season. As noted, he had more of a tendency to keep things in front of him. Of course, this may have been for strategic reasons with Eric Mangini's penchant for bend-but-not-break.
The next game was the game in New England where the Jets were 35-point underdogs against the undefeated Patriots. Revis almost pitched a shutout, although it’s worth noting that he wasn’t covering Randy Moss, who caught five passes for 79 yards, very often. He did get penalized once – his sixth and final penalty of the season – but made up for that with his third interception.
Against the Titans in week 16, Revis gave up one first down catch but also had another nice pass breakup. The final game saw him give up three first down catches on seven targets (although one was incorrectly spotted short of the marker). Dwayne Bowe entered the game needing just 18 yards to get to 1,000 on the season, but was held to just 13 yards. However, Revis was mostly on Jeff Owens. A couple of times, Owens got away from Revis coming back to the ball but Revis got lucky with an inaccurate throw, but again he had kept things in front of him well.
As noted, Revis wasn’t benched. However, the situation was slightly different to that of the 2013 Jets. First of all, the 2007 Jets fell out of contention pretty quickly, whereas the 2013 Jets were still in mathematical contention right up to the penultimate week of the season, so the 2007 Jets had nothing to lose by leaving Revis in the lineup in the second half of the season. However, if Revis was going to be benched at any point it most probably would have been in that first month while they were still in contention.
Another factor was that the 2013 Jets had other options on the bench that they could rely on to do just as well as Milliner, if not better, in the short term (Darrin Walls, Kyle Wilson and Ellis Lankster). On the 2007 team, the other options were Hank Poteat, David Barrett and Drew Coleman and it would be difficult to rely on one of those guys outperforming Revis, let alone two. This also may have factored into Revis not being targeted as regularly as Milliner was. With plenty of exploitable matchups all over the defense, teams didn’t have to go after the rookie to attack the 2007 Jets. The 2013 Jets had fewer weaknesses defensively and therefore Milliner was targeted more regularly all season.
You could also say that Revis was at a disadvantage in comparison to Milliner because of the Jets’ porous pass rush back then. The 2007 Jets only had nine sacks in the first nine games and, although that picked up over the second half of the season, part of that was a by-product of teams knowing they had time to sit in the pocket and let routes develop.
The reality of Milliner’s rookie year
Milliner was first benched in the week two game, after which he was used as the nickel cornerback (playing on the outside) in the third game of the year. He then missed three games (including the week four blowout against the Titans where Darrin Walls struggled in his place) with a hamstring injury, making his return to the starting lineup for the week seven win over the Patriots. He was benched again the following week against the Bengals.
One thing worth re-emphasizing is the fact that Milliner didn’t have a single penalty called on him. The fact he managed to get away with some physical coverage is encouraging but this also has a lot to do with the fact he was playing off his man quite a lot.
As noted, Milliner was targeted more, even when he was playing well. In the Browns game in week 16, he was targeted 18 times, giving up 10 catches for over 100 yards, but at a respectable 6.3 yards per target. He followed that up by holding Mike Wallace to four catches for 29 yards on 10 targets.
The biggest improvement he made was his ability to read, react and jump on a route. While this translated to his first three interceptions – all in the last two games – it had an even more noticeable effect on his passes defensed as I pointed out after the final game:
At the midseason point, Dee Milliner had ONE pass defensed. He ended up the season with 20, which puts him in the top 10 for NFL cornerbacks and 12th overall. His 19 in the second half of the year must have led the league. Alterraun Verner, who led the NFL with 28, had just 12 in the second half of the season.
Underscoring a major difference in not only how they performed but how they played, Milliner actually gave up six plays of thirty yards or more – three times as many as Revis did in his rookie year. However, further emphasizing the growth he made at the end of the season is the fact that all six of these came in the first 11 games and none in the last five.
Differences in role
So we’ve evaluated and added context to the numbers and how they performed. However, there’s still some important differences between their respective roles during their rookie season that need to be discussed.
In Mangini’s defense (or maybe it should be attributed to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton), the Jets played a lot of cover two. Despite the fact that both Abram Elam and Eric Smith have reputations as in-the-box safeties, that was their role as they effectively split time as Kerry Rhodes’ counterpart. That meant Revis nearly always had coverage support.
In terms of the Rex Ryan Jets, you can’t really generalize because they mix up their coverages so much from game to game and even series to series. However, while they usually line up with both safeties deep, they have a tendency to leave one corner with no support. This is certainly something they do more often than the 2007 Jets and it’s designed to create one-on-one matchups for their linemen (by enabling a safety to pick someone up underneath, freeing up a linebacker to blitz and occupy a would-be double-team blocker). This didn’t affect Milliner much early in the season, because it was usually Cromartie that was employed in this manner. However, Milliner did find himself in that position at times down the stretch.
Once Ed Reed signed, comments were made that the Jets were playing more cover two, but that didn’t necessarily seem to be the case, as Reed was often single-high. However, as I noted down the stretch, the addition of Reed had a massive positive effect on Milliner:
Milliner just looks like a completely different player than he did earlier in the season. He appears so much more confident, his technique is light years ahead of where it was in September and he’s jumping routes and showing good ball skills. A massive part of that is that Reed has been giving him safety support and I would imagine has been working closely with him so that they both know their responsibilities. Virtually every time Milliner made a play on Sunday, Reed was not far behind – ready to clean up if Milliner made a mistake or potentially intercept a pass that was overthrown or tipped into the air.
Sure enough, the fact that Milliner absorbed a lot from working with Reed has been discussed in recent weeks. In those last two games, it’s telling the three biggest plays Milliner gave up were all plays where he wasn’t supported by Reed. One 21-yarder against Miami came with Reed in the box. Against the Browns, Josh Gordon had two 24-yarders – one with Reed out of the game (Landry shifted the coverage away from Milliner before the snap on this play) and the other with Reed on the opposite side and Josh Bush supporting Milliner. Eliminating those plays, he gave up just 25 yards on three catches to Gordon on 11 other targets.
So, should we be concerned that Milliner might regress without Reed? I don’t know if there’s still a chance that Reed could return but I hope the Jets are considering it. At the same time, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that they drafted a player in the first round who seems to have excellent range and coverage abilities.
Another key difference was who they were covering. As noted, Revis drew the assignment on Terrell Owens, but a lot of the time he specifically wasn’t matched up with the other team’s top target. I do wonder, however, if that had more to do with the limitations of David Barrett rather than Revis' own strengths. Barrett always seemed to do well against bigger receivers, but would struggle with smaller, shiftier guys. That would explain why Revis might not match up with a Randy Moss or Dwayne Bowe in those two late season games. Still, had Revis stepped up and taken the number one receiver more often, it likely would have had an adverse effect on his numbers. Occasionally they would just get their cornerbacks to stick to a side.
Leaving his cornerback on either side is something Rex Ryan doesn’t do very often. However, they did do it in week 17. But wait…isn’t that the game where Milliner was matched up against Mike Wallace? Yes, it was…but Miami is one of the rare teams that actually lets their receivers stick to a side. Wallace played 869 of 964 snaps wide right in 2013, so leaving Milliner on the left was a deliberate ploy to match him up with Wallace. Even more interesting is that during their previous meeting, Milliner played on the right, so he was deliberately kept away from the Wallace matchup. Furthermore, on one of the rare occasions when they ended up matched up on one another in that earlier game, Wallace beat him for a 28-yard touchdown. The fact that he shut Wallace down four weeks later is a further indication of his growth.
The only other game where Milliner stuck to one side was the game in week three where he only played on the sub-package.
Revis development in year two and beyond
So, how did Revis develop over the next few years? While we can’t guarantee that Milliner’s development will follow the same path and on the same timescale, it at least sets a benchmark for him to shoot for.
In 2008, Revis was targeted slightly less and saw incremental improvements in his completion percentage, yards per attempt and quarterback rating when targeted. Again he was a beneficiary of other weaknesses on the defense, because there was no need to target him when it was so easy to move the chains by picking apart the soft underbelly of the Jets. With Abram Elam’s regression, an injury-plagued David Harris bulking up to 260 and the likes of Eric Barton and David Bowens one year older, young and inexperienced quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Shaun Hill and Matt Cassel were able to rack up huge yardage by attacking the intermediate zones and exploiting mismatches.
2009 saw the arrival of Rex Ryan and Revis making the leap to elite status in his third NFL season. Revis only saw a slight reduction in the number of catches and yards he gave up (from 49-510 to 48-502) but the amazing part was that he was targeted 43 more times! That came about because Rex Ryan baited teams into throwing Revis’ way by rolling coverage away from him and sending overload blitzes from the other side on passing downs.
By 2010, teams had learned their lesson and basically stopped targeting him anywhere near as often, although he still kept up his incredible low numbers for percentages and yards per attempt.
The steeper learning curve for a Saban-coached corner
One aspect that has seen lots of play since Revis was drafted was the fact that Alabama cornerbacks always take some time to adjust to the NFL because Saban teaches a slightly different technique. You can read more on that here.
In terms of recent cornerbacks coached by Saban, the best examples are two other top-20 picks – Kareem Jackson (2010) and Dre Kirkpatrick (2012). Kirkpatrick barely got on the field as a rookie before settling into a backup role last year. The Bengals will be hoping he can make the step-up to being a starter in 2014. Jackson really struggled as a rookie, but settled down towards the end of his first season. He was average in season two, but had a good 2012. There are signs therefore that Alabama corners will be well-prepared and continue to improve once they make that adjustment to the NFL-style.
For a bit of an insight into that from the PFF feature linked to above, check out this GIF – one of those plays where Milliner is beaten and gets bailed out that I mentioned earlier.
As you can see, Milliner displays less than ideal technique at the line. However, it’s not all bad. He recovers well and does a good job of locating the ball – something that was apparent throughout his collegiate game-tape. However, he allows the receiver to outmuscle him with a crafty push-off to create some separation without drawing a flag. Again, this is an area where Milliner should hopefully develop naturally now that he’s in a full-time NFL weights program but it will also help him to not be operating from a position of weakness due to having been beaten at the line.
At this stage I have to reiterate while this is a comprehensive comparison of the rookie seasons from Revis and Milliner, there are no guarantees that Milliner will follow the same path. Jets fans will be hoping that Milliner continues to make strides, but the improvement made by Revis between 2007 and 2009 was virtually unprecedented. The good news is that if Milliner is never as good as Revis, that doesn’t mean he’s failed. He could still be a great player in his own right.
In Milliner’s rookie season, we eventually saw a tantalizing glimpse of his capabilities and potential. At times, maybe our expectations for him were too high because we’ve become accustomed to the high level of play we saw from Revis. However, it was also apparent that Revis wasn’t the finished article when he arrived and suffered a few growing pains in his first year too. This hopefully confirms that Milliner’s struggles were not a sign he would never become a good player, especially in light of the fact he came from a Nick Saban school. The strong finish to the season gives further comfort.
At one point over the last year, I speculated whether the Jets wanted Milliner to be their Revis. That didn’t mean I was suggesting they were relying on him to become a talismanic all-pro leader, I hastened to add, just that they might be planning for Milliner to eventually take over Revis’ role in terms of being the guy who tracks the number one receiver and operates without safety support. Maybe it’s not completely out of the question that he could strive to become the former rather than the latter, but surely it would be too much to hope for if we’re expecting the team to develop another once-in-a-generation level talent.
Or would it…?
I wasn’t just watching Revis as I reviewed those games from 2007. They’ll also feed into more articles from this series. We’ll be looking at Quinton Coples from a different perspective next.