Both Rex Ryan and John Idzik had positive things to say about this group of players earlier today and, while they might not comprise any household names, they have varying degrees of experience, pedigree and skill-set.
After the jump, we'll be mostly revisiting my previous film study on the rest of the candidates to get more playing time over the next few weeks and reiterating their strengths and weaknesses to see where they fit in.
To have such a sudden rash of injuries at one position is certainly troubling, especially when the Jets were counting on players by whom some parts of the fanbase and media have yet to be fully convinced. McDougle's injury was unfortunate, especially coming one day after the team had talked up the role he was looking set to earn for himself this season. However, the loss of Milliner, who the Jets were unquestionably counting on to be their number one cornerback would be much more damaging, so it's encouraging that recent reports have suggested he should return early in the season and may even be back in time for the season opener.
That being the case, the team's depth chart would end up pretty much where it was expected to if McDougle wasn't going to be a key contributor (which few expected and even fewer were relying upon). However, Patterson's struggles in the first preseason game have further cast doubts on the depth of this group. Certainly while Milliner is out they will be weakened. Could someone step up and earn themselves a role that will lead to them seeing extended playing time even after his return, though?
After a miserable first game as a Jet, a lot of fans are down on Dimitri Patterson. Even though a couple of these plays might not have been all his fault, he did not look good and we've since learned that he was slowed by some injuries. I looked in detail at Patterson in this article and, when I did, I saw a player who, as recently as last season, was a physical corner with good closing speed and outstanding ball skills. Durability has always been the question with him, although I liked the pick-up due to his ability to play both outside and in the slot and what that might mean for others on the roster.
It's certainly disconcerting that he's injured already, but the fact he felt the need to try and play through injuries is perhaps a sign that others are pushing him hard for his spot, which bodes well for the depth there. While it's possible Patterson, now 31, is totally broken down and will never be the same again, the Jets have a good recent record of getting players with ongoing issues on the field and seeing good production from those players. Therefore, it's too soon to rule out him playing an important role at the moment. If he struggles in his next preseason appearance, that will be worrisome, but others are waiting to show that they do have what it takes.
Darrin Walls seems to have hung onto his role at "next man up" from last year. When Milliner missed time due to being benched and through injury, Walls filled in at the starting cornerback spot and held his own, although the Jets did lose two of the three games he started, including one in Tennessee where he was beaten for a touchdown.
I reviewed Walls in depth when they signed him. He impressed with his closing speed, reactions and timing, although he isn't particularly physical and doesn't have much experience of playing in the slot. One further weakness which, it's become evident, he hasn't improved upon (Ryan was tweaking him in the media about it a few days ago) is that he has really poor hands. I wonder if that will hold him back with the onus for this defense being on increasing their turnover output (and the players they targeted - Patterson and McDougle - were both guys who were productive in terms of intercepting passes when healthy last season).
It's surprising there hasn't been more buzz about Kyle Wilson as a potential starter. When Darrelle Revis was injured early on in 2012, Wilson was a starter on the outside, across from Antonio Cromartie, and the pass defense didn't fare too badly. He did revert back to the slot in nickel packages, but was on the outside more than at any other time in his career. Last year, however, the Jets seemed insistent on leaving him in that slot role full-time, not even considering him for additional reps on the outside even with Cromartie and Milliner both injured and Milliner struggling most of the time when he was healthy anyway.
We know what to expect from Wilson these days. He doesn't always get his head turned around in time, seems to be involved in too many coverage breakdowns and irritates everyone by celebrating plays where he didn't deserve any credit. With that said, his numbers in the slot stack up well with the rest of the league in a position that's very difficult to excel at. Also, he's improved his physicality since he was young, is a surprisingly reliable tackler and - despite an early season meltdown against the Bills - showed encouraging discipline by being penalty free in 15 of 16 games last year. Even with all these injuries, he still seems to be working exclusively as a nickel corner (and played exclusively in the slot on Thursday night), but you have to believe he's in line for another chance to prove himself eventually. As 2012 showed, even if he starts, that doesn't mean he has to give up the slot role when they go to their subpackage.
When they did that back in 2012, it was Ellis Lankster who came into the game and played on the outside. Lankster fared well in that role, playing 199 of his 335 snaps on the outside and holding receivers to 13 catches on 28 targets when he was out there (a 41.5 quarterback rating). While he didn't fare quite as well in the slot, those results seem deserving of further consideration and he got his chance to start at practice today. Like Wilson, Lankster is another player whose 2012 performance wasn't enough to warrant many opportunities on defense last year. Lankster is definitely small (5'9") but does bring a physicality and the likes of Captain Munnerlyn have shown that a player that size with that kind of physicality can start on the outside.
While he didn't play much last season, he did get to show off his press coverage abilities on this nice play:
That came at a point in the season where the Jets had not been pressing enough and the fans were calling out for them to do it more. For Lankster to demonstrate this as a strength but still not see many opportunities is curious, although Rex Ryan did imply that he's so important to the special teams coverage units, they may have been reluctant to risk him on defense at times.
On the bubble
Ras-I Dowling was a mini-camp star, but has fallen back down to earth since then and wasn't even listed as a third stringer when the team released their first official depth chart. I looked at Dowling here. His main strengths are his size and physicality but his main weakness has been durability. He looked raw as a rookie, but seemed to have made some improvements in his second season. Maybe the recent injuries improve his chances of sneaking onto the roster, but you'd probably like your back-end-of-the-rotation guys to be someone who will contribute more on special teams. Still, at least he should get some reps on defense now (he didn't in Thursday's game) so now he can make an impact.
Johnny Patrick signed with the Jets all the way back in March. I took an extended look at him here. He saw extended playing time with the Chargers in 2012, but was mostly overmatched in coverage. He was impressive on special teams, but the Jets still have other players who can fill that vice/gunner role just as well, if not better, that he can. In addition, it's going to be hard for him to make a case for himself if he misses time and he's missed several days recently (and the first preseason game) with a hamstring injury.
The best of the rest
Brandon Dixon was a sixth round pick this year, but hasn't seen much of an opportunity so far. He did not play on defense in the first preseason game. Dixon has nice size and great speed but played at a small school and only had one interception in his senior year. It's a pretty big jump to expect him to contribute at the NFL level this year, but his speed stands out on special teams and you've got to believe he'll at least be a practice squad candidate this year.
Jeremy Reeves is very small, but a tremendous athlete. He stood out at mini-camp and did intercept a pass in the green/white scrimmage. He saw action briefly last week and closed well to make an open field tackle. As we saw with Isaiah Trufant, it's too easy to exploit a cornerback's size when they are this small (Reeves is listed at 5-7, 170) but maybe he could develop into a role player. He missed practice today too, though.
I actually would have mentioned Antonio Allen here even if he didn't play cornerback at practice earlier (with the first unit in team drills, where he had two interceptions). I'll admit that surprised me, although I was going to suggest that he is likely to play in the slot a lot as the nickel cornerback this year, perhaps to the detriment of Wilson. While everyone was impressed with his performance against the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham last year, most of the times he was targeted came when he was lined up in the slot, where he played 170 snaps over the course of the season.
I'm not completely sold on Allen as a safety or in zone coverages, but where he shows fantastic potential is in man-to-man coverage. Therefore, perhaps the move to cornerback makes sense on some level, although I'd still expect it to be matchup specific due to his lack of ideal speed to matchup with speedsters on the outside (he ran a 4.58 forty at the combine). Also, in the event that the move to corner is a success for Allen, could this open up a spot in the safety ranks for a certain veteran whose presence last year had an almost immediate positive impact upon the struggling cornerbacks?
Possibly in denial, I'm still operating under the assumption that Milliner will be good to go for the majority of the season, but if his return is delayed longer than expected, or he suffers further setbacks, then that would be a much bigger cause for concern. However, there are some talented players here and if Ryan can use them in a way that maximizes their abilities (and perhaps masks any deficiencies) then hopefully the young Jets secondary can not only perform well this season, but give us hope for the next few years as well.
I would be discouraged if the Jets brought in a scrapheap-veteran unless it's just someone they're throwing into the mix for depth purposes. If the Jets' young corners miss out on reps while they assimilate an over-the-hill player or someone who isn't an ideal scheme fit into their defense, when that player probably isn't going to do much more than any of the rest of them would have done with those reps, that strikes me as a waste of time. However, if the other Jets corners get their chance over the next few weeks and nobody shines, then perusing the market is suddenly an approach that becomes more palatable. Let's see how it goes first though. It would be good to see the safety group pick up the secondary too and perhaps Calvin Pryor's return will galvanize that unit to raise spirits.
Right now, I feel like the Jets have several viable candidates for a starting role on this team, each of whom has their strengths and weaknesses. However, until we see them get their opportunity it will be difficult to predict which of them will rise to the top.
I therefore wont commit myself to predicting who will win a starting role but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, so please reply to this poll and let's hear your more detailed thoughts in the comments: