CORTLAND, NY -- The Jets enter the 2014 season with an overhauled cornerback position and there's a lot of pressure this year on the most visible and talented holdover from last season, Dee Milliner.
Just in his second year in the league after playing at Alabama for Nick Saban, the Jets invested their their very first of two first round picks during the 2013 NFL Draft in Milliner, but of his class, the soft-spoken Milliner is often overlooked in favor of quarterback Geno Smith and the reigning defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson.
Regardless, if you ask coach Rex Ryan, he's confident that Dee is ready to be that alpha player the Jets need in the secondary.
"I've been around the game a few years and I see it without question," Rex told reporters. "Dee is a guy that as you guys know I have a ton of confidence in."
Milliner started every game last year for the Jets, but did see time on the bench because of his play. The adjustment to the NFL for cornerbacks is never easy, Ryan said on Saturday and many of the league's best have taken time.
"I’ve benched great players before in the past," said Ryan. "Chris McAlister was a great player. I’ve benched them all at one point or another, because sometimes they need to sit down and take a look and then you put them back out there. But, what I notice from [Milliner] is that he grew and as the season went on he knew he could play in this league."
During the 2013 season, you could see it coming. By November, Milliner was putting himself in better position to make plays and break on balls. It wasn't all there yet, but it was coming.
"In this league, separation is like this," Ryan explained as he held his hands close together.
"In college?" Ryan continues. "You’re not going to throw to me. If I’ve got this kind of coverage? He’s not throwing. Well in the NFL? They’re throwing that ball."
In the last few games of 2013 the game seemed to click for Milliner. The passes were still coming his way, but they were making it to the receivers hands less and less, marking 10 passes defensed and three interceptions in the last two games of his rookie season according to STATS, Inc..
"At the end of the season he was playing, I don’t know if you say as good as it gets, but close to it." Ryan said. "He set a record of [pass break ups]. He broke up more passes in one game than any Jet in the history of the franchise."
Ryan made it clear that while other plays get to do their learning early in their career on the sideline, Milliner wasn't afforded such a luxury and that made his stumbles all the more public.
"I love the way he ended, but there are guys that never get on a field and nobody talks about them," Ryan said. "Did he go through growing pains? Absolutely, but he was in the fire. So, right now it’s nothing to him. He’s out there, let’s go."
Milliner's progress from last season is obvious and it was on display on Friday. While last summer he was finding his way on the field and getting beat more regularly. On the second day of practice Milliner was in perfect position to break up a pass from Geno Smith to Eric Decker and today thanks to his vision, his footwork and his physicality.
When told about Rex's praise of him. Milliner was his usual demure self.
"Great, that means my coach is behind me and I am behind him," Milliner said.
While there's a lot of wine and roses, there's still are some nuances to playing in Rex's system that he wants him to learn.
"I know he got beat on a deep ball," Rex told reporters. "Today he got beat on a third and eight," Rex said. "We're in cover three that's not his responsibility, just so everybody's aware of it he's playing a two-to-one read and I was getting on him because I wanted him to disguise it a little bit better. You're gonna get an out route so you might as well just jump it. I told him before the play happened and sure enough they ran an out first down, but that's not his responsibility."
Translation: Rex was scolding him for not being as aggressive as he could have been given the back-end help in the situation.
But after making the leap into the NFL, it is going to be far easier for him this year to to pick up situational wrinkles.
He already seems well on his way. "I've got to be the best player I can be. Great players make great plays."
This year he is in position to do just that.