CORTLAND – Right on schedule, the New York Jets are at it again – talking big, despite it being barely a week into training camp.
This time none of the talk comes from their head coach, Rex Ryan. Instead several of his players have taken on the persona that Ryan has exhibited in recent years – brash, overconfident, and often unrealistic.
While Ryan himself has toned down the rhetoric during the past year, second-year quarterback Geno Smith and second-year cornerback Dee Milliner, have taken up the slack and ratcheted up the expectations for themselves and the team.
Upon hearing that he had been ranked as the worst performing quarterback among all starters, Smith took the criticism in stride and believes that he will be a top-five quarterback in a year or two – that’s quite a jump from the rookie who often looked lost last season.
Barely a day later, Milliner, when asked who he believed to be the best cornerback in the league, stated that he was and was shocked that anyone would expect him to answer any differently. To be fair both Smith and Milliner had strong finishes last year after they had rocky, and sometimes horrifically bad, starts to their inaugural seasons in the NFL.
Smith’s stats for last season were fairly typical for a rookie quarterback forced into the starting role after the Jets’ expected opening day starter, Mark Sanchez, was lost for the season due to injury in a preseason game. For the season, Smith completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 3,046 yards with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, finishing the year with a well below average NFL passer rating of 66.5 (35.9 QBR).
Smith would even cite several other great quarterbacks who struggled in their first years in the league, specifically mentioning Peyton Manning. Now if Smith is equating himself to Manning then he certainly has some grand expectations that need to be tempered – and fast – but to an extent he is correct.
Manning’s numbers during his rookie season weren’t far off Smith’s in that he completed just 56.7 percent of his passes for 3,739 yards and an astounding 28 interceptions with a NFL passer rating of 71.2.
But that is where the similarities end. Manning also threw for 26 touchdowns, over double the number of Smith, and entered the league with a better college record, pedigree, and from the beginning was a savant in his ability to process information at the line of scrimmage.
Smith certainly improved by the end of his first year and in fact his last four games may have been his best but the jump to Manning’s level of production is a large one. During the Jets’ last four games, Smith would throw just two interceptions and improve his completion percentage to over 59 percent while his three best QBR scores would come during that span.
Still, Smith often had trouble reading the opposing team’s defense which led to some terrible throws and head-scratching decisions. Still to equate him to a Jamarcus Russell or Akili Smith – two of the biggest quarterback busts in league history – seems a bit harsh.
In fact, many have noted just how much better Smith has looked in offseason workouts and the start of training camp and he clearly has been immersed in his playbook as his reads look more crisp than at any time last year so a notable advancement in his progression as a NFL starting quarterback is not unfathomable.
A jump to the top five in the league – Tier One, the elite of the elite – is however. Why Smith felt the need to put that sentiment out there, is questionable at best and only adds to the pressure to perform this year or face being labeled a bust.
Similarly, Milliner’s declaration that he is the best cornerback in the league seems a bit premature to say the least. Millner belongs nowhere near the same conversation as Richard Sherman, Darelle Revis, and Patrick Peterson for title of the most dominant corner, yet he chose to put himself there.
Milliner ended his rookie season with 56 tackles, three interceptions, and 17 passes defended but also missed three games with a hamstring injury and was benched on three separate occasions for general ineffectiveness on the field.
Some of Milliner’s early struggles in which he displayed poor tackling technique, an inability to cover the deep ball, and an overall general confusion about his actual coverage assignments were due to the fact that he missed the majority of the Jets’ offseason workouts due to recovery from shoulder surgery.
Not to mention that he was being asked to replace Revis – an unenviable task and one that is inherently unfair to a rookie just trying to find his way in the league. The first half of his season was marked by various missteps and was a period in which Milliner appeared to be playing timid and confused.
It didn’t help that true number one cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, was having the worst season of his career so there was even more focus on Milliner and need for him to step up. Things started to come together for Milliner in the month of December when he recorded 27 tackles, three interceptions, and 13 passes defended, earning him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors.
In his last two games facing the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins he faced two of the best deep threat receivers in the league – Josh Gordon and Mike Wallace respectively – and acquitted himself nicely, logging two interceptions when covering Wallace.
Through the first half of the season, ProFootball Focus had him at a negative 10.9 rating in pass coverage during his last six games, Milliner would rate out at a plus 3.5 rating as his technique and his understanding of the fundamentals of playing the position in the NFL began increasing.
Still he would only finish the season ranked 55th out of 79 eligible cornerbacks in the league so there is definitely room for improvement.
The Jets lost Cromartie on the open market and failed to bring in a viable replacement in what was a rich free agent market, so Milliner will be asked to step into the role of the team’s number one cornerback just as he finished last season.
With their next best options being journeymen Dmitri Patterson and Kyle Wilson, primarily a slot corner, the pressure is on Milliner once again and he has only added to it with his proclamation.
Ryan’s decision to lessen his own bold declarations apparently did not rub off on his players and as a result the self-confident and brazen chatter that often takes place this time of year is still just as prominent as ever in the Jets’ locker room. With Calvin Price’s recent pronouncement that the Jets’ defense is the best in the league, it is safe to assume that the team has now covered all bases with the possible exception of actually guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory.
In a division dominated by the New England Patriots for the better part of a decade, the Jets’ would be best advised to tone down such decrees and just concentrate on getting through training camp with their personnel healthy and intact first.
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