The expectations have been high since the Jets selected Dee Milliner with the ninth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. Milliner was selected shortly after superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis was traded, leaving him with huge shoes to fill.
After an up and down (or should I say down, then up) rookie season, Milliner’s locked in as the Jets number one corner heading into the 2014 season. What can we expect? Well, to make an educated guess, lets look at what he has shown thus far.
First off, there are a few things to note when it comes to Dee Milliner, Alabama (where he played college ball), and the transition of rookie cornerbacks.
Cornerback is arguably the third hardest position to transition to in the NFL, right behind quarterback and offensive tackle. The coverage assignments are more complicated, NFL quarterbacks are much better, and the wide receivers and tight ends are both faster and stronger.
Even more notable is the system that Alabama runs verses Rex Ryan’s press man scheme. Milliner was not asked to “back pedal” in college, as Nick Saban has his corners rather “run with” the wide outs and tight ends.
Rex Ryan on the other hand often has his corners lined up in isolated, man to man coverage (preferably press coverage when the corner is capable). Here is the difference between both:
Obviously this was a big transition for Milliner, who struggled and frustratingly played “off man” quite often. There are a few factors that may have contributed to Rex having Milliner play off man rather than his favored press coverage.
The first being the safeties behind Milliner. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen are solid players, but they are classic, “in the box” style safeties. Neither of them free roam well in deep coverage.
The Ed Reed project was brought on too late, as he did not seem to gel with the Jets secondary nor does he possess the deep coverage skills he did a few years ago.
Allen’s bread and butter is in man coverage versus tight ends while Landry often helps in run support. This was a vital factor that led to the selection of free safety Calvin Pryor with the 18th overall selection.
Pryor played a “center field”, roaming style of safety at Louisville. He will most likely take on a similar role this year with the Jets, to limit the many deep passes they gave up in 2013.
Switching the topic back to Dee Milliner, who was clearly overwhelmed at times during his rookie season. Lets take a look at week one vs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his first regular season game:
Milliner is given a tough task that most cornerbacks (especially rookies) will struggle with: facing Vincent Jackson one on one. There are a few things to note here:
1) Milliner lines up right at the line of scrimmage. He needs to do more of this in 2014, especially with what the Jets hope to be is better help behind him.
2) It is pretty simple to breakdown what Dee did wrong here. He got caught up in Jackson’s route and went to check him too late. If Milliner gets his hands on him as he breaks into his cut, Jackson will not be able to break into his slant route.
The 6’0, 200 pound Milliner has great size and physicality for a corner. At Alabama, he showed his ability versus bigger targets (Former Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert comes to mind). The Jets coaching staff has to bring that physicality out him again, especially going into his second year in the NFL with more comfort.
Fast forward to week seven at home versus New England, Milliner showed the exact opposite technique and struggle:
Milliner is playing the left cornerback position, literally ten yards off of his match up which is rookie wide out Aaron Dobson. Milliner is showing him the type of respect that corners may give to elite talent such as Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant, but Dobson is not that type of player.
By allowing Dobson ten yards to work with in front of him, he finds ease gaining separation into an out route. These are the types of flawed coverages Tom Brady will consistently abuse, as seen above.
Two weeks later, Milliner faced another elite quarterback in Drew Brees:
This was a fantastic read by Milliner, who possesses superb downhill speed. His length is also quite apparent in this play, as he uses his long reach to swat the ball away. Although the first three quarters of the year were difficult for Milliner, he did flash great potential as seen above.
Now let’s take a look at the following play:
Once again Milliner is lined up ten yards off of a rookie wide receiver (Nick Toon). He reads the play well at first, recognizing that Brees is trying to hit Toon deep.
Unfortunately, that was about all that Milliner did well here. He loses the physical battle along the sideline, then his feet get tied up while watching the ball.
This is simply an adjustment error as Dee was not asked to do this in college. The bright spot is that he turns his head around and tracks the ball.
It is pretty ironic that Milliner went from an excellent play right into a bad one back to back. This is what should be expected of a rookie corner, especially one in Rex Ryan’s system where they are given very little help over the top. Now, on to the very impressive side of Dee Milliner (weeks 16 and 17).
On this play, Milliner is lined up against Brown’s superstar wide out Josh Gordon. He plays up against Gordon, preventing him from gaining leverage and space inside.
This is a rare instance that Milliner seems to have safety help (Dawan Landry). Notice how much more aggressive and comfortable his play looks?
This is the prototype of all Milliner coverage highlights. This is also exactly what Rex Ryan desires from his cornerback’s in his defensive scheme. Lets break it down:
1) Milliner lines up right at the line of scrimmage in Gordon’s face pre snap.
2) He gets his hands right into Gordon’s chest as he breaks into his route.
3) While slowing him down with his hands, he follows him along the sideline and reads his eyes that back track towards the quarterback.
4) After this read, Milliner uses that downhill speed to swat away Jason Campbell’s pass. This was Milliner’s prized trait coming out of college: he plays big. Josh Gordon is 6’3. The 6’0 Milliner goes up with him and smacks the ball out of his outstretched hands.
This is a really interesting play for a number of reasons. Look back at the first GIF in this article, the only one of Milliner in college.
Look similar? Milliner chooses to not back pedal or turn his head. Instead, he plays the man (Charles Clay). Clay is three inches taller and 55 pounds heavier than Milliner, but Dee goes right at him.
He nearly forces Clay out of bounds, which in the end allows him to punch the ball out of his hands. It was quite clear Clay was focused on getting his feet down (with limited room to work with) while catching the ball at the same time.
Milliner goes up and makes the play. This is an example of getting the job done, although in a very risky manner.
Earlier, Milliner gave up a five yard touchdown in isolated coverage against Mike Wallace. Ryan Tannehill made a great throw and Milliner was beat.
Later on, matched up against Wallace yet again, Milliner got his revenge. As seen above, he plays off. He back pedals perfectly, before breaking on the pass and intercepting it.
– Milliner has top end “downhill” speed. When he reads the route and pass, he gets to the ball as fast as anyone and takes advantage of his great length.
– If the safety play over the top improves in 2014, Milliner should have a much better sophomore season. He was rarely given help as a rookie, often leading to him playing too far off of his assignment.
– Dee’s physicality is quite evident, it is just getting him to use it on a consistent basis that is the problem. He has all of the ability to fight with the bigger targets (see Josh Gordon) but also needs to find consistency (see Vincent Jackson).
– The top issue at hand seems to be Milliner’s back pedaling ability and his confidence to utilize it. He might have played off his man often to avoid back pedaling, a trait he has certainly not mastered. Having a full training camp should help him tweak the gray areas of his skill set.