Potential Breakout Stars: DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner, Cornerback

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

A step up in role... a step up in play?

Next on the list of potential break out Jets is our rookie first round pick from Alabama: DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner.  Milliner was drafted with much fanfare in the wake of the Jets trading their franchise defensive cornerstone and perhaps the greatest player in team history, Darrelle Revis, for a 1st and a conditional 4th round pick (the condition did not lapse, so it stayed as a 4th).  Milliner played with Saban and came into the league sporting both tremendous athleticism and tremendous pedigree.

Unfortunately, such pedigree and athleticism did not manifest itself right away.  Milliner started off behind the curve due to durability issues, missing the Jets offseason program to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.  In training camp, despite playing well, if not great, after Revis was lost for the 2012 season, former 1st round pick Kyle Wilson was immediately relegated to the nickel role to make room for Milliner in the starting lineup.  Milliner then went on to have a rather poor preseason that saw him give up almost 100 yards in only 22 pass coverage snaps against the Jaguars in the second preseason game, as Ace Sanders and Justin Blackmon demolished him.  There would be no more redemption for Milliner, however, until the season starts as Milliner missed the final two preseason games with an achilles injury.

Things didn't get much better for Milliner once the season began.  Mike Williams beat him for a touchdown in the opening game of the season.  In game #2, he blew a coverage on Aaron Dobson that led to the Pats only touchdown in a week 2 game.  Milliner was also beaten cleanly for a couple of would-be touchdowns in the first half, only to  be bailed out by drops and bad route running from the Pats WRs.  This led to Milliner being benched in the second half of the game.  Unfortunately, this wouldn't be a one time occurrence.

After playing a solid game against Buffalo, injury would hit Milliner again, as he would miss 3 games due to a hamstring injury.  His return would not be so graceful, as he played a mediocre game in his return against the Patriots followed by a headache-inducing performance against the Bengals as he was beaten like a drum... not by AJ Green... but by Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu.  This would be the second time Dee would get to enjoy the second half of the game with a view from the bench.  A couple more bad games would follow, as Milliner get beaten to almost allow Nick Toon to have a potential flood-gates-opening touchdown, only for Toon to drop the ball.  Milliner was beaten for a deep touchdown against the Bills on a ball that he never located, and combined with Ed Reed for a truly awful attempt at pass coverage on a 66 yard TD throw to Jacoby Jones.  His season hit a nadir point against the Dolphins the next week, when Milliner would eat bench for a third time after attempting to tickle Mike Wallace on a quick curl that went for a touchdown.  And no, that is not a typo for tackle.

However, it appears that the nadir point served as a springboard for Milliner, and he leaped off of it like a trampoline.  Milliner would have a great game against the Raiders in Week 13.  He did his job in coverage the next week in a season-ending (essentially) loss the next week to Carolina, though he badly flubbed an attempt to tackle on a screen pass that went some 70 yards for a touchdown.  In the final two games, however, we got to see Milliner display some of the talent that made him such a high draft pick.  He went toe to toe with the league's top receiver in Josh Gordon, and while Milliner did give up 113 yards in coverage, it took 18 targets to get there, and Milliner also nabbed his first career interception.  The next week saw Milliner grab the ultimate redemption, against the team that sent him to the bench and laughed him off the field, he only allowed 50 yards on 5 catches with 13 targets, and made Mike Wallace a non-factor (outside on one Tannehill throw where Wallace had Milliner beat).  Milliner also nabbed two more interceptions, having what was his strongest game of the season and giving the Jets fans a teaser of what Milliner can become.

Overall, despite the improvement at the end of the season, Milliner was overall quite terrible as a rookie.  He was in the middle of the pack on terms of tackle efficiency, posting a 7.1 tackle efficiency with 9 whiffs on the season.  His yards per cover snap ranked 6th worst in the NFL among PFF's 50% snap qualifiers. His cover snaps per reception allowed was 8th worst. His 770 yards allowed was 13th worst in the league, and this is despite missing 3 games and being benched 3 others.  Only 3 cornerbacks allowed more touchdowns than Milliner's 7, where he tied 6 others (including Cro).  He was the 6th most targeted corner in the league, and the only others more targeted than Milliner played over 1000 snaps while Milliner played 747. Teams were not afraid to test the rookie, and he often yielded big plays.

That said, there are some signs for hope.  Of course, there were those final 2 games of the season.  Milliner's completion percentage allowed was 51.5%, which was 13th best in PFF's 50% snap qualifiers.  That's a lot of 0 yard plays when throwing at Milliner.  There's reason to suspect that Milliner would take time to adjust to the pros.  Nick Saban has his corners play a different technique- rather than backpedaling, Saban teaches his corners the "shuffle" technique. The shuffle technique is a bit of a niche in defensive coaching circles, and the vast majority of coaches teach the backpedal.  Hence, we have seen slow adjustments to the league by former 1st round Alabama corners like Dre Kirkpatrick and Kareem Jackson, in addition to Milliner.  His improved play towards the end of the year could be due to increased comfort with the turn and run.  Another thing that became apparent to the end is that the Jets were more willing to use zone coverage, rather than putting the corners on an island and allowing them to get torched.  Milliner has superior athleticism, and by allowing him to play more freely on the ball, we saw more plays by Milliner.

There are some signs of life when it comes to Dee.  Certainly the team has gone all in on Milliner taking the next step.  They allowed Cromartie to sign in Arizona.  Their only serious moves at the cornerback slot were signing career journeyman Dmitri Patterson and drafting 3rd round rookie Dexter McDougal, who only played 3 games last season. Milliner has to step up this season for the Jets to have success on the back end.  The talent is there; will the results be?

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