By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
When evaluating the New York Jets roster in the search for areas to improve upon, the cornerback spot is probably among the last positions you would come to. With future Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis leading a group that also currently has Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Williams, one would view it as a position of strength.
The team also has Dexter McDougle, who is still learning after two years in the league, and the oft-injured 2103 first round pick, Dee Milliner, who is entering the last season of his rookie contract.
Although, at first glance, the Jets appear to have a formidable collection of cornerbacks compared to a lot of other teams in the league, upon closer inspection you can find some cracks in the foundation.
Revis is surely still one of the top corners in the NFL, but his game seems to have slipped at least a little bit as was evidenced by the fact that teams are actually throwing his way more often and he was burned on more occasions than ever before in his storied career. He is also not getting any younger.
Antonio Cromartie, who is due to make $8 million in non-guaranteed money this season, has certainly lost a step or two, and may be a casualty on a team with limited cap space.
Then you come to Marcus Williams, who is entering his third season in the league as an undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State, and coming off of a season in which he recorded six interceptions in limited action.
Despite the fact that he has filled in admirably when called upon, there is no guarantee that he can hold up as an every-down right cornerback.
Buster Skrine, who plays the game with a great deal of tenacity, is much better suited to cover the slot, and struggles when put on the outside.
Assuming that Cromartie is cut in the offseason, which is a strong possibility given his lofty contract and diminishing skills, Dexter McDougle and Dee Milliner currently make up the 4th and 5th spot in the rotation.
McDougle has looked lost out there at times in the small body of work he has had in the league, seeming to often be too aggressive for his own good. A solid tackler, Dexter also surely has a ton of potential and the skills with which to work. But, at the same time, he still has a lot of work to do in refining his game on the NFL level and has had his share of problems with injuries.
Speaking of injuries, the highly-touted first round pick out of Alabama in 2013, Dee Milliner, has struggled to stay on the field throughout his college and professional career. It goes without question that Milliner possesses tremendous skills and has a ton of potential, but he still has a lot to learn, which he cannot do if he is in the training room the majority of the time.
Practice makes perfect and Dee has just not been physically able to put in the work. He is likely to remain on the roster in 2016, as the Jets would be on the hook for $4,028,532 in dead money is he is cut, but it is hard to count on a guy that seems to get injured every time he steps on the field.
With only six picks in the upcoming draft, barring any trade scenarios, and more pressing holes to fill at outside linebacker, halfback, tight end, inside linebacker, offensive line and possibly nose tackle if Harrison leaves, it is hard to imagine cornerback being a top priority.
Then again, I do not think that anyone expected a team so deep on the defensive line to take Leonard Williams with the number six pick in the 2015 draft. There is always room to improve at every position and taking the best player available seems to be a strategy embraced by General Manager, Mike Maccagnan.
It is true that it is unlikely that the Jets will pull the trigger on a cornerback too early in the draft, but there are a good amount of quality options at the position expected to be there for the taking in the middle rounds. One such possibility that would appear to make a nice fit in the Jets cornerback rotation is Baylor’s Xavien Howard, an incredible athlete who also played basketball and ran track in high school.
At 6’1, 200 pounds, Howard certainly has the size and frame fitting for a shutdown corner. With a lot of experience lining up on an island against the opponent’s top receiver, Xavien has a potent combination of agility and acceleration, along with the physicality to play press coverage in the NFL.
He utilizes his long reach to direct receivers towards the sideline, considerably limiting the opposing quarterback’s ability to find an open target. Howard is also an enthusiastic tackler who competes to shed blockers and wraps up his target well.
Over the course of his college career, Howard, who is entering the draft after his junior season, spent two years as a starter with the Baylor Bears after redshirting as a freshman in 2012 and playing sporadically in 2013.
As a starter during his sophomore and junior seasons, Xavien totaled nine INT’s and 93 tackles, including five interceptions and 10 passes defensed as well as 42 tackles in his junior year when he earned First-Team All-Big 12 honors. He also received honorable mention as an all-conference performer during his sophomore season.
As expected from a player that is projected to be chosen anywhere between the late 2nd and 4th rounds of the draft, Howard has a lot to improve upon before truly making the leap to the next level.
Xavien’s physical play is certainly a plus when it comes to press-man coverage, but it has also led to him drawing his fair share of flags for pass interference and illegal contact. Howard is also a victim of his tall frame at times, struggling to keep up with the swift cuts of smaller, quicker receivers. In addition, he sometimes has a tendency to try to rip the ball away from receivers in midair with his back turned to the quarterback.
Given the proper guidance in the technical aspects of the position, Howard could go on to have quite a successful career as a professional, as long as he displays the willingness to learn and polish some of the rough edges of his game. In just two years as a starter, Xavien established himself as one of the most talented corners in the Big-12 and looks to continue his ascension once he is selected in the upcoming draft.
If the Jets do look towards the draft to upgrade the cornerback position for the foreseeable future, Howard would make a nice addition to their already talented crop.
You can also my article from 2/22/16 about Antonio Cromartie’s departure from the Jets by clicking the following link:
You can read my Jets Pre-Combine Mock Draft article from 2/24/16 by clicking below:
You can read my article from 2/19/16 on NYJetsNews.Com about a few options for the Jets in the 1st Round of NFL Draft by clicking the following link: