By Kristian Dyer
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It isn’t an act of desperation, but could be one of inspiration.
The news on Monday was bad for the Jets and the team’s playoff hopes: the loss of Darrelle Revis with an ACL tear that will likely sideline him for the season, shelving the team’s best playmaker on either side of the ball.
Then on Wednesday, head coach Rex Ryan announced that Joe McKnight would be taking reps at cornerback and, perhaps predictably so, fans and the media went into panic mode.
At first glance, it looks bad as the Jets are converting a running back to help fill the void left behind by a perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, who is clearly their most talented player.
But it isn’t all that bad and is certainly worth the gamble.
In fact, the Jets are only trying to teach McKnight the position and still consider him as one of their running backs. The move isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the Revis injury but rather a calculated gamble. If it works and he shows well in practice, then the Jets have some instant depth. If McKnight can’t pick up the system or just isn’t suited to playing in the secondary then the Jets will have to see what cornerbacks are available via trade or the waiver wire.
By his own acknowledgement on Wednesday, McKnight said his play in high school at cornerback won’t help him at all, but the athleticism that made him the No. 2 high school player in the nation, according to Rivals.com, still will help. Although he is one of the Jets running backs and currently third on their depth chart, he can play defense and has proven it in the past.
Three years ago as a rookie, McKnight played some cornerback on the Jets scout team and did well and in college at USC, he offered to play offense and defense but the coaching staff wanted him to focus on being a running back. Now with the Jets, why not roll the dice?
He hasn’t been used much at running back in his two previous years in the league and certainly not this year, with just three carries for 14 yards. His role on special teams can continue but it isn’t like the Jets are losing precious backfield depth by giving McKnight a shot in the secondary. Shonn Greene is still the starting running back and behind him Bilal Powell has emerged this season. In addition there is Jonathan Grimes, signed off the Texans practice squad this week, who has the potential to grow into a steady NFL running back.
McKnight also has the look of a very real, legit NFL cornerback. Three years ago he had a solid 4.47 time in the 40 at the NFL Combine and his 36.5 inch vertical leap is good enough to make plays and break up passes. This athleticism makes him a natural to play the position, now he just needs the opportunity to show if he can.
This isn’t really any different than the Jets calling up a player from the practice squad or signing an unheralded prospect, or even a supposed “bust” and giving him a shot at the position. The precedent is there with former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown playing both ways in New England following an injury crunch in 2004, and doing so with success.
If McKnight doesn’t pan out, then he goes back to offense and will continue to not carry the ball as the Jets’ No. 3 running back. If it does work out and he’s the second coming of Brown, then the Jets have instant depth at cornerback, and in doing so justified McKnight being taken in the fourth round of the draft three years ago.
What’s there to lose?
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed on Twitter @KristianRDyer
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