By Steve Lichtenstein
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Things change pretty rapidly for NFL teams thanks to the draft, free agency and players’ limited career spans.
It wasn’t all that long ago (like last year) when I ripped the Jets for virtually ignoring offensive skill positions in favor of stockpiling cornerbacks. The year before, I wrote that they’d never be a true Super Bowl contender when their best player (Darrelle Revis) was a corner, not a quarterback.
So give Jets general manager John Idzik credit for attempting to balance the roster this offseason, signing free agents like quarterback Michael Vick, wide receiver Erik Decker and running back Chris Johnson while drafting pass-catching tight end Jace Amaro in the second round.
If nothing else, this new group provides the speed and depth at the offensive skill positions that had been so sorely lacking for much of the Rex Ryan era.
So how ironic is it that now that defensive guru Ryan has all these weapons, the most visible threat to his reign as coach is on his preferred side of the ball — specifically the Jets’ appalling lack of quality cornerbacks.
It’s not totally for lack of trying. The Jets still have the guys they used first-round picks for in the 2010 and 2013 drafts — Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner — and then they drafted Dexter McDougle in the third round this past May.
Unfortunately, even after years of Ryan’s tutelage, Wilson still can’t cover a book. The Jets keep trotting Wilson out there every Sunday as a nickelback in the slot to the utter dismay of their fans. The problem is that Wilson rarely sees the ball until it nestles into the arms of the opposing receiver.
Milliner, meanwhile, started to show signs of life at the end of his rookie season — with three interceptions in his final two games — but he’s had issues staying on the field.
This time it’s a high ankle sprain that’s kept Milliner sidelined since the opening preseason game. The Jets are hopeful, though far from certain, that Milliner will be ready for the September 7 opener against the Raiders.
That injury is compounded by the one (torn ACL in left knee) that has shelved McDougle for the season and the three (calf/ankle/quadriceps) that have limited assumed starting opposite corner Dimitri Patterson’s playing time this preseason.
Patterson, who was the Jets’ consolation prize after getting outbid by the Giants for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, was picked on badly in the only game he suited up for Gang Green — the preseason opener against Indianapolis. To make matters worse, Patterson was AWOL for the Jets’ 35-24 loss to the Giants on Friday.
With a short bench, the Jets took to playing Antonio Allen — a linebacker in college at South Carolina before converting to safety — on the outside the past two weeks in tandem with reserve Darrin Walls. Now Allen’s availability going forward is a question mark after he suffered a concussion in the second quarter on Friday on a head-to-head hit with teammate Demario Davis.
The next man up was LeQuan Lewis, who is on his third team in three seasons. Lewis proceeded to get turned inside-out by Giants receiver Rueben Randle for a 15-yard touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half.
Lewis wasn’t the sole culprit on that 11-play, 91-yard drive that took just 1:48 for the previously-discombobulated Giants. Wilson, of course, was also in the mix. Not only did Victor Cruz toast Wilson for three catches for 52 yards on the drive — including a third-down conversion where Wilson took an angle that allowed himself to get picked) — but Wilson lost out on a potential interception because he first stepped out of bounds and couldn’t re-establish himself. The man needs a GPS in his helmet.
Not that these exhibitions mean anything, by the way. Too often I’ve seen teams play possum at this time of year only to unveil previously unseen schemes when the games start to count. Others, like the current Giants, rip through their opponents’ third-stringers but aren’t necessarily prepared for Week 1.
And it’s quite possible, as one analyst suggested, that one or both of the Jets’ starting corners on Opening Day isn’t even on their roster right now.
At least I hope that’s what Idzik is focusing on right now, poring over his scouting reports on those who are getting axed around the league this weekend and next. One of the Jets’ cuts on Sunday to get down to 75 players was cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who a few years ago was good enough to start some games for Bill Belichick in New England. If he’s still able to run backwards without falling down, maybe the Jets should have waited one more week on that one.
Maybe Idzik can engineer a trade, though I believe that is the least likely route as teams will try to force the desperate Jets to overpay. Idzik, unlike predecessor Mike Tannenbaum, hasn’t shown that he will deviate from his disciplined plan when it comes to roster valuations, nor should he.
This past offseason he let overpriced Antonio Cromartie bolt to Arizona and had no interest in rekindling the drama that comes with Revis. Rodgers-Cromartie, among others, was deemed too expensive.
Unfortunately, the pieces that were targeted as replacements are damaged, and the in-house options carry a high risk.
As mentioned in a prior column, the Jets face a gauntlet of star quarterbacks after the Raiders game. Even with a strong defensive line, the Jets won’t be able to get to quick-release gunslingers like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady consistently with just a four-man pass rush. And Ryan’s heavy blitz packages require corners that can cover off the line of scrimmage, not give 10-yard cushions.
Who on the Jets’ roster — outside of Milliner — can do that?
No matter what they tell the media, Ryan and Idzik have to understand that outside help is needed. While they are loathe to take on long-term money, they have plenty of room under the 2014 cap to look into one-year fixes.
In other words, I don’t want to hear that cost is a concern for any corner they target.
For it would be a shame for the Jets to finally show up this season with something close to a 21st-century offense, only to be let down by a defense that suddenly wasn’t so reliable.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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