By Jeff Capellini
The Jets dodged a bullet on Monday when it was learned Antonio Cromartie’s knee injury is nowhere near as bad as first thought. Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that even if the veteran cornerback had been lost for a long period of time, he’d have plenty of backup.
Marcus Williams was one of the bright spots last season in a secondary that was an unmitigated disaster. As former general manager John Idzik bumbled and stumbled his way through the offseason, ignoring what was once one of this team’s only strengths, Williams quietly emerged as a player that could be counted on going forward.
When Cromartie went down during the first half of Sunday’s season-opening 31-10 win over Cleveland, the immediate reaction was that if he was to be out for an extended period, the Jets would be in trouble without a veteran presence playing on the other side of Darrelle Revis.
But the Jets probably wouldn’t have missed too much of a beat without Cromartie and his feast-or-famine ways because Williams, at all of 24, is beginning to become a legitimate player in this league.
An undrafted free agent out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State when the Texans signed him in May of last year, Williams didn’t last long in Houston, as he was cut from the team’s practice squad at the end of September. The Jets then signed him to their practice squad, perhaps one of the only positive things Idzik did other than save money during his two-year tenure leading New York’s front office.
Williams debuted with the Jets on Nov. 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs and eventually emerged as a starter, finishing last season with 37 tackles and an interception in eight games.
Had the Jets decided not to spend like crazy this past offseason on Revis (five years, $70 million), Cromartie (four, $32 million) and Buster Skrine (four, $25 million), Williams likely would have been a leading candidate to start. In fact, knowing what we know now, they probably didn’t need to bring Cromartie back, but did so anyway out of an abundance of caution.
However, Cro’s deal — as lucrative as it appears — is not guaranteed beyond the 2015 season, meaning if his play is not indicative of most of his first eight years in the NFL, the Jets could choose to go another way next offseason.
And one would figure Williams would be a solid and inexpensive alternative.
Steady if not unspectacular, Williams — at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds– is not an overly physical corner, but he seems to always know where to be. Unlike many top corners who like to stick opposing receivers at the line and use their athleticism to disrupt passes, Williams is technically sound but more instinctual. He uses his tremendous footwork and closing speed to get the job done.
During Sunday’s win over the Browns, Williams picked off Johnny Manziel — one of five forced turnovers on the day for New York — to begin the second half. The Jets then scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, effectively putting the game out of reach at 21-10.
Though Williams seems to lose some of his effectiveness the longer the route he has to cover, he’s ahead of where a lot of players his age are playing at a position that is right behind quarterback in overall difficulty.
The ‘Louisville Slugger’ Finally Shows Up
As much of a positive as Williams has been, Calvin Pryor has the potential to be the playmaking safety the Jets have lacked for a long time.
Coming off a very disappointing rookie season, Pryor, who was a favorite of former coach Rex Ryan leading up to his selection in the first round of last year’s draft, was arguably the Jets’ best defensive player on Sunday.
Pryor finished with 10 tackles, including eight solo, and helped the Jets take away the early momentum when he stripped starting Browns quarterback Josh McCown as he scrambled toward the goal line.
After the Jets’ initial drive stalled, punter Ryan Quigley pinned the Browns inside their own 10. However, Cleveland had little trouble moving the ball. The Jets figure to have one of the better defenses in the NFL this season, but the unit’s debut got off to a very inauspicious start as the Browns ate up nearly 10 minutes in marching to the Jets’ 14.
On 3rd and goal, McCown appeared to have the lane to the end zone, but the combination of Pryor from behind and linebacker Demario Davis from the side ended not only Cleveland’s drive, but the veteran quarterback’s day. A concussed McCown fumbled into the end zone, where it was recovered by Cromartie.
Unlike last season under Ryan, Pryor appears to understand what’s being asked of him by rookie head coach Todd Bowles. Pryor looked overwhelmed at times during his first season, as his pursuit often took him too far over the line of scrimmage and his trademark big hits were replaced by grabbing a lot of air.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that the secondary was so bare. Pryor was asked to play a lot of free safety, as opposed to his natural strong safety. With the position switch came a whole bunch of new responsibilities he may not have been ready for.
Now with Marcus Gilchrist handling free safety, Pryor is able to come straight ahead and worry less about what goes on behind him. Spending time as both a strong safety and hybrid outside linebacker, he’s free to roam and pick his targets, much like during his days at Louisville when he developed the reputation as one of the hardest and truest hitters around.
The Jets aren’t going to have big-time defensive players like Revis and linebacker David Harris forever, but they have developed a core group of young guys who could very well ensure that the defense as a whole remains in the NFL’s upper echelon for quite some time.
Look for Williams and Pryor to get better with age, and for the Jets’ secondary to continue its upward trajectory.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet