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Rookies in Focus: Dee Milliner

rookie-improve-millinerThere’s an obvious learning curve for any rookie entering the NFL, but some handle it better than others. With first impressions perhaps skewing our views more than ever due to social media’s inherent ability to overreact, we often jump to conclusions on prospects while wasting no time to assign the “bust” label. However, all prospects develop at different rates, and this particular group may have needed the first half of the season to adjust to the speed of the league.

[Click to see: comparison graphic | Johnathan Cyprien | Justin Pugh | Lane Johnson | Dee MillinerJamie Collins | Kenny Vaccaro]

 

Round 1, No 9. : Dee Milliner, New York Jets

Role: 13 Games, 12 starts at cornerback

It was a rough start for Milliner who was thrust right into the Jets’ starting lineup at cornerback. Some fans wanted to put the responsibility of replacing Darrelle Revis solely on Milliner’s shoulders but that’s a burden no cornerback should bear, much less a rookie. Instead, Milliner should be viewed as a potentially productive cornerback coming out of Nick Saban’s system at Alabama that generally leads to difficult NFL transitions due to technique differences. While the slow start may have been predictable, the second half improvement should have Jets fans encouraged.

Milliner 1st 7 Games Last 6 Games Overall
Overall -7.5 +4.9 -2.6
Coverage -10.9 +3.5 -7.4
Vs. Run +1.8 -0.3 +1.5

 

First 7 Games

As I wrote about back in October, Milliner’s coverage metrics showed out well, but his coverage grade was among the worst in the league. He was beaten often while benefitting statistically by offensive errors, either through dropped passes or inaccurate throws.

The Week 2 game against the New England Patriots was a perfect example as Milliner benefitted from dropped passes on back-to-back plays, both by fellow rookie Aaron Dobson. On the second one, Milliner was completely lost in coverage and the play should have ended up in an 84-yard touchdown. The final stat line for the Week 2 game was two receptions on seven targets for 46 yards and a touchdown, but the -3.0 coverage grade tells a much better story on what should have been a more disastrous outing.

There were numerous examples throughout the first seven games where Milliner was beaten handily, even finding himself as on the bench at times in the middle of games.

Milliner bailed out by an overthrow:

Milliner vs Dobson

 Now bailed out by a drop by Mohamed Sanu:

Milliner vs Sanu

 …And yet another drop:

Milliner vs Toon

 

Last 6 Games

Though they play different positions, Milliner’s second half improvement resembled that of Jacksonville Jaguars safety John Cyprien. Both players cut back on the egregious mistakes that plagued them early in the season and that led to much-improved coverage grades in the second half. It’s not as if Milliner was perfect as he was still beaten his fair share, but he did a much better job on the deeper routes and he got his hands on eight passes over his last six games compared to only three in his first seven.

Milliner breaks up the slant to Josh Gordon:

Milliner vs Gordon

Milliner breaks up the go route in the end zone to Charles Clay:

Milliner vs Clay

Even though Mike Wallace falls down on the play, Milliner breaks on it for the interception:

Milliner vs Wallace

 

Final Word

As with all of the rookies on the most-improved list, it remains to be seen whether or not Milliner can carry his strong finish into 2014. It says something about him that he was able to bounce back for a difficult start, especially at a position like cornerback that requires short-term amnesia during the course of the season. With Antonio Cromartie moving on in free agency, Milliner might be forced into the top cornerback role heading into the season.

 

Follow Steve on Twitter.

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