The Jets are counting on Trumaine Johnson this season, however, the veteran corner is sidelined with a hamstring injury.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — In 2007, the New York Jets witnessed potential greatness at the University of Pittsburgh pro day. They fell so hard for Darrelle Revis that top scout Terry Bradway called the office before boarding his flight out of Pittsburgh and told the team’s brass that they would have to trade up for the talented cornerback because there was no way he would last until the 25th pick.
And so they did. General manager Mike TanneNBAum moved up 11 spots to select Revis, who became an all-time Jets great and a likely future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Known for their history of wacky draft-day decisions, the Jets pulled a coup after decades of cuckoo.
Alas, “Revis Island” has been deserted for a few years. The same could be said of the team’s ability to scout cornerbacks.
In one of the NFL’s strangest trends, the Jets haven’t drafted a starting-caliber corner since — brace yourself — Revis. That they couldn’t solve the problem under two defensive-minded head coaches — Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles — makes the slump downright puzzling. It’s also the main reason the current team is fighting a crisis at the position, one that could undermine its playoff dreams.
“The fact that it’s happening is a problem,” said former Jets special-team coordinator Mike Westhoff, who saw good and bad during his time with the team (2001-12). “I think Gregg Williams is a very good defensive coach — Joe Vitt too — and they’re going to present problems to everyone. But to not have a corner that you can hang your hat on … whoa! That’s a concern, and it’s troubling.”
The Jets have only one draft pick on the active roster — Parry Nickerson, sixth round, 2018 — and he’s in danger of being cut. Because of past draft failures, they have had to overspend for free agents (Trumaine Johnson) and patch it together with castoffs and rookie free agents. With Johnson sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury, the top three corners are Darryl Roberts, Brian Poole and Tevaughn Campbell, who came from the CFL.
How did it get like this? From 2008 to 2019, the Jets drafted nine cornerbacks, none of whom became a regular starter. That includes a pair of first-rounders, Kyle Wilson (2010) and Dee Milliner (2013). Dwight Lowery was drafted as a cornerback in 2008 but transitioned to safety.
“To find a really good corner, you have to find guys who can locate the football, and they have to be able to catch it — and sometimes those guys are playing on offense right now,” Ryan said. “It may be tougher that way. That’s why a good corner isn’t going to last in the draft. Somebody is going to jump up and take them. It’s hard to find them. Most of those great corners are playing receiver.”
In the early years of the post-Revis slump, the Jets tried hard to find corners. Ryan, who arrived two years after Revis, ran a defensive scheme predicated on strong cornerback play. His GM, TanneNBAum, tried to make him happy. In 2010, they traded for Antonio Cromartie, which was a terrific move. The Revis-Cromartie tandem helped them to the AFC Championship Game in 2010. TanneNBAum also drafted Wilson, which was not so terrific.
“Ugh,” Ryan said of Wilson. “He had a tough time finding [the ball]. There are some guys who can run with you and cover the hell out of you, but they can’t play the football.”
Out went TanneNBAum and in came John Idzik, who rocked the franchise by trading away Revis in 2013. That might have created a Bambino-like curse because, with the No. 9 overall pick in ’13, he opted for Milliner despite medical red flags, including five surgeries at Alabama. In the NFL, Milliner battled injuries — shocker! — and played only 21 games before he washed out of the league in 2015.
“A terrible mistake,” Weshoff said. “If you looked at his medical history in college, holy cow!”
Out went Idzik and in came Mike Maccagnan.
People around the league sensed a disconnect between Maccagnan and Bowles because the front office didn’t invest much draft capital in the position. Bowles, himself a former defensive back, needed corners for his pressure-based defense. Maccagnan picked five corners in five years, but only one was selected before the sixth round (Juston Burris, fourth round, 2016). The Jets gave up on him last season, and now he’s trying to win a roster spot on the Cleveland Browns — as a safety.
Instead of drafting and developing, his usual modus operandi, Maccagnan opted for quick fixes. He brought back Revis for $39 million in guarantees, an investment that backfired. The once-great Revis was a diminished star in 2016. Two years later, Maccagnan made another big splash. Ignoring whispers of a questionable attitude, he signed Johnson for $34 million guaranteed. After a disappointing 2018, his status for the season opener is in jeopardy because of the hamstring.
Surprisingly, the Jets didn’t make any big moves in the offseason, leaving themselves vulnerable at an important position.
Out went Maccagnan and in came Joe Douglas, who is scrambling for upgrades as the regular season approaches.
“If they end up bringing anybody in, then they do,” said coach Adam Gase, who inherited the mess. “If they don’t, then we’ll coach up those guys and put a game plan together that suits the group we have.”
The corner carousel continues to spin. From 2007 to the present, 24 players have started at least one game at cornerback for the Jets, according to Pro Football Reference. Does that number sound familiar? It should.
Revis wore it for eight years.