Todd Bowles needs quality cornerbacks the way humans need oxygen. In his blitz-oriented defensive scheme, he can't survive without corners who thrive in man-to-man coverage. The New York Jets coach has a good one in Darrelle Revis, but he's looking for a new No. 2 now that Antonio Cromartie is history.
The Jets knew when they signed Cromartie last March to a four-year deal that he'd be one-and-done (such is a fallacy of NFL contracts), so they've had ample time to ponder Life After Cro. And you know what? The outlook isn't that terrible.
First of all, Cromartie was mediocre last season, as age (31) and a chronic hip condition robbed him of his extraordinary athleticism. He tried to compensate by out-thinking his opponents, but he didn't have the catch-up speed to bail him out when he guessed wrong. He was a terrific player at one time, but the Jets made the right decision -- really, the only decision -- by parting ways.
A look at their top replacement options:
1. Marcus Williams: He deserves first dibs. The former undrafted free agent played only 285 defensive snaps (27 percent) in his second NFL season, but he finished with a team-high six interceptions. That breaks down to one interception every 47.5 snaps. Projected over a full season, we're talking about 22 interceptions. Obviously, that's a ridiculous, unreachable number, and we all know cornerbacks shouldn't be measured by interceptions, but it provides a glimpse into Williams' potential.
Williams is a smart, instinctive player with excellent ball skills. He doesn't have ideal stopwatch speed for a man-to-man corner, but let's not forget Bowles shifted toward zone coverage late in the season. The biggest concern with Williams is that, as the No. 4 corner, he didn't cover too many No. 1 or No. 2 wide receivers. There's a big jump from dime back to starter, but Williams -- out of tiny North Dakota State -- has the demeanor of SEC player. He doesn't get rattled.
"He's been consistent from day one," Bowles said during the season. "When you put him in, he just makes plays. No matter how many plays he gets in there, the ball finds him. He makes plays, he's around the ball, he's poised and he's very smart. You only have to tell him things once, and he's been consistent since the day I met him."
That Williams has only a $600,000 cap charge is an added bonus. The Jets could take the Cromartie savings ($8 million) and spend it elsewhere, not having to worry about signing another corner.
2. Buster Skrine: At $6.25 million a year, Skrine is being paid like a starting corner. He also has more starting experience than Williams, going back to his years with the Cleveland Browns, but Skrine is best suited to the slot. He's only 5-foot-9, too small to be an every-down player on the outside. Plus, he happens to be a pretty good slot corner, which is where he played 90 percent of his snaps last season. He's a very good blitzer, adding to his effectiveness in the slot.
3. Dee Milliner: Remember him? The former first-round pick (ninth overall in 2013) was an afterthought in an injury-plagued 2015, so far down on the cornerback totem pole that he wasn't used for a single defensive snap. Let's be realistic: Milliner isn't the answer. The main reason he's still on the roster is because his $4 million is guaranteed. If healthy, he could compete for the starting job, but the current administration, which didn't draft him, simply can't count on him to be a major contributor. Anything it gets from him is a bonus.
4. The draft: It would be a mild surprise if the Jets selected a corner with the 20th pick (Ohio State's Eli Apple would make the tabloid headline writers happy), but you can't rule it out because of the importance of the position in Bowles' system. That said, the second or third round, and perhaps even later, makes more sense.
5. Free agency: The Jets don't have to cap room to buy a $5 million-a-year corner. If they choose to spend, Jerraud Powers (Arizona Cardinals) would be on the radar because of Bowles' familiarity with him.