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Hard-hitting rook Pryor could help Jets rediscover defensive dominance

If Calvin Pryor can fulfill the New York Jets’ lofty rookie-season expectations, there’s no reason the Jets can’t approach the level of Rex Ryan’s suffocating 2009 and '10 defenses.

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Even before the full-pads portion of the Jets training camp commenced here last week, Calvin Pryor’s impact was being felt. Not like it will be once the hitting truly cranks up, mind you. But Jets receivers for some time have been well aware of the contact-loving rookie safety’s presence, and his potential for leaving a mark.    

“He just always seems near the ball when it’s in the middle of the field, in his area,’’ veteran Jets receiver David Nelson said last Thursday, after New York’s first practice of camp at SUNY Cortland. “So we definitely have taken notice of that, and the guys are already talking like, ‘Be mindful of where he is at all times.’ We’ll see what happens once the pads go on and we’re flying around.’’     

Here’s one prediction for the equation of Pryor plus full pads, roaming around in the Jets secondary: “What’s going to make it great is once he gets out there and knocks a couple heads off,’’ said New York second-year cornerback Dee Milliner, like Pryor, a Jets' first-round pick. “The receivers are going to know about him then. And not just our guys. When we get into games the other team’s receivers are going to know where he’s at on the field, and maybe we’ll have a couple gator arms out there, or he’ll hit them and knock the ball loose.’’

POSITION RANKINGS: Safeties | Corners | D-tackles | Pass rushers | LBs

At the start of camp at least, Pryor and his penchant for contact has worked against him. On Saturday, the first day the Jets worked in full pads, Pryor suffered a concussion when he collided with the returner while blocking in a kickoff return drill, sidelining him indefinitely until he is cleared by the NFL’s concussion protocol.     

The Jets are hoping it’s only a minor delay for their impact rookie. Head coach Rex Ryan and his defensive-led squad just keep collecting young defensive studs in recent drafts (see defensive lineman and 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson and '11 first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, and hopefully, Milliner soon adds his name to that list), and they believe Pryor, the former University of Louisville star, is their latest weapon. Selected 18th overall in May, the Jets view Pryor as that perfect blend of enforcer and ballhawk, capable of punishing ball carriers who come into his air space, or better yet, finding the football himself and jacking up New York’s anemic takeaway total from 2013 (15, ranking 31st in the league).

The do-it-all safety has become one of the keys to success in today’s NFL, and the Jets were in dire need of someone who could set the tone for the last line of defense and help elevate New York’s secondary to a level where it could hold its own in relation to the team’s superb front seven. If Pryor can fulfill the Jets’ lofty rookie-season expectations, and Milliner builds on his strong finish to 2013, when he was named the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in December, perhaps New York can forever close the book on the club’s illustrious “Revis Island” era. With a strong secondary in place, there’s no reason the Jets can’t at least approach the level of Ryan’s suffocating 2009 and '10 defenses that largely carried New York to consecutive AFC title game appearances.

A mouthful? Not if Pryor is as good as Ryan thinks he is, and Milliner develops into a true No. 1 corner worthy of being picked ninth overall last year. The Jets somehow went 8-8 last season with little offensive firepower and a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith who rode the rollercoaster all year long. New York made offseason offensive improvements with the signing of receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson, but this is still a Jets team that is going to reflect Ryan’s hit-first-and-ask-questions-later defensive mindset.

Ryan has found it difficult for more than two months now to contain his excitement over Pryor’s potential impact on the Jets defense, even dropping a Jack Tatum comparison on the rookie in late May. Tatum, the former Raiders safety who was nicknamed “The Assassin,’’ was one of the game’s most fearsome hitters in the 1970s and was notorious for his then-legal head-hunting style of play. You can’t be that kind of enforcer in Roger Goodell’s NFL, not if you want to stay solvent and on the field, but Ryan sees a game-changer in the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Pryor, who racked up seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles in 38 games at Louisville.

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“That’s exactly what I see,’’ Ryan said last Friday afternoon, after the Jets finished a morning workout. “When [Jets general manager] John [Idzik] and I were watching him, it didn’t take long to convince ourselves about him. John had gone and watched a game at Louisville. On the first play, he makes a hit for a loss. The second play he knocks a running back cold. And on the third play he gets a one-handed interception. All in the one series. [John’s] like, ‘This kid’s not bad.’ He couldn’t wait to tell me about this guy. He said wait till you see him. And it wasn’t a one-time deal with this kid.’’

If there’s a point of emphasis on defense in Jets camp this year, it’s creating takeaways. Five of New York’s paltry 15 takeaways occurred in its final two games of the season, both wins that lifted the Jets to 8-8 and probably saved Ryan’s job. But in the season’s first 14 games, New York only took the ball away from an opponent 10 times. That trend needs to change if the Jets are to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and ensure Ryan’s continued employment. It’s no surprise then that the coach started his first team meeting of training camp by stressing the need to consistently steal the football on defense. The Jets have had a minus-14 turnover ratio in each of the past two seasons, and that’s not a recipe for winning football.

“The first thing he pointed out in the meeting [Wednesday] night was we need to create turnovers and score points,’’ Pryor said. “So we can take pressure off our offense. We can be a dominant defense, but it’s not just all about stopping people and getting three-and-outs. You’ve got to create points so you can help out our offense as well.

“The first time I stepped in the door here, guys like Mo [Wilkerson] and Sheldon [Richardson], those guys were in my ear: ‘We drafted you for a reason, so you have to come in here and produce. Don’t wait to turn it on. Come in here and produce right away. From Day 1 have that confidence and ability because we believe in you.’’’ 

Idzik was quoted as saying one of the things he liked about Pryor was that he “plays like a Jet,’’ but the guy they nicknamed “Louisville Slugger’’ in college has quickly proven he can “talk like a Jet,’’ too. Loudly and proudly he has spoken of his trash-talking abilities and how Ryan has encouraged him to talk smack to opponents in an effort to get them off their game. He also admitted he has learned to hate the Patriots and Giants, the Jets’ two biggest rivals, singling out New England quarterback Tom Brady with special disdain.

Pryor is going to do just fine in New York.

“The first thing Rex told me when he called me on draft night was, ‘Come in here and be yourself. Be the kind of enforcer we need you to be and don’t hold nothing back,’’’ Pryor said. “That’s kind of Rex’s way and his personality as well. He’s had our backs from Day 1, and I got his back as well.’’

And the early salvos fired in the direction of the Patriots and Giants, before he had ever suited up for an NFL game? Pryor doesn’t feel he has just painted the target on his own back.

“I don’t like them because those guys, they have that Super Bowl ring [actually more than one], and we’re trying to get what they [have],’’ Pryor said. “They’ve been there before and those guys are standing in our way, so of course we’re going to have the mentality [that] we dislike those guys. And every time we play them it’s going to be a very competitive game.’’

We’ll see about that. And quickly. In Weeks 2-7 this season, Pryor and the rest of the Jets secondary will be asked to run an intimidating gauntlet of first-class quarterbacks and elite receivers. After New York opens at home against Oakland, they travel to Green Bay, are home against Chicago and Detroit, at San Diego, home against Denver and at New England. The latter three games, against Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Brady, are played in a 12-day span. But Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford will be no picnic either, and the receivers in that six-game run include Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Keenan Allen, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Julian Edelman.

“I know there are some great quarterbacks on our schedule, but I accept that challenge with open arms,’‘ Pryor said, perhaps alluding to potential interceptions. “I believe in myself, my teammates and this Jets coaching staff. We’re going to get the job done. We look forward to the challenge. Everybody’s saying we have a great team, so we have to go prove it.’’

Pryor’s teammates are already eager to see him lay out some poor unsuspecting receivers on gameday, joining the likes of the NFL’s punishing new-wave safeties: Kam Chancellor, Kenny Vacarro, T.J. Ward and Eric Berry. And they think the hits will start early and just keep right on coming.

“I’m really excited to just see him get to the Indianapolis preseason game [the Jets’ Aug. 7 opener], because it’ll be his first time out there and he’s going to be really hyped up, jacked up,’’ Nelson said. “You don’t know what some receiver might get from him that game. But it’s going to be awesome for us as an offense just to watch him play from the sideline because you know he’s going to make some plays and make a difference.’’

The Jets defense has the makings of being able to dictate to opposing offenses if Pryor can be the enforcer, Milliner continues to emerge as a much more confident version of his rookie self and ex-Maryland third-round rookie cornerback Dexter McDougle can find his way onto the field and steadily contribute. The Jets' front seven has a couple elite players in Wilkerson and Richardson, but Pryor was drafted to add that same element in the back.

“What Calvin is going to bring to us is the type of player who’s going to play with a physical presence,’’ Jets defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. “And he’s not only going to make a physical impact on an opponent, but a psychological impact. Teams will have to know where this guy is and that can be intimidating to an offense. That’s the plan, anyway.

“He gives us the hitter we’ve been looking for back there since we lost LaRon [Landry in the spring of 2013]. And he makes plays on the ball, too, so we feel like he has a chance to be a complete safety. He’s young, but we feel like he’s going to get there.’’

Chances are, when Pryor arrives, he’ll be “bringing the wood,’’ as the Jets’ Decker said, describing the rookie’s style of full-contact pass coverage. Let the NFL’s entire contingent of receivers consider themselves placed on full alert. They have received their Pryor warning.