FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—Buster Skrine wisely didn’t resort to the full-blown Vince Young-like treatment of those ill-fated 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, but the New York Jets newcomer still managed to employ those two headline-friendly but hype-laden words that begin with a “D” and a “T” when taking stock of the bountiful defensive talent that dots the team’s locker room.
Proceed with caution, Buster. But do proceed.
“I’ve never played on a defense with this much talent,” Skrine told me after a recent Jets OTA session. “Our front seven has all-stars and then in the back end, we have all-stars. I’ve never seen anything like this. Everybody said the Philadelphia Eagles were going to be like the Dream Team, but we have chemistry on this defense already, and you can see it out in practice. I mean, we can match up however you want to match up. We can match up with any offense.”
The Jets, on paper at least, do have an embarrassment of defensive riches at their disposal this season, and nowhere was the upgrade more pronounced than in the secondary, where New York hit the jackpot in adding veteran cornerbacks Skrine, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie over the course of free agency’s earliest days in March. Then came the draft’s first round, and the No. 6 Jets found themselves in the enviable position of having perhaps this year’s best overall prospect—USC defensive end Leonard Williams—fall into their laps.
Williams potentially adds an elite level of depth to a 3–4 defensive line that already features Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison, and if that unit is as dominant as it looks, it’s only going to aid a Jets secondary that almost overnight went from being the team’s glaring weak link to perhaps its greatest strength. You want to win on defense in today’s NFL? Combining consistent pass pressure with tight pass coverage is a pretty good blueprint.
“In the NFL now, it’s such a heavy passing league, and everybody’s throwing the ball all the time,” said Skrine, signed away from Cleveland with a four-year, $25 million contract that included $13 million guaranteed. “If you look at our division, you’ve got Tom Brady in New England, great receivers in Buffalo now, and then you’ve got Miami with a pretty good passing game. So you better be able to compete. I feel like a lot of teams will start doing the same thing we did and invest a lot of money in corners. Because it’s just as important as quarterback now a days.”
Not sure I’m buying that last bit of hyperbole, as Geno Smith’s third-year development at quarterback might bear out this season in New York, but Skrine’s point is well taken. Teams no longer feel comfortable if their top three cornerbacks are starting material; the fourth and fifth cornerbacks on their roster matter more than ever in this pass-happy NFL. That explains why the Jets so aggressively targeted their weaknesses under first-year head coach Todd Bowles, the well-regarded former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator, locking up, in order, Skrine, Revis and then Cromartie in free agency.
Combined with two other young cover men who are coming off injury-shortened 2014 seasons—former 2013 No. 9 overall pick Dee Milliner, who tore his Achilles in October, and 2014 third-rounder Dexter McDougle, who suffered a preseason ACL injury—the Jets theoretically could field the league’s deepest and most versatile cornerback contingent. Milliner has plenty to prove after two underwhelming seasons, and McDougle is basically a red-shirt freshman, but the potential New York has at the position is intriguing.
“I knew coming in they wanted me to play both slot and outside corner, because we’re a matchup defense,” Skrine said. “I could be on the outside one play, with someone else in the slot, or vice versa. They’re really building this team so we can stop the pass, which is how you win in the NFL now. They just needed to bring in some veteran guys in, because last year’s secondary was just so young.”
While Skrine, 25, lacks Revis’s elite pedigree or Cromartie’s proven track record, his arrival in New York represented one of the Jets’s best moves of the offseason. After lasting until the fifth round in the 2011 draft out of small-school Tennessee-Chattanooga, Skrine quietly developed into a solid and productive player in Cleveland, becoming a starter in 2013 and '14 and playing ahead of more celebrated prospects like Browns first-round cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Skrine posted 49 passes defensed in his four seasons in Cleveland, with 18 of those coming in 2014, to go with four interceptions and 66 tackles for a Browns defense that played well for much of the year. According to Pro Football Focus, teams completed passes 61.5% of the time they threw in Skrine’s direction, but he was known for his competitive and resourceful playing style and the level of his game improved each year in Cleveland.
“To break through in this league, I feel like a lot of players have to have two good seasons in a row,” Skrine said. “I had a good season in 2013, and then last year I had another one, and being a potential free agent just kind of brought a little more attention to me. I feel like I played well and showed the people who didn’t even know who I was what I’m capable of. Some people didn’t even know how to say my name. They say it like it’s ‘Scrine.’ Even some of my teammates still say it wrong. It’s pronounced ‘Screen.’”
The Jets seem to be an ideal landing spot for Skrine, in that he doesn’t walk in the door with the pressure and expectation of filling a No. 1 or No. 2 cornerback slot, in the wake of a big-money free agent deal. He’s their third corner, specializing in playing a physical brand of coverage in the slot, and he figures to receive a decent amount of the credit for what should be a significant improvement on pass defense in New York. After last year’s 4–12 last-place finish in the AFC East, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Defensive upgrade aside, the Jets this season will likely only go as far as their quarterbacking takes them, just as the Browns were last year. Skrine’s experience of having a ringside seat for the Johnny Manziel show in Cleveland last year taught him the pitfalls that can come with relying on youth at the game’s most pivotal position. As Smith’s career-defining season begins in New York, Skrine so far likes what he sees.
“He’s got a strong arm and he’s getting better day by day,” Skrine said of Smith. “I think he’s going to have a good year. I feel like having [veteran Ryan] Fitzpatrick here with him, now he has somebody to learn from and that’s going to help. Geno has a lot of pieces around him this year, with [receivers] Brandon Marshall, [Eric] Decker, [Jeremy] Kerley, and all of our running backs are good. I like the way he’s approaching it, and you can see he’s getting better.”
Though he’s no longer a Brown, Skrine can’t help but keep an eye on Cleveland and wonder what Manziel’s second season might hold. Skrine said Manziel owning up to the mistakes of his rookie season was a necessary and critical first step to salvaging his career.
“I just feel like if Johnny could have gone back, I’m sure he would have changed some things, some decisions he made,” Skrine said. “But you’ve got to applaud the man, putting himself in rehab. Everybody over there seems to be praising him now about how he’s becoming a better professional. I think it’s still there for him in Cleveland. They’ve got Josh McCown, too, but he can’t play forever.
“I can say this about Johnny: Johnny’s a good person, a good dude and he’s cool to hang out with. But I mean, it’s was a lot for him to deal with. You’re in the NFL, you’re getting a lot of attention coming out of college like that. Every rookie makes mistakes. But since he’s Johnny Manziel, everything’s going to be blown up to a whole ‘nother level. I could see from some people’s perspective that he needed [maturity]. But a rookie is a rookie at the end of the day. You have to figure out certain things yourself.”
In New York, Skrine is with a Jets team that again plans to first and foremost define itself with defensive dominance, piecing together the rest of the winning puzzle around the offensive side of the ball. It’s a formula that worked early on in New York’s Rex Ryan coaching era, and very well may work again with Bowles in charge. As for those two over-used words that start with a D and T? Save the Dream Team label and just go with Defensive Talent, and let’s see how far that takes the Jets in 2015.