Dee Milliner stayed positive despite struggles; named league's defensive rookie of month
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Dee Milliner had no doubts, even though others did.
The Jets' rookie cornerback remained even-keeled through all his struggles, refusing to believe that he wasn't worthy of the ninth overall draft selection.
Each week brought a host of new challenges for the former Alabama star. He was a man on an island, forced to keep pace within the Jets' defensive system and win each one of his one-on-one battles. Rex Ryan's defense changes for no man, especially a rookie. But despite being burned for multiple touchdowns in 13 games and being benched three times, Milliner remained confident about his ability and his future.
"I can be as good as I want to be. I can be the best. I can be No. 1," the cornerback told Newsday just days before the regular-season finale in Miami. "That's what you want to be anyway. So I'm going to continue to try to do that. And hopefully one day I will become that."
Milliner took a step in the right direction Thursday when he was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for December. He is the second Jet in a row to win the award; defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was named the top defensive rookie in November.
On Tuesday, Milliner was named the AFC's defensive player of the week after recording four tackles, two interceptions and five passes defensed in the Jets' 20-7 victory over the Dolphins, a win that knocked Miami out of playoff contention and earned the Jets an 8-8 finish.
Milliner, who tied for the AFC lead in interceptions in December with three, is only the second Jets rookie to win defensive player of the week honors since 1984 (safety Russell Carter, Week 15).
Ryan was heavily criticized for declaring the Jets' 2013 draft class "A-plus" in the midst of a three-game losing streak, just days after he benched Milliner and rookie quarterback Geno Smith in a Week 13 loss to the Dolphins. But despite the well-publicized struggles of Milliner, Smith and rookie left guard Brian Winters, Ryan now might feel somewhat vindicated after the Jets' .500 finish.
Like his coach, Richardson has no doubt this rookie class has the potential to be A-plus.
"I do," said Richardson, who made a strong case for being in contention for defensive rookie of the year honors with 77 tackles and 31/2 sacks. "A fullback, a few linemen, a corner that's finally producing . . . .
"As of late, everyone's having upside. So the future's bright for us," added Richardson, who also had two rushing touchdowns. "Guys just have to have a productive offseason, don't get too lazy and have too much fun. But we're most definitely going to be in a better position to win next year."
Milliner was unable to participate in the Jets' rookie minicamp and OTAs because of offseason shoulder surgery and was a late arrival to training camp because of a contract impasse.
He also was hampered by various injuries throughout the season, which slowed his progress. But in the final weeks, he began to show signs of promise.
"You're going through a lot your rookie year -- especially me," Milliner said with a smile. "I went through a lot of troubles and rough times here and there. But you can show a lot of growth [in his second season]."
So is this the Dee Milliner that Jets fans can expect to see at the start of 2014?
"You can say that," he said. "Because in the beginning of the season, I saw so much stuff that was new to me and now I'm adjusting to it. I think I'm getting a grasp of it. So next year, you can see a different side of me."