FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Dee Milliner isn't just good enough to start Sunday against the Saints, he's good enough to be the NFL's best rookie cornerback by season's end, according to Rex Ryan.
The bold proclamation was delivered three days after Ryan benched Milliner for the second time in the past five games. But nevertheless, there was Ryan Wednesday, waxing poetic about his ninth overall pick who was torched for 108 yards and a touchdown on four catches during a 49-9 rout in Cincinnati.
A growing percentage of Jets fans already are labeling the former Alabama star a "bust,'' but Ryan spoke glowingly of his struggling cornerback.
"He's a lot closer than I think he's being given credit for,'' he said, declaring that Milliner will start against New Orleans (6-1). "He's close to being that player that we want.
"By the time the season's over, I think he will be the best rookie corner and playing better than any rookie corner in this year's draft. I don't think there's any doubt.''
It was an expert misdirection by a coach looking to diffuse the narrative that his team may have wasted its first overall pick. Ryan, known as the ultimate players' coach, has used this tactic before: pumping up his own guys in the media in hopes that a newfound self-confidence will emerge on game day. Past Jets seasons are littered with names of players Ryan deemed bona fide talents: Wayne Hunter . . . Vernon Gholston . . . Vladimir Ducasse . . . John "The Terminator'' Conner . . . Kyle Wilson. But Ryan insisted his assessment of Milliner isn't just his typical hyperbole.
"I just see him getting better. I do,'' he said of Milliner, whom he benched in Week 2 against New England. He gave up two completions for 46 yards and a touchdown in that game.
"In all facets, schematically, he's not making the same mental errors. I see his technique coming.''
This past Sunday, the Bengals' Andy Dalton torched Milliner from the opening drive and threw the first of his five touchdowns with Milliner trying to cover Marvin Jones. Milliner didn't even make it to halftime.
"I benched him because physically, he wasn't getting it done,'' a frustrated Ryan said after the game.
On Wednesday, Ryan explained that confidence is critical for both cornerbacks and quarterbacks. So instead of letting Milliner continue to flounder in Cincinnati, "there were a couple of plays where it was like, 'Nah, you know what? Let's just sit him back here,' '' Ryan said. But if all goes according to plan, he said he'll "never worry about benching him ever again.
"My dad [Buddy Ryan] did that historically with a guy named Mike Singletary and it worked out pretty well,'' Ryan said, referring to the Hall of Fame Bears linebacker. "I'm hoping it works out half as good as that one did.''
Drew Brees wasn't too familiar with Milliner before this week, but the Saints quarterback called him young, athletic and talented. Milliner, however, knows Brees will target him repeatedly.
"I'm the new kid out there,'' he said, "so he's going to look to attack me.''
Ryan seemed encouraged that Milliner's mistakes have been more physical than mental, adding that those issues will be worked out in time.
"Now he just needs to have some success tied along with it,'' the coach said. "And I think that's what's missing -- get an interception or two and I think he's going to be good.
" . . . I just have a funny feeling he's coming out the other end. I think he'll do a nice job. I don't think there's any doubt.''