Matt Ehalt | ESPNNewYork.com
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Rex Ryan is declaring the New York Jets the winners of the 2013 NFL draft.
Despite inconsistent play from most of the Jets’ rookies, Ryan gave the squad’s 2013 draft class the highest grade possible Wednesday, citing the five starters the Jets yielded from their selections.
“If this is not an A-plus class, I don’t know what you’re looking for,” Ryan said. “I think this class is about as strong a class as I’ve ever seen.”
The Jets had seven picks in April’s draft, and have turned the majority of them into starters. Cornerback Dee Milliner (ninth), defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (13th), quarterback Geno Smith (39th), guard Brian Winters (72nd) and fullback Tommy Bohanon (215th) have taken over starting roles for the team.
Ryan said Richardson is probably the defensive rookie of the year, praised Smith for starting each game, and had complimentary words for the jobs Winters and Bohanon have done. Milliner has struggled, but Ryan attributed that to him going through the ups and downs that almost all rookie corners do.
If this is not an A-plus class, I don’t know what you’re looking for. I think this class is about as strong a class as I’ve ever seen.
— Jets coach Rex Ryan
Richardson, who has been the most impressive Jets’ pick thus far, agreed with his coach’s grade.
“I don’t know how many other rookies are getting drafted and actually starting on the team right now, but it’s not that many,” Richardson said. “Mostly our whole draft class except for two players is producing and actually doing something to contribute to wins and these losses. I most definitely would grade us out as an A-plus, though. We’re just trying to keep contributing and get better.”
Smith said it’s “impressive” that the Jets rookies have claimed five starting spots.
“I can remember when we first got in here one of the things we all talked about (was) wanting to play big minutes and wanting to step up to the plate and help our team out,” Smith said. “I’m not here to rate the draft class, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of things we have to improve on. That’s where it lies.”
While Ryan talked up having the five rookie starters, he may be overrating the team’s rookie class through its first 12 games. The Jets were a 6-10 team last season and lost plenty of starters to free agency, which opened up starting gigs for the rookies to claim.
Aside from Richardson, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in November, the class has been inconsistent.
Milliner, who was brought in to replace the traded Darrelle Revis, has already been benched three times, including Sunday’s 23-3 home loss to the Dolphins. He has not looked the part of the top college defensive back as he’s struggled in coverage and failed to be a difference-maker.
Smith, after leading the Jets to a 5-4 start, has not thrown a touchdown pass in his last five games and was benched for the second half of Sunday’s loss. In his last four games, he’s completed just 29 passes, and has one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions in his last seven games. He leads the league with 23 turnovers, including a league-high 19 interceptions. He’s gone five games without passing for 200 yards.
Winters, who replaced Vladimir Ducasse as the starting left guard, has struggled as of late. Ryan said Wednesday the guard’s play has been like the team’s in that it’s up and down, and the Jets need to work with him on his technique. He did say Winters could be a 10-year starter.
“That’s an outstanding pick,” Ryan said.
Ryan does not believe that the benching of the rookies is an indictment of the class.
“That doesn’t mean these guys weren’t good picks,” Ryan said. “If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have seen the field ever.”
As the Jets have struggled in recent years, one of the main reasons has been a lack of impact players from the draft. The team has not done a good job in developing players into key contributors, especially on offense where the team desperately lacks playmakers.
This year, it seems the Jets hit a home run with Richardson, who could bring home individual hardware at the end of the season, but the rest of the class still has a lot to prove. Ryan is optimistic about their chances.
“I think it’s an outstanding class, top to bottom. Will they all make it? I don’t know. When you watch them I see improvement,” Ryan said. “I’m excited about this draft class. I think it’s going to be a real strength for this franchise moving forward.”