Jets defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman knows exactly what rookies are thinking today as they check in for the start of their first NFL minicamp.
"The anxiety that you feel as a rookie is high and you're not sure how you're going to fit in," said Thurman, an 11th round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1978 NFL Draft. "You're not sure how you are going to be accepted by your teammates, but you have to go out and compete and make your mark. Everybody that plays this game usually is pretty competitive, so I think the guys that can pick it up, grasp it, understand it and go out and compete will have the best chance to succeed."
For the past four seasons, Thurman mentored a Green & White defensive backfield that held opponents to an NFL-low 71.0 passer rating, 52.6 completion percentage and 11,921 passing yards. Elevated to coordinator on Jan. 24, 2013, Thurman and new Jets DB coach Tim McDonald added what most experts consider to be the most talented cornerback in the draft with the selection of Alabama's Dee Milliner at No. 9 overall.
"He's very talented. The guy can cover, but he's not afraid to get involved in the run game," Thurman told a group of season ticket holders at the Atlantic Health jets Training Center. "He's a complete corner. He has a chance to be a big-time player and we're looking forward to coaching him."
While Thurman said it was a "pleasure" to coach Darrelle Revis, DT loves the depth the Green & White have assembled at the cornerback position. Included in the bunch are Pro Bowler Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson, Isaiah Trufant, Ellis Lankster, Aaron Berry, Darrin Walls and the aforementioned Milliner.
"This is probably the most talented group we've had at cornerback since I've been here. It is from top to bottom," he said. "There are probably six to seven guys that can play cornerback in the National Football League right now."
For the third consecutive April, the Jets selected a defensive lineman in the first round. Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson came off the board shortly after Milliner and he will add more speed and explosion to an already talented front.
"To get him at 13, we thought was somewhat of a steal. The guy brings a lot of passion, a lot of energy to the game and to the position," Thurman said. "He will give us some inside presence as a pass rusher. We feel like with the drafting of (Quinton) Coples last year and Muhammad Wilkerson the year before and big Kenrick Ellis, we have a defensive front we can be proud of and get pressure on the quarterback without necessarily having to blitz."
Thurman doesn't want to be forced to blitz to generate pressure. The Jets want to dictate when they'll bring numbers and Coples, who led the team with 5.5 sacks last year, will be asked to do more in Year 2.
"We plan on using Q a lot of different ways. He's a big talented athlete," Thurman said. "He moves well and we're going to try to take advantage of his skill-set."
So Coples will add responsibilities and his position will really be a mix.
"He will be a hybrid in this defense… His job is to go chase the quarterback. But in order for him to be successful in this defense, he is going to have to learn certain things that he wasn't required to do prior before the move being made," Thurman said.
The Jets will have a completely new look at safety next season. Dawan Landry, a fifth round-pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2006, has been reunited with Thurman and Rex Ryan. But there should be an interesting battle for a starting position amongst a handful of youngsters with Antonio Allen, Josh Bush, Donnie Fletcher and Jaiquawn Jarrett among those competing.
"Dawan is a really good player. He's very intelligent, he understands and knows this defense," Thurman said. "He'll be the glue that keeps the secondary together back there and we have some young guys who will be competing for the other spot and the best man will win. It's going to very competitive. We have some talent — they are just no-name guys. But hopefully by the end of the season, you'll know their names."
While Thurman and his staff will just coach up the rookies in Florham Park this weekend, the Jets have become a much younger team as whole.
"I don't think a lot of people know this, but we're replacing seven starters on defense this year," Thurman said with a laugh. "We'll have our work cut out for us, but at the same time it's exciting because to try to put this defense back together and get it to where we feel it should be will be our biggest challenge. We'll have some young players out there, obviously some guys who are not as quite as experienced as other guys, but I think if they bring passion and enthusiasm to the game and do the things that we ask of them — then I think we'll be just fine."