The pressure was on Dee Milliner in a big way last season.
He was a first-round pick, the first cornerback drafted and projected to start right away for the New York Jets with lofty expectations from the team, fans and the media.
And then, he struggled — with injuries, inconsistency and confidence. But with a solid finish to an otherwise lackluster first season, Milliner had something positive to build on.
"Yeah, I felt great," he said after practice Saturday. "It was much-needed. I felt more comfortable and more relaxed at the end. It was something I needed to do. I needed to put some good games under my belt, and I’m just trying to have it carry over to this year."
The Jets badly need that to happen. With Antonio Cromartie gone after signing with Arizona, Milliner might have even more pressure on him in his second season. He’s being counted on to be the Jets’ No. 1 cornerback, a role Rex Ryan insists the former Alabama star is ready for.
"I’ve been around the game a few years," Ryan said, "and I see it, without question."
That type of endorsement alone has Milliner feeling pretty good about himself. He knows his coach is behind him, and that motivates him even more to make Ryan — and himself — look good.
"I wouldn’t say `prove’ myself," Milliner said. "I just want to go out there and do what I’m supposed to do, do what they picked me for and what I expect myself to do."
And, what does Milliner expect from himself?
"To make plays," he said, "and be a great DB."
Ryan has spent the past several months defending the No. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft, causing some to wonder what they were missing.
There were a few moments in which Milliner flashed, making plays worthy of a top cornerback, but there were also plenty of others where he simply appeared overmatched and, really, performed like a rookie.
Ryan benched him three times last season, too, thinking it far more valuable for Milliner to sit and observe than to continue to hurt himself and the team.
There were also some unfair comparisons to Darrelle Revis, the former Jets star who was so dominant that Ryan rarely had to worry about the side of the field he covered.
"I think when rookies come in this league, maybe everybody’s humbled," Ryan said. "I don’t know who, as a rookie, has come in and just played at this level right from the get-go."
Last December, Milliner was selected as the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month after getting 27 tackles, three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. He was also the AFC’s defensive player of the week after intercepting two passes in the season finale at Miami.
"I love the way he ended, but there’s guys that never get on a field and nobody talks about them," Ryan said. "Did he go through growing pains? Absolutely, but he was in the fire. So, right now, it’s nothing to him. He’s out there, let’s go.
"And his teammates, believe me, they’re definitely confident in Dee Milliner."
The positives to Milliner’s game are plenty: He has terrific closing speed, is physical at 6-foot and 201 pounds, is still improving on working on his man-coverage and his footwork on backpedaling when he needs to.
Also, with first-round pick Calvin Pryor in the mix, the Jets should be even better at safety — which could help give Milliner some assistance over the top in the secondary during some plays.
"It’s a maturation process for him," said safety Dawan Landry, who regularly spoke with Milliner throughout the offseason and has served as a mentor to him. "He’s like my little brother. The sky’s the limit for a guy like him. He’s got unlimited potential and I expect big things from him."
So do the rest of the Jets, who could have Milliner matched up against team’s top receivers on a regular basis — something that Revis excelled at. It’s also something Milliner isn’t going to shy away from.
He relishes that type of opportunity, as his did while helping lead Alabama to two national championships.
But this year, Milliner will get to show immediately how much better he is while facing the likes of Oakland’s James Jones, Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in consecutive weeks to start the season.
"Oh, most definitely," Milliner said when asked if he looks forward to the challenge. "You’ve got to go up against the best receivers on each team, so you’ve got to be prepared for it and be ready for it.
"And, you have to have fun while you’re out there."