Ryan gives Geno, Jets’ rookies an ‘A-plus’ grade

Rex Ryan is feeling pretty good about his struggling rookie

class.

Sure, Geno Smith has been mistake-prone, and so has Dee

Milliner. But Sheldon Richardson has been outstanding, and the fact

the New York Jets have five rookies starting, well, the coach

thinks that bodes well for the franchise.

”If this is not an A-plus class,” Ryan said Wednesday, ”I

mean, I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Richardson, the No. 13 overall pick, was the Jets’ second draft

selection and has had a terrific first season as one of the NFL’s

top playmakers among defensive linemen. But Milliner, No. 9

overall, and Smith, a second-rounder, have had major issues and

been benched at times.

Milliner, the first cornerback drafted, has been beset by

injuries and inconsistency, leading to three benchings. Smith,

after a solid start, is going through a brutal stretch in which he

has thrown just one touchdown and 11 interceptions in his past

seven games.

Brian Winters, a third-rounder who’s starting at left guard, and

fullback Tommy Bohanon, a seventh-rounder have also had some tough

games.

The Jets’ two other draft picks in April – offensive tackle Oday

Aboushi (fifth round) and guard Will Campbell (sixth round) – have

been inactive for every game so far this season.

”For us to criticize or be critical of a draft class that has

five starters in the National Football League, as rookies?” a

defiant Ryan said. ”I understand it’s New York media, but this

might be a little tough. This is a bit of a stretch to criticize

this draft class.

”This class is about as strong a class as I’ve ever seen.”

Ryan has a point, that it’s way too early to truly know what

they have in any of the seven drafted players. But, the early

overall returns – other than Richardson – haven’t been great.

Smith became the starting quarterback when Mark Sanchez was lost

for the year in the preseason with a shoulder injury. He had four

winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven

games, the only player to accomplish that feat since the 1970

merger.

Things have gone bad for Smith since, and the team went from

alternating wins and losses for an NFL-record 10 weeks to a

three-game skid that has them nearly out of the playoff picture.

Smith’s shoddy play has been a major factor, and he was benched

last Sunday in favor of Matt Simms in the Jets’ 23-3 loss to

Miami.

”Like I expressed to my coaches and teammates, I never want to

come out of a game, never, no matter what,” Smith said. ”It did

motivate me. I think, like I said, in hindsight it could be a good

thing later on down the road.”

Ryan gave Smith another opportunity to work himself out of his

funk, naming him the starter earlier this week for the team’s home

game against Oakland on Sunday.

”We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team, especially on

offense,” Smith said. ”We’ve just got to continue to get better

and just move on and use a lot of these tough stretches as

motivation. It’s all about learning and that’s something that we’re

learning as a whole.”

Ryan acknowledged that Milliner has had rough moments this

season, but also refused to say he is disappointed in the former

Alabama star.

”Dee, I understand has had some struggles, and I’m not making

excuses for him, but he’s a rookie corner,” Ryan said. ”I don’t

know any other rookie corner that’s come in the league, outside of

probably (Darrelle) Revis, that jumped right in. I think we’ve been

a little spoiled here with the corner play.”

Meanwhile, Richardson has been a force, tag-teaming with

Muhammad Wilkerson to give the Jets one of the league’s most

dynamic defensive duos on the line. Richardson leads NFL rookies in

backfield stops with 3 1/2 sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for loss, and

was selected as the NFL’s defensive player of the month for

November.

”I don’t know how many other rookies are getting drafted and

actually starting on teams right now, but it’s not that many,”

Richardson said.

Winters became a starter after Vladimir Ducasse, the team’s

second-rounder in 2010, lost the job after four games. Ryan,

however, believes Winters could be a 10-year starter in the

NFL.

Bohanon has been up and down with his blocking, and is ranked

last among the league’s fullbacks by ProFootballFocus.com, a

stats-based site that analyzes and grades players. Ryan defended

Bohanon, a former college teammate of general manager John Idzik’s

son at Wake Forest, as a ”good player” – especially for being the

team’s last draft pick.

”I think this class is an outstanding class, top to bottom,”

Ryan said. ”Will they all make it? I don’t know. When you watch

them, I see improvement. … I think it’s going to be a real

strength for this franchise moving forward.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org