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 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 3½ sacks and 8½ 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."