Diamonds in the Rough: Ellis Lankster
"Without question, this is the most physically talented secondary we've had since we've been here. If things pan out, we could be scary." It is hard to argue with the main gist of this notable Dennis Thurman quote from Rich Cimini's June 14 article. A secondary that already included a bona fide stud in Darrelle Revis and solid supplementary players like Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson only improved this offseason with highly publicized additions in LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. One of the players that was allowed to leave was 4th cornerback Donald Strickland, leaving the dime corner spot for the taking. We all know that Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine love to employ packages with extra defensive backs, so whoever wins this job in training camp will be seeing a great deal of game action come September. The favorite for this post is third year corner Ellis Lankster, whose strong play on special teams has earned him the praise of coaches and an opportunity for increased playing time.
Brief Biography: Unlike many of his highly touted, highly recruited teammates, Ellis Lankster's journey to the NFL was always marked with overwhelming odds. Despite a combined 22 interceptions in his final two high school seasons, he was not among Scout.com top 100 cornerbacks coming out of C F Vigor High School. Thus, Lankster enrolled in Jones County Junior College to hone his craft on the gridiron, until eventually transferring to West Virginia University. He recorded 16 tackles and 1 interception in his first season as a Mountaineer, but really came on during his his senior year to notch 68 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 9 passes defended on his way to 2008 Second-team All Big East kudos. He earned a trip to the 2009 Senior Bowl, where he reportedly impressed with "great athleticism and speed...[and was] impressive in press man coverage, but struggled at times and attempted too many arm tackles". Regardless, Lankster received enough recognition from the NFL to get drafted in the 7th round by the Buffalo Bills. He enjoyed a productive preseason in 2009, but unfortunately gained more fame for his stutter than for his usefulness on the field. For his part, Lankster has refused to let the mean-spirited criticizers phase him, and has shown courage throughout the ordeal. He was recently honored by the Stuttering Foundation at their annual gala. He went on to make the Bills despite being a late-round selection, and even earned praise from head coach Perry Fewell. He was cut from Buffallo's squad following the 2010 preseason, and signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. He was subsequently picked up by the Jets in January of 2011, but was again cut after the preseason. The Jets resigned him in October of the same year and awarded his solid special teams play with a two year extension this offseason.
Why should he be given a chance? Unlike many of the Diamonds in the Rough candidates, Lankster has earned a chance with his play on special teams, rather than earning a chance based purely on potential. He recorded 6 special teams tackles for the Jets last season, and will be given a chance to shine in the role that Marquice Cole vacated when he signed with the Patriots in March. In defensive packages, Lankster has proven to be well-rounded and can stop the run. He is a smart player, with adequate coverage skills both in zone and man coverage. Lastly, he has shown above-average ball skills and was viewed as a FS/CB coming out of college, so he may see some time along side LaRon Landry or Yeremiah Bell. Early report from OTA's indicate that he has impressed, and that the 4th cornerback job is his to lose.
Things to Improve On: Unfortunately for Ellis Lankster, many of his flaws are physical and can't be fixed by coaching or experience. He lacks height (5'9'') and bulk (190 pounds), and his athleticism (while adequate) isn't elite enough to make up for his shortcomings. This may preclude him from sticking around as a starting cornerback, but shouldn't prevent him from latching on as a depth defensive back.
NFL Resume: In his first preseason with the Bills, Ellis Lankster showed a nose for the ball with 12 tackles and 2 interceptions, with both picks coming within a minute of each other. He then went on to record 5 regular season tackles, leading Bills coach Perry Fewell to state "we think he's gotten better every week for us". 12 tackles and a fumble recovery during the 2010 preseason were not enough to make the team, as Lankster was let go during final cuts. The Jets picked him up half a year later, and watched him rack up 9 tackles and a 67 yard pick-six in the preseason. The decided to cut him anyway, but brought him back a month later and were rewarded with 6 tackles and 2 fumble recoveries in the regular season.
How he fits into the Jets' 2012 plans: Despite being a lesser known player and a "diamond in the rough", Ellis Lankster's role on the team is well defined.
"As far as the fourth corner spot, I would have to say at this point, there is a young kid name by the name of Ellis Lankster who played primarily special teams for us a year ago. He's done a real nice job for us and he's taking on a bigger role." -Mike Pettine
When Donald Strickland was allowed to leave after the 2011 season, Ellis Lankster became the assumed favorite for the #4 corner job. His versatility also allows him to play some free safety, a position that is desperately lacking a playmaker (although rookies Josh Bush and Antonio Allen will also be in the mix for playing time). He is also set to assume Marquice Cole's role as the flyer on special teams. It is very easy to root for a player like Lankster, who has overcome dozens of hardships on is way to fulfilling his NFL dreams. All of his accomplishments have been earned, rather than handed to him, and this offseason may be Lankster's best chance to solidify himself as a sturdy role player in the NFL.