Well that was fun wasn’t it? Night one of the NFL draft is in the books, and despite the predicted deluge of trades not quite happening, it was an evening of intrigue and surprises.
In the AFC East there were some seemingly seismic changes, with two new franchise Quarterbacks, two pass rushers from the same school and a top-six Wide Receiver drafted.
At the ages of 21, 22, 23 & 24 the division has some of the most exciting potential in the NFL at signal caller, but all but one of them is going to need significant development – the speed at which that happens will clearly determine the competitiveness of the AFC East, with Josh Allen and the Bills the clear and obvious team to beat at present.
So what changed with the selections made in the first round last night?
New York Jets
When the Jets traded Sam Darnold they basically told the world that Zach Wilson was their guy. The former BYU Cougar comes into one of the most demanding environments in world sport with a shed load of glowing 2020 tape, and an 11-1 record in a pandemic-blighted CFB season.
The 2021 Jets aren’t a bad landing spot for Wilson, they’ve moved on from the worst Head Coach in football and found one of the brightest up and coming guys to replace him in Robert Saleh. Despite Gase’s failings as a Coach, they seemingly drafted pretty well in 2020 and so it isn’t a case of a total clear out being needed – Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims particularly showed potential.
So what does the Utah native give New York? Well, the Mormon Manziel will be looking to prove he doesn’t have the career of the man his nickname comes from. Wilson’s blend of accuracy, anticipation and out of the pocket work mean he’s well suited to the mobile world of the modern NFL. Working with his favourite target in 2020, Dax Milne, he was able to showcase his ability to thread tight throws into gaps over the middle of the field, whilst also getting out of the pocket and delivering accurate down field shots on the run. With the Jets receiving core being sneaky versatile, it feels like Jamison Crowder and Mims stand to benefit immediately from their new QB’s athletic and mental skill set.
However, the Jets not only drafted the new face of the franchise last night, they also did some great business by trading up for the most versatile Offensive Lineman in the 2021 class as well. Alijah Vera-Tucker shifted out to Left Tackle for the USC Trojans in 2020, having spent the rest of his collegiate career playing inside at Guard. Whilst all the analysts seemingly pigeon holded AVT straight into Guard alongside Becton last night, it also feels like he could replace George Fant at Right Tackle given the versatility and work ethic he’s already shown.
In a league with some of the best defenses in football it is clear that Saleh and Joe Douglas recognise the need to protect their franchise guy. Vera-Tucker has good arm strength, hand technique and play recognition – he’s not afraid to use his upper body strength to man-handle edge rushers and he gets up the field well in run support. If he does shift to Tackle, he’ll need to improve how quickly he gets into his stance, but Frank Pollack will get straight to work on that.
Only holding one pick on day two at the moment, it’ll be interesting to see the direction the Jets go. With no real lead Running Back on the roster, they could feasibly add Javonte Williams at 34 to take some of the pressure off Wilson and bring some further flair to an offensive which can only improve in 2021.
With franchise Quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, already on the roster, the hype around the Dolphins and their potential draft picks has been off the charts throughout the offseason. Fans have banged the table hard for Kyle Pitts, Devonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase, Penei Sewell & Najee Harris at some point, and so it was inevitable that none of the above would end up in Miami Gardens in 2021.
Instead the Fins added speed, speed and more speed with the sixth overall pick, selecting Alabama standout Jaylen Waddle. In many ways it was probably obvious that one of the ‘Bama receivers was always the pick – if it had been any of the others, then the Dolphins wouldn’t have moved around the board to leave the Falcons and Bengals picking ahead of them. Instead they got an electric weapon for Tua and picked up a 2023 first rounder as well.
Waddle brings something that Miami don’t currently have on the roster, a combination of speed, an incredible work ethic and the ability to go up and win the contested catch. At 5’10” he doesn’t project to be the main guy on the outside, instead he’ll seemingly become Tua’s safety blanket, working across the middle of the field, stretching opposition secondaries and giving Devante Parker a break from two man coverages. Add into that mix the fact that Waddle is an electrifying punt and kick return specialist and it’s perhaps easy to see why Mr Work Ethic himself, Brian Flores, went and got his guy.
Like the Jets, the Dolphins also had another pick in the first round. There was seemingly more intrigue about this pick at 18 than the sixth, with needs across the board at Running Back, Defensive End, Linebacker and on the Offensive Line. In the end Jaelan Phillips became the first Edge off the board, staying in Miami and playing in the stadium in which he enjoyed a fruitful 2020 college campaign.
Daniel Jeremiah had Phillips as his top Edge in the draft and the Dolphins agreed, making the former Hurricane the third OLE/DE they’ve drafted in the first round in the last ten years. They’ll be hoping that Phillips pans out a lot better than Dion Jordan and Charles Harris.
Phillips brings a big pedigree with him to the Dolphins, he was the top recruit in the nation in the 2017 class, initially playing his college football at UCLA before transferring to Miami where he played the 2020 season. As a pass rusher he possesses great power and explosion off the line, showcasing a natural athleticism and ability to chase down plays from the backside. The impact he could have on Miami’s defensive line is huge, providing a more nuanced skill set than Emanuel Ogbah on the other side, and giving Miami’s celebrated defense yet another exciting weapon.
The worrying thing about Phillips is his concussion history, with three incidents already on his record. Some fans seem to have shrugged off these worries, and who are we to argue with the medical professionals that the Fins will have used to evaluate the situation? However, it does seem hard to ignore the fact that those who have suffered multiple concussions are more likely to do so again in the future.
Another exciting day two beckons for Miami, as they currently have three picks in the second and third rounds – look for them to at least try and address some of the aforementioned needs, with fans clamouring for a Running Back as early as possible.
New England Patriots
As Justin Fields began to slide, the concern of Dolphins, Bills and Jets fans began to rise. But, step forward the Chicago Bears to save the day.
Instead, Bill Belichick drafted an unathletic Quarterback who didn’t start a whole lot during college. Where have we heard that before? Should we be terrified by the prospect of Tom Brady 2.0?
It’s way too early to judge that now, but many (including myself) were quick to pile onto Pats fans last night, as their dreams of Fields turned into the very different prospect of Jones. Clearly the National Championship winning Quarterback comes in with high acclaim, we all know how good the relationship is between Belichick and ‘Bama coach Nick Saban – and there’s no way Bill would have taken Jones without a strong recommendation from his long term friend.
In Jones, the Pats get a signal caller who stands tall in the pocket and makes all of his big plays from there. He throws with consistent accuracy, hitting his man at all levels of the field with seemingly minimal effort. Throughout the draft process you’ve heard about his football IQ, where Jones diagnoses plays at the line of scrimmage and then guides his receivers open with nice anticipation. There’s clearly a reason why he was in the conversation to the 49ers at #3, and that is because anyone who plays with the calm and steadfast nature that he does under pressure, and delivers the consistent results that he has, can and will be a starter at the next level.
On the flipside, Jones’ doubters can point to a number of attributes as reasons why he won’t be a starter for long. His unathletic frame and lack of rushing threat outside of the pocket are big concerns, but, and I’m sorry to do this again, just look at the success the Pats had with another QB with similar weaknesses.
It feels like this first offseason is key to Jones’ future, he’s no longer going to be protected by the best offensive line in football – although the Pats’ line isn’t bad – and he hasn’t got a mix of Waddle, Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and John Metchie to throw to. But what he does have is the best Head Coach of all time, a fantastic talent to learn from in Cam Newton and an environment that is used to winning. It’s certainly too early to rule out Mac Jones at this stage.
Who else is looking forward to the Jones vs Tua hype twice a year…?!
With a fairly complete roster, the Bills have had a mix of Cornerbacks, Edge Rushers and Running Backs mocked to them during the offseason. So it came as no surprise that it was indeed one of those positions that they chose to address on Thursday night.
In Gregory Rousseau, they not only brought another Miami Hurricanes pass rusher into the AFC East, but they also got a boom or bust prospect that, if everything goes to plan, could be the steal of this draft class.
At the beginning of the season, Rousseau was projected as a top ten, sometimes top five, overall pick. In the one season of CFB that he played, the 6’7” Edge recorded 15.5 sacks in 13 games, striking terror into the heart of ACC offensive coordinators. His long, rangy playing style made him a mismatch nightmare as hunted down the Quarterback whilst attacking from all the positions on the Defensive Line.
However, after sitting out the 2020 season there have been a few doubts and concerns raised by scouts and analysts alike. The technical side of Rousseau’s game is still incredibly raw, and where he relied on his pure power at the college level, he’ll need more nuance to his game on Sundays. On top of this, his 2019 tape, whilst impressive statistically, often left a lot to be desired and he blew hot and cold on each play – that consistency will be the big thing for Sean McDermott and his coaching staff to fix this off season. But, if the Bills can fix it then the other AFC East teams will be facing a dominant force for years to come.
It feels likely that Rousseau will be eased slowly into the lineup over the course of the 2021 season, the Bills have more than enough talent on defense and in Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes they have two great mentors for the former Hurricane. NFL UK fans will no doubt be told via the @NFLUK account that Rousseau will also be battling Efe Obada for reps this season, unfortunately it’s hard to see anything but one outcome there.
So there we have it, it doesn’t feel like too long ago that the AFC East was the least competitive division in football. But, with an influx of young Quarterbacks with different playing styles, I’d argue it is now up there with the most exciting. Roll on day two of the draft and more late night excitement for us UK fans.
Andy Moore – @ajmoore21