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2021 NFL Draft Review - AFC South

Hello and welcome to the first 2021 installment of my annual NFL Draft Review. Every year after the draft, I write a way-too-long review of each team’s draft. The purpose of this draft review is to give predictions for the careers of each team’s drafted players.  The vast majority of 4th-7th round picks don't amount to much, so I stick to the first three rounds.  I’ve watched film of each player I’m commenting on and have over seven years NCAA coaching experience. Draft grades are overly optimistic and unrealistic. Unlike the majority of post-draft coverage out there, I will pick busts. Keep in mind that 19% of all first-round picks bust.

Let me preface this by saying: predicting the career of an NFL draft pick is a ridiculous exercise. There is so much unknown that goes into whether a player succeeds or fails at the next level. I can make educated guesses based on team situation, supporting cast, and research about the prospect’s character and work ethic, but there’s a reason teams make so many mistakes every year. You simply don’t know for sure how a player will react to being a pro. Injuries are also a huge factor in the fate of a player and impossible to predict accurately. Nevertheless, this is a fun exercise and gives us a chance to review how each team approached the draft.

Over the years I've had some impressive hits (like picking both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to underwhelm) and embarrassing misses (like underestimating Justin Jefferson).  I stick to my process and usually hit on some unpopular predictions.  I enjoy arguing the contrarian opinion, but will only do so when my evaluations allow me to.

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Overview

Each player will receive their career prediction in parentheses following their name. For example: Kyle Pitts (5). Here's how the picks break down:

5 – All-Pro: Starter who has performed at an elite level at his position.
4 – Above-Average: Starter who has been among the best at his position.
3 – Solid: Starter or valuable back-up with significant positive production.
2 – Replacement Level: Below-average starter or back-up who made minor contributions.
1 – Bust: Player who didn’t amount to anything positive.

First up, the AFC South.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Trevor Lawrence (4) has been hyped as a future No. 1 pick since his freshman season at Clemson, when he led the Tigers to a National Championship. Lawrence has all the traits of a star franchise QB, including size, arm talent, athletic ability and an unmistakably unique look. Lawrence’s film wasn’t flawless, but he performed well even after losing his top two WRs this past season. Coming from a play action and screen-heavy offensive scheme will make his transition a bit tougher than people realize, as there were multiple instances on film that made me question his ability to identify coverages. There’s no doubt he has the aptitude to learn the pro game, and the Jaguars have surrounded him with several electric skill position players.

Could I make the point that his historical prospect standing (same level as Luck?) was a bit inflated because he feasted on overmatched ACC opponents? And that twice when he did face off against elite competition he was outdueled by Joe Burrow and Justin Fields in playoff games the past two years? No, because the draft is about projecting traits to the next level more than evaluating college performance. Lawrence is fast and has a great arm.  You can read my full Prospect Profile with film clips of Lawrence here.

Almost every year a team takes an RB in the first round, the analytics community bashes the team and I defend the pick in the name of Best Player Available. Don’t ever take an RB in the first and RBs don’t matter they say. Just looking at the results, it’s clear the analytics community is correct that it is not optimal team-building to draft an RB in the first round. I was wrong to defend selections of Josh Jacobs and Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley and Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the list goes on.  Even for as amazing as Christian McCaffrey has been, including his prodigious pass-catching, the Panthers haven't done much winning with him as the focal point.  So I will not defend the Jags’ selection of Trevor Lawrence’s Clemson teammate Travis Etienne. HOWEVER, I can still pick Etienne (4) to be a stellar pro. And is there really that big of a difference between No. 25 and say, No. 40, where all of the sudden it would be a smart pick? Etienne also has receiving skills and true home-run-hitting potential unlike a Josh Jacobs... WAIT A MINUTE - STOP DEFENDING THIS PICK.

The proven and valid arguments against drafting RBs in the first are opportunity cost, ability to find RBs later, and the fact that RBs really just don’t matter that much. So I’ll pick Etienne to be a fine pro, but agree with the analytics community that it was the wrong pick. On the field, the former Clemson star was phenomenal, scoring 70 (yes, 7-0) touchdowns in his four years as a Tiger. He didn’t belong on a college field anymore and his speed absolutely plays in the league. I do question his ability to run between the tackles, as his lack of physicality might be an issue in certain situations. Etienne's star faded a bit throughout the process due to his position, age, and prospect fatigue.  He’s an elite talent with a bright fantasy and real-life future.

At the top of the second, the Jags landed Tyson Campbell (2) who has the height-weight-speed mix teams covet at the CB position. Unfortunately, he did not play well against Alabama, as DeVonta Smith beat him on multiple routes while Jaylen Waddle simply ran by him. He did pile-drive Smith after getting beat badly on a dig, which highlighted his physicality and size. He also gave up more catches and TDs to Josh Palmer and Tennessee. For someone so physically gifted with fluid hips and balance, I didn’t love his film. He’ll get beat a lot in the NFL.

I had Walker Little (3) as the 43rd overall player on my board. He hasn’t played since early 2019, but was a top recruit coming out of high school. He’s a knee-bender with good balance and showed the ability to toss guys on film. He probably needs to get stronger, but more importantly, needs to just play. I expect him to take over as a starting tackle in his 2nd year and fare well.

Andre Cisco (1) had some ball production and the size to get him drafted but he looked like he didn’t belong speed-wise against Tutu Atwell, Javian Hawkins, and Louisville, got beat in man coverage against UNC, and missed an angle for run-after-catch TD against Wake Forest. He’s instinctive and opportunistic, but he doesn’t have the man coverage ability or block-defeating skills to be anything more than a one-dimensional post safety.

The Jaguars came out of this draft with a franchise QB and some building blocks on offense.  If their young defensive talent can improve (Allen, Chaisson, Henderson), watch out.

 

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts came into this offseason with a solid foundation but a gaping hole at QB. They traded for Carson Wentz, who has had a tumultuous career so far to say the least. Reunited with Frank Reich with a mostly solid supporting cast, Wentz has a chance to rebound in a big way. The trade for Wentz is just another reminder that tanking for a top draft pick is NOT the only way to address the QB position.

As for their draft haul, I thought the Colts should have taken a left tackle with one of their first two picks. I normally like doubling up on a position of need, and I’m a proponent of BPA.  Kwity Paye (2) was not the BPA in my opinion, and you could make a strong case that Christian Darrisaw was. The Colts passing on Darrisaw in the first might mean they didn't project him as an LT.

Paye's quickness is borderline folklore at this point, and he plays with the same twitch his legendary three-cone would indicate. Paye wasn't super productive in the sack department, tallying just 11.5 in 28 career games in college.

He plays with a high motor, is tremendous in pursuit, and had no issue showcasing his quicks on stunts and inside against guards. At 6-4, 272, Paye has all the tools to develop into a quality pro pass rusher. However, his film is questionable in the sense that most of his sacks do not appear to translate, taking advantage of interior offensive linemen and subpar tackles to get after the QB. While hustle sacks obviously showcase his effort as an important trait, his football-specific pass-rushing skills aren’t that impressive. 3-cone is the most predictive test for pass-rushers, but I just didn’t love his film and there’s a reason an EDGE with his athletic profile wasn’t considered a top-10 pick.

I actually thought Dayo Odeyingbo (3) was a better pick value-wise. Odeyingbo may not do much this year coming of an Achilles injury, but he has all the traits of a solid pro pass-rusher. He’s athletic and violent with the ability to finish, and showed a quick inside move to beat the LSU RT while also showing some pop against the LSU LT. Odeyingbo is just unrefined but the draft is about traits and the Colts have done a good job developing talent.

I was one of few (any?) to pick Carson Wentz to disappoint as a pro and aside from one stretch of his career his flaws from NDSU just haven’t been fixed. I don’t think he’s the long-term answer, and I think the Colts have set themselves up for major issues along the OL. When Wentz was successful in Philly, he had an amazing OL. Indy will have to move Quentin Nelson to LT or start Sam Tevi or Julien Davenport. I would feel better at this situation if they signed Eric Fisher.

 

Tennessee Titans

Mike Vrabel was visibly frustrated on the sidelines on multiple occasions last year, so there was no doubt the defense would be addressed in this class. Caleb Farley (3) carries risk due to health concerns, but I’m also not so sure his transition will be as easy as some think.

Farley was once considered a top-10 player in some draft circles, as he has ideal size, speed, length, coverage instincts, and ball skills. However, a back injury has forced him to have surgery, and those questions influenced his draft stock.

I didn't have Farley as a top-20 player even before the injury news. Certain reps on his film do warrant some concerns, which are curiously left out of most discussions about his pro prospects. He was burned from a tight split corner route against Miami and didn't show a consistent ability to get his head around in man defending verticals.

College ball production and making plays in cover two prove he's a quality football player, but the NFL is a different beast entirely, especially for CBs. Is he quick enough to stay with pro receivers at the next level? He has ideal size and athleticism but a couple of gift interceptions against Miami (yes, including the impressive one-hander) may have inflated his stock a bit.

In the second, the Titans took Dillon Radnuz (2) to compete for their open right tackle spot. Radnuz had some first-round buzz, but I didn’t see it on his film. He showed excellent movement skills and violence, but I wasn’t blown away by his technique against FCS defenders. He worked in at guard at the Senior Bowl and generally struggled with quickness. On the outside, he crossed his feet and got destroyed by speed way too much for my liking. I’d rather play him at guard than at tackle.

Monty Rice (1) has some toughness and was a very productive college player, but he’s not natural enough an athlete to have his average level of key-and-diagnose. He needs to be kept clean and isn’t really a plus in coverage so I’m not a huge fan of this pick.

Elijah Molden (3) was fascinating to study. He’s small and not fast (4.58) but his film shows as good a pure football player there was at DB in this class. Unfortunately, the NFL requires a level of speed and quickness that is extremely difficult for 4.5-plus DBs to adjust to. Molden is instinctive and has that innate cover trait and a lot of ball production. Can he stick with elite athletes in the slot? I’ll give him a chance to stick as a solid nickel so Titans fans don’t want to kill me.

 

Houston Texans

In the 2020 NFL Draft, QB8 (Jake Fromm) went in the fifth round at 167 overall. In 2019, the QB8 went at 166 overall. In 2019, a year in which five QBs went in the first, QB8 went at 171 overall. This year, the Texans took QB8 Davis Mills at 67 overall, which is just crazy. It speaks to how the league is valuing the position and how the league felt about this particular class of QBs.

I didn’t love Davis Mills (2) as a prospect and I obviously don’t love his landing spot in Houston. Mills has a terrific arm and the ball jumps out of his hand, but his film was filled with issues. He guides the ball and does not show great anticipation. There were instances of low misses, not seeing the one-high safety when reading double-post, and being late and behind over the middle. He showed touch at times but was “just blind in quick game” (from my notes).  Stanford ran the ball to beat Cal in 2020 and threw a ton of screens, which makes his pedestrian production look even worse.

I like his back-shoulder placement and elusiveness in the pocket, but I have a pretty straightforward rule of “don’t expect QBs to produce better in the NFL than they did in college.” He has some nice traits and will likely get playing time early, but I’m not expecting much, especially in that situation.

Nico Collins (3) on the other hand was one of my favorite mid-round WR prospects. He suffered from subpar QB play at Michigan but has the tools to be a quality pro WR. At 6-4, 215, Collins blazed an unofficial 4.42 40 at his pro day, and his deep speed pops on film. He had a nice catch in traffic against Alabama, and won a lot of his one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl, winning with his big body and athleticism. He's solid at the catch-point as well. The issue with Collins is that he's not twitchy enough in and out of breaks, especially at the top of his routes. He had a chance to win a game against Penn State, but ran a weak goal-line comeback route and was smothered. Even with his flaws, the tools are there to develop into a productive pro, and he should have no issue cracking the Texans' receiver rotation early in his rookie year.

Finally, Brevin Jordan (2) probably won’t ever be an elite pro receiving threat but he tries as a blocker and has speed. As a developmental pick, it makes sense but Jordan wasn’t really winning routes or one-on-one blocks against UAB. The Texans have major organizational issues and this draft class probably isn’t going to fix them. I apologize for not finishing this article with a happy ending.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the other divisions in the coming days.



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