Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: AFC East report cards
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Grading an NFL draft immediately after it concludes is akin to giving your compliments to the chef before the meal has been served.
Sure, the food might sound good (or bad), based on the ingredients listed on the menu, but the true evaluation won't come until after the product has been tested.
It will be at least three years before we can truly assess how the 32 NFL teams fared over the weekend. But what is readily apparent is the different approaches that were taken, from going for the best available talent to focusing on team needs to gambling on character concerns and long-term potential.
This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at each team’s rookie class, including a few of the undrafted free-agent signings I believe could surprise.
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Here are my report cards for the AFC East.
Buffalo Bills – Grade: B+
General manager Brandon Beane took an interesting approach to the 2021 draft, pairing two polar opposites in defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Carlos "Boogie" Basham with the Bills' first two picks. It is a strategy that could pay huge dividends.
Rousseau was available at No. 30 only because he opted out of the 2020 season and declared for the draft after starting a grand total of seven games for Miami. But my goodness, what a year 2019 was for him. A high school wide receiver who kept growing, the 6-foot-7, 266-pound Rousseau emerged as the most dominant edge rusher in college football in 2019, leading the ACC with an eye-popping 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks while starting just seven of 13 games. Rousseau is quick off the snap and has the body control to slither through and around would-be blockers.
What Rousseau doesn’t yet have is technique – something the pro-ready Basham definitely possesses and will use to potentially make more of an immediate impact than the Bills’ top pick. The duo should push each other, especially with the motivation and coaching that defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott and his staff will provide.
If possible, I’m just as excited about the athleticism of offensive tackles Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa) and Tommy Doyle (Miami Ohio). These two not only have the quickness and length to pass protect, but they should also excel as downfield convoys for Josh Allen, who led the Bills last year with eight rushing touchdowns.
Of Buffalo’s later selections, I like former Houston receiver Marquez Stevenson the most, as he possesses the elusiveness and straight-line speed to take full advantage of the one-on-one opportunities he’ll surely get, given all of the talent already on this offense. The Bills nabbed one of my favorite "Diamonds in the Rough" in Bowling Green tight end Quintin Morris, and don’t be surprised if former USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin develops into a playmaking cornerback.
Miami Dolphins – Grade: B
With extra first-round picks in the 2022 and '23 drafts, courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers’ aggressive trade up for quarterback Trey Lance, the Dolphins took gambles this year that could make their 2021 class special.
When swinging for the fences, however, it is important to remember that sometimes there are some swing-and-misses. Miami’s first-round picks this year – former Alabama wideout Jaylen Waddle and Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips – have enough red flags to urge caution. Besides the legitimate durability concerns for both players, Waddle’s production noticeably tailed every year at Alabama. Phillips started just 16 games the past four years after signing with UCLA as the highest-rated prep, regardless of position, in 2017.
If they can stay on the field, Waddle and Phillips are Pro Bowl candidates, with Waddle an obvious candidate to splash with the Dolphins, given not only his elite elusiveness and straight-line speed but also his built-in rapport with former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Phillips was named this year’s top pass-rusher in my "Honor Roll" survey of NFL scouts, and other than quarterback, no position is more important to today’s NFL, as Brian Flores certainly understands.
I am a big fan of Miami’s "other" picks this year as well. Oregon safety Jevon Holland has rare instincts and ball skills. Further, I am a huge fan of Liam Eichenberg, whose grit makes him well-suited to sliding inside to guard. However, Eichenberg's experience at left tackle at Notre Dame should keep last year’s quietly very effective rookie left tackle, Austin Jackson, from relaxing in his second season.
I like the upside of fellow Day 3 picks Larnel Coleman and Gerrid Doaks, with Middle Tennessee State blocker Robert Jones my favorite of Miami’s small undrafted free-agent class. Fantasy football enthusiasts should keep an eye on the 5-foot-11, 228-pound battering ram Doaks, as he could be a "surprise" touchdown vulture for a team that should score more in 2021.
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New England Patriots – Grade: B
When you’ve won as many Super Bowls as Bill Belichick and the Patriots have, it is easy to understand why many outside New England wish them ill. Maybe I appreciate poise at premium moments more than some. That was on display when the Patriots calmly watched the quarterback who fits Josh McDaniels’ system slip down the board, and then Belichick invested the only first-round pick he ever has on a signal-caller.
Having evaluated every single pass (and run) Mac Jones attempted last season, I can tell you that without a shadow of a doubt, he was worthy of this selection, possessing the awareness and precision from the pocket that have earned comparisons to Tom Brady. Will Jones be as successful for the Patriots as Brady was? Don’t be ridiculous. But make no mistake, Jones is deadly accurate when he can set his feet, and the Patriots have completely retooled their receiving corps. Jones should be able to learn from the sideline while Cam Newton (or Jarrett Stidham) plays out the 2021 season.
Big defensive tackle Christian Barmore (Alabama) has all of the tools to be a longtime starter up front. Twitchy edge Ronnie Perkins (Oklahoma) further diversifies a pass rush featuring plenty of recent top draft picks, plus free-agent addition Matthew Judon and a reunion with Kyle Van Noy.
Dedicating as much attention (and money) in free agency and the draft as they did, the Pats let off the gas pedal a bit in undrafted free agency. This rookie class is a good one, and if the quarterback is who I think he is, Belichick and longtime evaluator Ernie Adams deserve some leeway in enjoying it.
New York Jets – Grade: B
Let’s get the obvious out of the way quickly: When you are drafting for a team that won two games last season, adding players who can help immediately should not be that difficult, especially with two first-round picks at your disposal.
That said, I love what Jets general manager Joe Douglas accomplished in the 2021 draft, as he did not make the mistake of prior regimes and assume that just because a talented quarterback was added early, the hard work was done.
Zach Wilson has the requisite talent and toughness to be successful in the NFL. The BYU product has the quickest release of any quarterback in this class, with elite accuracy in the pocket and on the move. But for him to be successful after making an extraordinary leap from playing the likes of Navy, Troy and Texas State and losing to Coastal Carolina, he will need help.
The Jets also added a security blanket for the rookie QB in former Mississippi wideout Elijah Moore early in the second. The aggressive trade up for Vera-Tucker cost the Jets in the middle rounds, but I love the explosiveness and pass-catching talent of fourth-rounder Michael Carter, the explosive running back from North Carolina – not to be confused with Duke cornerback Michael Carter II, whom the Jets nabbed 47 picks later.
Most will focus on the additions made on offense for the Jets in this draft, and that is understandable, but I like the elite speed Carter II provides, as well as the long arms and grit of Pittsburgh cornerback Jason Pinnock. Hard-hitting Auburn safety Jamien Sherwood should fit in new head coach Robert Saleh’s ultra-aggressive attack.
That same highly competitive mentality extended into undrafted free agency, with the Jets landing several players who I think can "surprise" and make this roster, including a pair of former Oregon State Beavers in edge rusher Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and cornerback Isaiah Dunn, safeties Brendon White (Rutgers) and Jordyn Peters (Auburn) and Mississippi tight end Kenny Yeboah.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.