There’s now less than a week left to go before the opening round of the 2021 NFL Draft and anticipation is building up by the minute. The opportunities come Thursday seem beyond intriguing for many teams looking to post a noticeable improvement during the upcoming 2021 NFL season. However, the first round of the 2021 New York Jets draft will be amongst the ones with the least amount of drama, especially towards the very start of their draft day.
The Jets’ selection with the second overall pick has been subject to much speculation during the last two months. Entering the 2021 offseason, the organization was facing a dilemma that would determine the future of the franchise. On the one hand, the team could have followed the obvious path and select a new quarterback to replace Sam Darnold. On the other hand, they could have addressed their other issues and moved towards a balanced team that offered Darnold support heading into 2021.
Nonetheless, like it often happens with the New York Jets, Joe Douglas elected the inefficient path of panic and chaos rather than to pay attention to his roster. It has to be noted that this applies to the way he handled the second overall pick – the Jets’ work in free agency was very satisfying, with major issues fixed. Yet, selecting a quarterback will not help finish that task, preventing the addition of a top upgrade elsewhere on the roster.
However, this was exactly the direction New York took when they traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for a fourth-round pick this year and a second-rounder next spring. While Darnold will reunite with former Jets teammate Robby Anderson in NC, the move left only one post the team could have prioritized as regards the second pick and narrowed down the list of candidates significantly. Moreover, as time passed, one stood out in particular and is now the frontrunner. Meanwhile, the Jets’ second first-round selection, the 23rd overall, offers more alternatives but ultimately the bigger picture also puts a particular position at the forefront.
Draft Capital: 1.02, 1.23
2021 Jets Draft Preview: Round One, Pick 2
Best Possible Pick: Zach Wilson, QB, Brigham Young
As already mentioned, selecting a quarterback with the Jets’ early picks is reckless only because it prevents them from adding a first-round-caliber acquisition to another, more struggling group on NY’s roster. However, that shouldn’t take away from Zach Wilson, or any deserving first-round playmaker, and his capabilities and potential to experience tremendous success over his future in the National Football League.
Furthermore, Wilson is definitely the player that most fits that description considering that under no circumstances are the Jacksonville Jaguars passing on Clemson prospect Trevor Lawrence with this year’s first overall pick.
The Draper, Utah native was initially solid when he joined the Cougars prior to the beginning of the 2018 FBS campaign. In his freshman year for the Independent BYU, he participated in a competition for the starting job with Tanner Magnum. Magnum would go on to begin the season as the Cougs’ starting QB but he would lose the job to Wilson by Week Eight. Zach Wilson appeared in a total of nine games that year and made just 182 passing attempts. Therefore, he only provided a glance at his talent but, oh boy, was he impressive.
Over his limited workload during the 2018 season, Wilson posted a completion percentage of 65.9% alongside a 12-3 TD/Int. ratio and a mere 2.5% interception percentage. That display was decent enough for Wilson to turn in the 18th-best accuracy figure in all of NCAA Division I that year. Still, he was amongst the playmakers with the lightest workload to go with those numbers, putting the credibility of this pleasant display in jeopardy. His reputation was further shaken up when his completion percentage dropped to around 62% the following season with almost twice as many throws made.
Zach Wilson’s outlook was very mixed heading into his junior campaign in 2020. However, not only was the 21-year-old able to remain consistent but he posted so significant an improvement that he was amongst college football’s best quarterbacks, if not the best.
Wilson ended his last campaign on the NCAA level as the second-most accurate quarterback in college football. His completion percentage of 73.5% trailed only Mac Jones‘s heroics with Alabama. Furthermore, Zach Wilson threw just three interceptions over 336 passing attempts or an Int.% of only 0.8%. He was, without any doubt, one of the top QBs in the NCAA over the past season. Now, his identity as a pocket passer, as well as his accuracy, makes him even more valuable heading into a league that requires air stability and risk-free passing exchanges on a regular basis.
The poor state of both the Jets’ receiving corps and the running faction that has the task to ease its workload means that Wilson might initially have problems adapting to the pro game. This is just another reason why building around a quarterback and adding assets to support him, while also establishing balance within the different units of the roster, is so important. For the Jets, it is still quite crucial, even after their acclaimed offseason. Yet, considering the direction they have embarked on, Zach Wilson is the best long-term project and the most prolific option to be in charge of the offense in the short term, at least as far as the 2021 draft class is concerned.
Most Realistic Pick: Trevor Lawrence is already rendered Duval bound and Zach Wilson has simultaneously seen his perception soar. Therefore, it can be said with confidence that the Utah-born player will be the next effort for New York to find a sufficient answer to their woes under center via the Jets draft. Not that they necessarily lacked that previously. Regardless, as Wilson has had a few interviews with the Jets’ staff, it is unlikely that Joe Douglas will change his mind between now and Thursday.
2021 Jets Draft Preview: Round One, Pick 23
Best Possible Pick: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
If he is on the board when the Jets hit the clock with their second pick in the first round, he no doubts will make the most impact for New York. For a team that still needs pass-catching upgrades more than anything, one of the best receiving prospects in recent memory in DeVonta Smith will be a satisfying move, to say the least.
Last year, the Jets’ air raid was near the bottom of the league in many components, including team passer rating, completion percentage, and total produced yards. In fact, the unit ranked within the bottom three of the NFL in all three categories throughout the 2020 season.
Needless to say, an enormous cause for these woes during the Jets’ almost historic-low of a campaign was their awful receiving core. While Jamison Crowder was as good as always, deep-threats Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims were beyond abysmal, posting catch-percentage figures south of the 55.0-percent mark. Despite Perriman’s exit and the fitting additions of Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency, New York still needs more high-profile assets in that department to improve a guarantee.
That is especially true if they indeed intend on drafting a quarterback early on. If they don’t provide a rookie quarterback, or any type of QB for that matter, weapons, the results aren’t going to be much more positive than last year’s fiasco, when Sam Darnold led the pack. Davis and Cole amount to significant upside but the Jets’ air raid still needs depth, especially if Mims doesn’t improve upon a disappointing rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, Smith’s success and potential for a smoother transition to the NFL level have both been widely documented. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner had a smaller role within Nick Saban’s offense over his first three years in the collegiate game. However, he left no hesitant evaluators when he took the field in his latest effort.
Across thirteen games in 2020, Smith caught 117 receptions for an average of 15.9 yards per catch. Even as an intermediate-distance weapon, this workload, the heaviest in all of Division I by at least 31 catches, is absolutely tremendous for a player heading into a draft event.
What makes his reception count so tremendously important is the positive track record of receivers who tend to be more used and have success over a greater deal of experience before entering the league. For instance, Justin Jefferson led the NCAA in catches in 2019, a year before turning into a bargain of a selection for the Vikings. Despite being just the fifth selected pass-catcher, Jefferson was, by far, the best wide receiver of the 2020 Draft class. So is DeVonta Smith, who has the makings of an even more dominant player.
The Jets, as a club with severe needs for receiving reinforcements, cannot afford to pass on such a player, let alone at No.23. However, teams across the league are said to be thinking highly of him, with some rumors pointing even to a top-ten selection. All of that makes his availability for the 23rd pick highly unlikely.
Most Realistic Pick: Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia
Despite everything you just read, the Jets could still have a notable receiver or a cornerback available at No.23. Players such as Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle or Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II can be exactly what the Jets need to strengthen their air raid and secondary, respectively.
Even if they are, somehow, both on the board when the Jets hit the clock for the second time on Thursday, there is still one major concern looming. Or, rather, to be precise, it is a call for attention. The late stages of Day One of the Jets Draft offer four impactful pass-rushers that NY can benefit from. Last year, the Jets’ pass-rush only managed to record twelve sacks, the 12th-worst in the league.
While they can get a good defensive lineman at this point and then snatch an undervalued receiver or cornerback in the second and third rounds, the same cannot apply the other way around. That is because rushers even close in quality are hard to come by after the conclusion of Round One. Therefore, this pattern could be much more beneficial to Joe Douglas and his staff if his task is to establish a more balanced roster, which he has claimed on multiple occasions.
When the Jets were in the spotlight in our series “32 Mocks in 32 Days”, just one pass-rusher of the “Big Four” landed a new team before New York’s 23rd pick came around. That was Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, who remained in the same city with the Dolphins’ 18th selection.
Out of the four remaining prospects in that department, Azeez Ojulari is confidently the most dominant one on the edge of the defensive line. Over the last two seasons he spent playing regular football with the Georgia Bulldogs, he totaled 15 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Furthermore, he had more than thirty tackles in both of his last two campaigns and led the SEC in fumbles in 2020, though the latter is much less significant.
To put his sack “production” in perspective, none of the other three projected first-round pass-rushers has more than 12.5 sacks over his full collegiate career. All three players have played at least three years with their respective schools, as has Ojulari but the Austell native appeared in only two games across his freshman year.
At a time when the Jets have more than one or two suffering groups within their roster, they will have to be efficient and address as many as possible with as little resource as they can. They managed to do just that during free agency to a significant extent. Moreover, by drafting a pass-rusher instead of the best remaining WR or CB, they can add upgrades in all three fields at a particularly early stage of the 2021 Jets Draft. Azeez Ojulari is perhaps the player Joe Douglas should hope to have available as his accomplishments in college are the most impressive.
2021 Jets Draft Preview: Alternatives
Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern: Projected as the third cornerback to go off the board in the first round, Greg Newsome spent three fruitful but injury-ridden campaigns in Evanston. Although he never appeared in more than eight games for the Wildcats, he had 36 tackles in his strongest year (2018), recorded 71 in career total tackles, and had 20 passes defended, including career-high nine two years ago.
Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State: A potential option if the Jets opt to pick a pass-rusher but Ojulari is unavailable, Oweh has just seven sacks over his three-year tenure. However, he recorded 59 total tackles over the last two seasons, including 38 in just seven games during a pandemic-shortened 2020 Big Ten campaign.
Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss: If DeVonta Smith has the makings of a successful receiver and is highly thought of, Elijah Moore has a similar outlook at a contrastingly different position in the first round. Moore ranked second in receptions in NCAA in 2020 with 86 catches, did that in just eight games, and made a name as a consistent short-game threat (13.9 yards per reception).
Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: After all, Moore’s value could spike and he might not be there, even if Joe Douglas settles on a wide receiver with the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 Jets Draft. Kadarius Toney would be a satisfying option in such a scenario, placing seventh within Division I with 70 receptions and a role in the intermediate portion of the air raid, during his only campaign as a regular part of the Gators’ passing unit.