2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - AFC East
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the AFC East division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft later this month!
Team Needs: AFC East
Picks: 30, 61, 93, 161, 174, 213, 236
Set: Quarterback, running back, defensive interior line, offensive tackle
The Bills not only have Josh Allen locked in as a starter but they also have Jake Fromm under contract until 2024 and just signed Mitchell Trubisky . They may need to shed QBs, not add them. They also drafted Devin Singletary and Zack Moss in back to back years so they have them under contract until 2023 and 2024 respectively as well as signing Matt Breida and having Taiwan Jones , Antonio Williams, and Christian Wade signed. As fun as new running backs may be (and some people are suggesting the Bills go back to the well here), they simply don’t need it - especially considering the running ability of their quarterback.
You could argue that defensive interior is a place where you can always use more depth but, compared to most teams within the league, the Bills are pretty solid with the big boys. Per Spotrac.com, the 22.63% of overall cap space they have allocated to the defensive line is 4th in the league. And, despite defensive end typically being the heavy hitting position in terms of dollars in this league, 10.78% of that is allocated to defensive tackle. Anyone watching the Bills might have felt like the position was thin last year but that’s mostly because Star Lotulelei opted out. They have him and Ed Oliver both signed through 2024 while they are also paying Vernon Butler a whopping $7.5 million this year. If this were another team with more high end draft capital you may say they need to use picks to plan for the future but this team is clearly “win-now” and they have what they need to compete on the defensive interior. At offensive tackle they have Dion Dawkins locked up through 2025, Daryl Williams through 2024, and Bobby Hart comes back over from Cincinnati as a swing tackle who knows the system. Just don’t see them making a play for a tackle on either side of the ball unless it’s a “tackle” who they plan to use at guard.
Immediate: Cornerback, defensive end
Cornerback has been a big theme of this series. As we laid out numerically in the Arizona Cardinals section of our NFC West Team Needs writeup, the league is skewing more towards nickel and dime packages than ever before. In fact, last season dime packages (with six defensive backs) were more prevalent than “base” four defensive back sets and nickel packages were used more often than both other sets COMBINED. Last year the Bills’ plan was to use Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman as the outside corners, Taron Johnson in the slot, and the rest of their depth in nickel and dime packages. Josh Norman ended up missing some big chunks of time so Levi Wallace was thrust into that role. They did the smart thing and locked up Tre White through 2026 and they have Taron Johnson coming back in the slot (though his contract expires this year). But Josh Norman is a free agent and, as of now, they can’t afford to bring him back. Levi Wallace is back but he graded out as CB #108 per PFF. They only have five cornerbacks signed this year so it would be smart to draft a high end guy to line up opposite White if possible while making Wallace the “next man up” as he was last year.
Listing defensive end as a “need” speaks to the completeness of this Buffalo team right now. Because, outside of corner, there isn’t really another immediate need that jumps off the paper for this team. For starters at DE they have studs Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison . But, unlike the situation at interior defensive line, they are both free agents next year, they are 33 and 34 years old respectively, and just the two of them combine for over 9% of the team’s cap. Beyond those two the position is thin and neither a lock to be with the team much longer given their age and contract situation. I would not be surprised to see Buffalo use an early pick to inject some youth into the position - even just to rotate in and keep guy’s fresh in Sean McDermitt’s 4-3 defense. Per usual for pass rush, if you want one of the high end guys here, you either need to use your highest pick or trade up because it’s a highly coveted position.
Potential early round picks: Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jayson Oweh (Penn State), Jaelen Phillips (Miami), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Jr (Florida State), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky), Tay Gowan (UFC), Payton Turner (Houston), Rashad Weaver (Pittsburgh), Joe Tryon (Washington)
Depth: Safety, wide receiver, tight end, interior offensive line
There are no questions about the starters at safety. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are two of the best in the business. And they are both under contract for at least this year and next. But Hyde turned 30 in December and Poyer turned 30 this weekend. And they don’t have much for depth behind them. When you take into account their lack of depth at corner, it could make a lot of sense for the Bills to take a corner that can play out wide with an early pick then also draft a safety who could potentially cover the slot in nickel and dime packages. Even if you already have your starting strong and free safety for this year, you basically go from five corners on the depth chart to seven and you may have your free safety or strong safety of the future. There seem to be a couple guys who profile as slot corners that can play free safety like Richie Grant from UCF or Jevon Holland from Oregon that could be available late second or guys like Divine Deablo from Virginia Tech who profile more as strong safeties that can cover linebackers etc. in the box that might be available in the third.
Taylor Gabriel seemed like the heir apparent to John Brown at flanker for a brief moment but they quickly brought in Emmanuel Sanders . If they operate like they did last year, they will have Stefon Diggs at split end, Sanders at flanker, and will rotate Cole Beasely and Gabriel in slot. In fact, this offense used four WRs on 15% of their snaps, which is second only to the Arizona Cardinals, so they will find ways to use all four at times as well. Emmanuel Sanders is 34 and Cole Beasley is 31 so they are going to have to start looking ahead at some point, especially if they want to continue rolling with four wide..
For tight end they have Dawson Knox as the starter, Tommy Sweeney as an extra blocker, and Jacob Holliser as an extra pass catcher. So they have what they need but having only three tight ends also makes them one of the thinner teams at the position. Beyond that, none of the players they have at guard graded out within the top 40 at their position. As we mentioned earlier, they brought back Bobby Hart and they also brought in former high end prospect Forrest Lamp on a low risk tryout so they could get by but I wouldn’t be surprised by a depth pick either.
New York Jets
Picks: 2, 23, 34, 66, 86, 107, 146, 154, 186, 226
Set: Wide receiver, running back
This team has a brand new coaching staff and a treasure trove of picks so hard to say that any position is “set”. In fact, you could argue that they could draft players at linearly any position. So you are probably looking at the positions I listed above and thinking “is this guy stupid or something?”. But let’s look at this from a rebuild standpoint and try to figure out what they are most and least likely to do in THIS YEAR’s draft.
Typically when you blow things up you build from the inside out. You go for interior offensive and defensive line and get your quarterback. Then once you have the foundation and are on the other side of the rebuild, you go for the shorter term “flashier” positions while you have a QB on a cheap(ish) rookie deal. Wide receiver is one of those “flashy” positions. Right now the Jets have 13 wide receivers under contract for this season. They have Corey Davis and Denzel Mims who profile as split end/flanker. They have Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole who can play flanker/slot. And then they also have nine guys between the ages of 23-26. So to me, this is a year to essentially run pseudo-tryouts at the position the way the Dolphins have been (try Isaiah Ford at the slot - he doesn’t work? Trade him. Okay now try Malcolm Perry etc.). So, if I’m the Jets, I draft a QB this year (who you will have for five total years with the 5th year option) and I test all these guys out to see who is going to be part of the future. Then, next year, you use the heavy draft capital or free agent money to bring someone in who’s contract overlaps with the remaining four cheap years of your quarterback. Go back and look at the WRs that were on the team for the first year of Josh Allen , Jared Goff , Baker Mayfield , etc. Guys like Robert Foster , Kenny Britt , Terrelle Pryor etc. were leading those teams. Then, once the tanking was done, they were swiftly replaced by the likes of Stefon Diggs , John Brown , Sammy Watkins , Brandin Cooks , Robert Woods , Cooper Kupp , Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry . You don’t want to start that clock ticking now when you aren’t in a position to win. Next year or even the year after is when you load up on weapons.
It also might shock people that I have running back here. Because they certainly aren’t flooded with talent. But we are talking about an asset that has by far the shortest shelf life in the league. Most running backs peak at 23-24 years old and are on the backend of their careers by the time they are ready for a second contract (and if they perform well, they need to be paid like it like Aaron Jones ). The Jets never really got a chance to see what they had in Lamical Perine because he sprained his ankle. They have Ty Johnson for passing downs and they signed Tevin Coleman for depth. They also have Josh Adams and Pete Guerriero under contract. This team is projected by Vegas to win 6 games in a year with a 17 game schedule. Just like, WR, now is not the time to start the clock running on a high end running back either. Look at what the Jaguars and Dolphins have done during their rebuilds. They are just now getting to the point where they might use capital on a running back. And the Jaguars might not even need to spend big on one with the emergence of James Robinson. That’s the formula. The worst situation to be in is where the Lions are where the old regime thought they were competing but now the new regime has to take over and tank. But they are going to end up wasting a couple good years of D’Andre Swift in the process.
Immediate: Quarterback, offensive line, cornerback
Not much really has to be said here about QB. They have the second pick. They traded their starting quarterback away. They already know who they are taking and we have a pretty good idea as well. As we mentioned, the best way to build is inside out and, when you have a young new QB, you want him protected (cough, cough - Joe Burrow). The Jets drafted a mountain of a man in the 6’7” 364 pound Mekhi Becton last year. They have multiple high picks and they should use another to bolster the offensive line. Some people might have forgotten but it wasn’t long ago that the Seattle Seahawks essentially had George Fant classified as a “tight end” who would come in only for jumbo packages as an eligible extra blocker. He even got a couple targets with them and caught one. He graded out fairly poorly last year, as did most of the rest of the line outside of Becton and Alex Lewis . They obviously go quarterback at 2 but at 23 or 34 they should grab the best possible offensive lineman off the board.
You have a new defensive minded head coach. You have a lot of early picks. And you need foundation pieces. Cornerback should be one of the first things that comes to mind as a long term position that predominantly comes from the earlier rounds. And this position was a nightmare for the Jets like no other last season. Only one cornerback played double digit games. And only Brian Poole and Javelin Guidry graded out in the top 80 cornerbacks per PFF. And Brian Poole is no longer on the team. So to say they could use a cornerback is an understatement. They could probably use three.
Potential early round picks: Zach Wilson (BYU), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Walker Little (Stanford), Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Samuel Cosmi (Texas), Alex Leatherwood (Alabama), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Aaron Robinson (UCF)
Depth: Tight end, front seven
The “immediate” needs above are where I’d apply the first three picks. But this team has an abundance of riches with two more picks in the third round and another in the fourth. So, even if I don’t think it’s as glaring, they could draft impact players at any one of the positions in this section.
Adam Gase notoriously uses his tight ends to block on a ton of pass plays. Not one tight end on the team blocked on fewer than 25% of their pass plays last season. Under Gase on the Dolphins, even pass catching tight end Mike Gesicki blocked on 17% of his pass plays (under Brian Flores the last two years, he has blocked on less than 2% and primarily played out of the slot). So the reality is we haven’t really seen what Chris Herndon can do offensively, except for in flashes. But this is the last year on his deal and guys like Ryan Griffin , Tyler Kroft , and Trevon Wesco are more blocking pieces (Wesco is honestly more of a fullback). We’ve seen plenty of great tight ends like Travis Kelce , Mark Andrews , George Kittle , Darren Waller etc. come from the third round and beyond and tight ends do typically take some time to develop so, unlike WR or RB, getting at TE in the early stages of a rebuild isn’t a bad idea so they can hit their prime in 2-3 years when you are competing. The duality of the position in terms of blocking and running routes requires you to gain trust with both the offensive line and the QB so it’s best to get started early.
New Jets head coach Robert Saleh runs a 4-3 defense. The Jets have been running a 3-4. They already let 3-4 defensive end Henry Anderson leave and they brought in Sheldon Rankins from New Orleans and Jarrad Davis from Detroit. But anytime you are making a major overhaul from one defensive base to another, there is going to be major personnel turnover. This is supposed to be Saleh’s specialty. So I think the move here is to play to their coaches strength - spend big on QB, offensive line etc. in the early rounds and then let him work in conjunction with the GM to use all of these later picks to see if he can find some steals that fit his defensive scheme. Because that’s what he knows best.
Picks: 6, 18, 36, 50, 81, 156, 231, 258
Set: Quarterback, guard, secondary, defensive interior
Tua Tagovailoa is the QB and they have Jacoby Brissett as a rock solid backup. No need to overthink that situation. As we will discuss in the next section, I actually think the Dolphins are one offensive lineman away from being pretty solid up front. Namely, an offensive tackle. The assumption being that, if you draft another tackle opposite Austin Jackson, you can move Robert Hunt over to his more natural position at guard and now you are set at guard too with Ereck Flowers and Robert Hunt both under contract for at least this year and next.
Anyone who has been following along with this series knows how heavily cornerback will likely be valued in this draft. Which makes the Dolphins a bit of a rarity in that they actually look stocked at the position. With the prevalence of nickel and dime you can never have enough corners but the Dolphins have ten under contract including paying BIG money to Xavien Howard (five years, $82.5 million) and Byron Jones (five years $75 million). Those deals both go through 2024, as does the deal for 2020 first round pick Noah Iginoghene. With safeties Eric Rowe , Bobby McCain , and Clayton Fejedelem all under contract for the next two years as well, they are one of the few teams that don’t have much of a need in the secondary going into the draft.
The Dolphins have been running a 3-4 defense which makes defensive interior a less important position in general. Typically teams rotate between primary run stopping or pass rush players depending on the situation so you don’t need to spend big on an every down player. They have Adam Butler and Raekwon Davis locked up for the next two years despite losing Davon Godchaux in free agency so I don’t see them going crazy at this spot with a high end pick.
Immediate: Pass catcher, offensive tackle, edge rusher, running back
I say “pass catcher” rather than specifically wide receiver or tight end because I believe they have enough combined depth where they only need to use a high end pick on one. They have DeVante Parker through 2023 who can play both in the slot and out wide but they also have an out for him after this year if they choose to part ways. For wide guys they have Will Fuller and Preston Williams though they both only have one year left on their deals as well. And they have one year left of Mike Gesicki who has proven to be proficient operating out of the slot. Then they have Adam Shaheen , Durham Smythe , and Cethan Carter as in-line tight ends. That’s more than enough to get by for the immediate future but there are two “once in a lifetime” type prospects that could both be there when it’s their turn to pick at 6 overall in wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and tight end Kyle Pitts. Both players are versatile enough to line up pretty much anywhere in the formation so, if they do decide to draft one, they no longer have an immediate need at the other position. Heisman winner DeVonta Smith is also likely to be there when they pick though there have been some concerns about his low BMI at 6’1” but only 166 pounds as there aren’t many successful comparable players in that range. Hard to argue with his production though.
As we briefly discussed in the last section, drafting a big offensive tackle would allow Robert Hunt to shift into his more natural position at guard and would solidify the offensive line in front of Tua Tagovailoa for years to come. On the defensive side, the Dolphins as a team did well in sacks but they didn’t really have any singular dominant piece off the edge. They released Kyle Van Noy in a bit of a surprising move so grabbing a true threat off the edge would be a smart play with one of their high end picks. The Dolphins are finally coming out on the right side of this rebuild so, if all goes according to plan, they won’t have many more years picking at 6 or even at 18. And that’s where elite offensive and defensive lineman are drafted so, much like high end quarterbacks, you need to get them when you have the opportunity to draft early. Brian Flores is building this team for the long haul and he saw with his former team in New England how many years in a row you can go without a decent draft pick if you are successful.
I’ve never personally been a fan of using high end draft capital on a running back given the short shelf life of the position. But the Dolphins are playing to win now, they have the picks, and they are one of the few teams who could use an elite level running back as guys like Myles Gaskin and Malcolm Brown are serviceable but not necessarily special. They technically have enough guys under contract to get by but I wouldn’t fault them for taking a top 5 running back off the board with picks 36 or 50. They went through the rebuild process, found their QB, and are projected to be competitive so they’ve earned the luxury pick if they want to make it.
Potential early round picks: Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), Kyle Pitts (Florida), Penei Sewell (Oregon), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jalen Phillips (Miami), Travis Etienne (Clemson), Javonte Williams (North Carolina)
Depth: Pass catcher, center, inside linebacker
This falls into the logic of last section - if they use high end capital on a WR or TE, they don’t need to use high end capital on the other as well. But they may want to use a later pick on depth. If they don’t plan to bring Gesicki back they’ll have a hole at pass catching TE in 2022. Willer Fuller and Preston Williams are on one year deals. And guys like Mack Hollins , Allen Hurns , Albert Wilson , and Robert Foster are not likely part of the long term plans.
If they do spend a high end draft pick on tackle they might be able to solve their center situation via the trickle down effect if they think one of their guards is a long term solution. They also brought Matt Skura in via free agency. But they have three centers under contract and all three deals expire after this season so I could see the Fins either drafting depth here or possibly even drafting someone to start right away.
In a typical 3-4 configuration you essentially use the outside linebackers to generate pass rush which is a need we already discussed. The inside linebackers then have a lot of responsibility in the run game and over the middle. They brought in Benardrick McKinney from Houston and Jerome Baker was solid so it’s not a desperate need but it wouldn’t hurt to have some competition and plan for the future.
New England Patriots
Picks: 15, 46, 96, 120, 122, 139, 177, 188, 197, 242
Set: Tight end, running back, defensive line/pass rush
If you haven’t heard by now, the Patriots made an uncharacteristic double splash in free agency at the tight end position, bringing in both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry on multi-year deals. They drafted Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both last year so they are pretty locked and loaded at the position.
The Patriots have run a two-back system for 20 years now. The last backs to get both 200+ carries and 35+ receptions were Robert Edwards and Curtis Martin under Pete Carroll in the 90s. They have Sony Michel (1st round) and Damien Harris (3rd round) for the early down work and brought back pass catching back James White so they should be good there. If anything, maybe they look for a back who can play special teams and catch a little to replace Rex Burkhead but they do have JJ Taylor and Brandon Bolden too. Another running back would be a surprise but you never know.
They also made some splashes in free agency on the pass rush front. They brought in Matt Judon to a massive deal as an outside linebacker. We mentioned already that they signed Henry Anderson from New York as the Jets are converting from the 3-4 to Robert Saleh’s 4-3. And they signed Davon Godchaux from the Dolphins at nose tackle. On top of that they still have Chase Winovich for a couple years, Lawrence Guy through 2024, and they bring back Kyle Van Noy . So they should be feeling pretty good up front.
Immediate: Quarterback, inside linebacker, cornerback
Quarterback should come as no surprise - people are less than sold on Cam Newton being the answer and it’s looking more and more like they already know Jarrett Stidham isn’t the future either. This one could go either way - some people have the Patriots trading up and going for a heavy hitter while others have them simply bringing in someone to offer competition. It doesn’t help that Bill Belichick runs the least predictable front office in the league. One juicy storyline is that Belichick is close friends with Alabama head coach Nick Saban. And Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is a fairly polarizing prospect this year. So it will be quite telling to see if the Patriots are at all interested in him - and how the rest of the league will react if they aren’t. Because, if Saban’s good friend Bill who needs a QB doesn’t want him, that probably raises some red flags across the rest of the league.
Dont’a Hightower may have just gotten a year of rest after opting out because of COVID but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s 31 years old. Much like running back on the other side of the ball, linebacker is one of the more physical positions with one of the shorter shelf lives so it could make sense to bring in another high end guy in the middle. Speaking of guys who are 31, Stephon Gilmore will turn 31 at the start of the season and he’s on the last year of his deal. Breakout corner JC Jackson is on the last year of his deal as well so it could be difficult to retain both of them. The Patriots run nickel defense on upwards of 80% of their snaps so drafting another high end corner that can play outside could be in the cards. Guys like Joejuan Williams have shown some promise but he’s also 6’4” and more of a hybrid slot CB/linebacker type who is better off covering tight ends than he is lining up outside on top WRs.
Potential early round picks: Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State) , Mac Jones (Alabama), (Micah Parsons (Penn State), Zaven Collins (Tulsa), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Junior (Florida State)
Depth: Wide receiver, offensive line
A lot of people - especially fantasy football players - will look at this depth chart and ask “how is wide receiver not an immediate need?” But let’s think about what this team actually wants to do here as a base formation. You need 11 guys on the field. You start with five lineman and a quarterback. That’s six. With the money they paid Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry , their base formation is almost certainly going to be two tight end sets. That’s eight. So, with one of their running backs in Sony, Harris, or James White , that’s nine before even factoring in wide receiver. Given the money they paid Nelson Agholor , he will be a starting flanker for two years. So that’s 10. Since you have two tight ends tethered to the line, you don’t really even need a split end so the 6’4” N’Keal Harry doesn’t need to play every snap. In reality, you really just need one of Harry, Kendrick Bourne , or Jakobi Meyers on the field on any given play. Add in the fact that this team likes using a fullback, and they aren’t even using two wide receivers on every play either. So, maybe do they do spring for a wide receiver, but they don’t NEED to with a high end pick again. If they do, it tells you what you need to know about their thoughts on N’Keal Harry.
On paper they currently have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn , and Michael Onwenu all graded out within the top 20 offensive lineman AT ANY O-LINE POSITION last year per PFF. David Andrews is one of the best centers in the league and they made a trade to bring back the towering Trent Brown to play right tackle. But beyond the top guys they are a bit thin. They lost Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon to free agency. They brought back Ted Karras as a backup center but they could really use a swing tackle - especially since Trent Brown is on the last year of his deal. That’s another potential depth play.