Jets 2021 NFL Draft report card: How well did Gang Green build around their young QB?

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Ralph Vacchiano
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Zach Wilson with Roger Goodell on Draft Night
Zach Wilson with Roger Goodell on Draft Night

This can’t be said enough: The Jets have learned their lessons well.

And Lesson No. 1 from their three years with Sam Darnold was: Don’t ruin a promising young quarterback. Surround him with talent. Get him as many weapons as possible. Make sure the offensive line in front of him is strong.

That’s what the Jets’ clear mission was, especially early in the NFL draft. Yes, they drafted their latest franchise quarterback, Zach Wilson, at No. 2 and they have high hopes that he is going to be the outstanding player everyone thinks he is.

But after that, they did whatever they could to make sure he was set up for success. They moved up in the first round to get the best guard in the draft (Alijiah Vera-Tucker). They grabbed an explosive receiver at the top of the second round (Elijiah Moore). And after sweating out the third round, after trading both their picks there to move up for Vera-Tucker, they got a dangerous running back (Michael Carter) at the top of Round 4.

The flip side of that, of course, was that they neglected their defense a little too much. They waited a long time to draft a cornerback, and when they finally did it in the fifth round they took a player (another Michael Carter II) who had played mostly safety at college. They also didn’t really help their pass rush much or beef up their defensive line.

Considering how many picks the Jets have, they probably could’ve figured out a way to address those needs. But at least they accomplished the most important task: They found their quarterback, and started making sure he’s surrounded by a good team.

Grade: B-plus

Here’s the report card for the Jets’ individual picks:

First Round (No. 2 overall) – BYU QB Zach Wilson

It would be hard to find anyone in the NFL who didn’t have Wilson among their Top 3 quarterbacks in this draft, and the Jets obviously needed one once they decided to trade Darnold away. So, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence off the board at No. 1, they filled their most important need and took the guy that the consensus believed deserved to go No. 2.

The real grade for this pick will depend on whether they made the right move to swap in Wilson for Darnold, their previous franchise quarterback and still only 23 years old. Finances were a big factor and there are plenty of people who believe Wilson has a bigger upside, so it appears to be a good risk to take. But given Darnold’s potential and his three years of NFL experience, it is still a risk.

But overall, the pick was good, the player is talented, and his ceiling is high. It better be, though, because teams are supposed to find great players this high in the draft – not just good ones. It’ll be a few years before the Jets know for sure just how “great” Wilson really is.

Grade: A-minus

***

First round (Trade up to No. 14 overall) – USC G Alijah Vera-Tucker

Douglas’ first attempt to rebuild the Jets’ offensive line didn’t work, so he knew he had to add talent. That’s why he made the bold move to trade up for the 6-4, 308-pound Vera-Tucker.

It may have cost him both the Jets’ third-round picks, but Vera-Tucker was widely considered the top interior lineman in this draft. He’s also versatile, having played left tackle for the Trojans last year. He’s a powerful blocker and a polished player who figures to immediately replace veteran Alex Lewis as one of the starting guards.

And good for Douglas trading up to get him. He spent most of last year accumulating picks in the next two drafts. With 20 in total in the next two years there was no reason to just sit there and take players that fell to them. Targeting specific players and packaging picks to move up is definitely the way to go. Those are the kinds of bold moves good GMs make.

As a result, the Jets’ offensive line should immediately be much better than it was last season. And if Vera-Tucker does end up as the left guard playing next to left tackle Mekhi Becton, that is quite a lot of protection for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson’s blindside.

Grade: A.

***

Second round (34th overall) -- Mississippi WR Elijah Moore

It’s hard to argue the logic and sentiment behind what the Jets are doing with this pick. They want to do everything possibly to give Wilson the best possible chance to succeed. They felt they didn’t have enough weapons, so they added the best one on their board.

And the 5-9, 178-pound Moore is a really good one. He may be small, but he’s tough and he’s got 4.3 speed and his quickness and shiftiness are perfect for an NFL slot receiver. He’ll be hard to catch in traffic, and impossible to catch from behind when he takes off.

He also will fill an eventual need for the Jets. Right now their slot receiver is veteran Jamison Crowder, but he’s getting expensive and has no guaranteed money left on his deal. The Jets could cut him right now, though they’ll probably wait until after the season. Regardless, Moore is now his heir apparent.

And in the meantime, new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur should have a lot of fun looking for creative ways to use Moore, either out of the slot, on the outside, or even occasionally out of the backfield.

Grade: A-minus

***

Fourth Round (107th overall) – North Carolina RB Michael Carter

The 49ers’ offense that the Jets will run revolves around the running back position. Assuming LaFleur runs it the same way, it’s going to be a fun-first attack with a committee in the backfield. They needed someone to lead that committee, though.

Carter could be the guy.

He may be small (5-8, 201), but he is a powerful runner who can pick up the tough inside yards and has enough moves and speed to be a breakaway threat, too. He was part of a dangerous 1-2 punch in the backfield for the Tar Heels, but despite splitting time he still rushed for 2,248 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last two years.

And last year he gained his 1,245 yards by averaging eight yards per rush.

He’s a capable receiver out of the backfield, too, but the Jets have others for that. He’ll likely be the main guy in a committee that also features La’Mical Perine and Tevin Coleman. That’s great value this far down in the draft.

Grade: A

***

Fifth Round (146th overall) – Auburn S/LB Jamien Sherwood

He was a strong and hard-hitting safety in college – so hard-hitting that some believed the 6-2, 216-pounder would convert to linebacker in the NFL. And it appears that’s what the Jets are planning to have him do.

That’s good, because he’s known much more for his tackling than his coverage and he’ll need to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He probably could play either on the strong side or the weak side – though it appears the Jets plan to start working him on the weak side. He also could be useful in covering tight ends, since his speed good enough to stick with them and he’s strong enough to drag them down.

Grade: B-minus

***

Fifth Round (154th overall) – CB/S Michael Carter II, Duke

The Jets waited a long time to get help for their defensive backfield, but it finally came in Round 5.

Carter is only 5-10, 186, but he really grabbed the attention of NFL scouts by running a 4.3 at his Pro Day. That was important because he was used a lot as a safety last year for the Blue Devils, so he needed to show them he had the speed to play corner in the pros.

He didn’t play a lot of corner at Duke. He was most of a safety. So the Jets could use him at either spot or as a big nickel. Their initial intention, though, is to play him at cornerback where he can compete with Bless Austin and Bryce Hall. He’s certainly not the immediate upgrade they needed, but with speed he can provide some help.

Grade: B-minus

***

Fifth Round (175nd overall, acquired from the Chiefs) – Pittsburgh CB Jason Pinnock

A converted high school receiver, the 6-foot, 205-pounder led the Panthers with three interceptions last season and had five pass breakups. Not bad, considering he didn’t become a full-time starter until his senior year. He has the size and the ball skills to be a good one, and there’s upside since he’s still learning the position.

Again, he won’t be the immediate help at the position that the Jets need. But there’s potential, and he can be a help on special teams at first.

Grade: B

***

Sixth Round (186th overall) – Florida State S/LB Hamsah Nasirildeen

This is a really good value pick for the Jets late in the draft. He may be a third-round talent, but his stock dropped due to medical red flags. He tore his ACL in 2019 and played only two games in 2020. And in an offseason where teams couldn’t have their own doctors do physical examinations, any medical issues can really hurt.

But if he’s healthy, the Jets got a big (6-3, 215-pound) box safety who’s got it all – good field awareness, a play-making ability, and a terrific tackler. The Jets are listing him as a linebacker, though. They also might have to be patient with him at the start, but he’s got the potential to grow into a good player.

Grade: B-plus

***

Sixth Round (200th overall, acquired from the Raiders) – Kentucky CB Brandin Echols

The Jets really loaded up on defense on Day 3, including in their secondary. Echols is a small, 5-10, 179-pound corner who has 4.35 speed and really good field awareness, according to scouts. He’s aggressive and was a play-maker at college.

His then frame is concerning, though. He will probably need to bulk up a little to truly be effective in the NFL, even on special teams. But he’ll have time because the Jets won’t need him to play defense right away.

Grade: C-plus

***

Sixth Round (207th overall) – Arkansas DT Jonathan Marshall

Robert Saleh loves a big, deep defensive line, so he added this 6-3, 310-pounder with some decent pass-rushing skills. He had a sack and 6 ½ tackles for loss last year. He’s got good quickness and adequate strength. He’s probably a bit of a project, but he could carve a small spot in what the Jets hope is a deep rotation up front.

Grade: C-plus