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NFL draft winners and losers: Could Jets stick with Sam Darnold? Take QB at 2?

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The big NFL news from Sunday outside of the playoff race was that the Jacksonville Jaguars will be picking first in the 2021 NFL draft — the first time that they’ve earned the top overall selection.

Decent year to land it, too.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is perhaps the most anticipated QB prospect to come out in many years, maybe since Andrew Luck in 2012.

Wonder how many of these sell this week?

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Up the coast, New York Jets fans aren’t sure which jerseys to buy yet — or burn. And just when it looked like Sam Darnold was going to be a trade target this offseason, he’s now strung together three respectable games.

The Jets are locked into the No. 2 spot in the draft, no matter what they do in Week 17 against the New England Patriots. Darnold could use that game to play well and make it a tougher call for general manager Joe Douglas.

BYU’s Zach Wilson appears to be the most likely QB option at No. 2 if the Jets stay there. Wilson has displayed star power this season and appears to have the confidence, arm talent and outside-of-structure playmaking ability to be worth the investment.

BYU QB Zach Wilson looked great against Central Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
BYU QB Zach Wilson looked great against UCF. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

If Douglas believes Wilson is a better prospect than what he’s seen from Darnold, then Wilson easily could be the pick.

Trading down is an option, even if the Jets aren’t hurting for picks. They have six of the first 98 overall selections in 2021 and even own the Seattle Seahawks’ 2022 first-rounder, plus other picks.

They also could stick at No. 2 and take the best non-quarterback. Would taking Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell be too much of a luxury after selecting tackle Mekhi Becton 11th overall last year? That’s a fair question, even if Douglas likely wouldn’t shy away from that blue-collar approach if he views Sewell as a transcendent talent.

The defensive options that high in the draft aren’t as cut and dry. It would be more likely the Jets go that route by moving down in the draft. That would require the Jets sticking with Darnold — or finding another veteran starter in free agency.

Darnold’s statistics over the past three games (52-of-89 passing, 514 yards, three TDs; 13 rushes, 41 yards) are fairly unimpressive. But he has played turnover-free ball in that span and has cut down his self-inflicted sacks a bit. A strong game at New England, against whom he has struggled in two career games, could help make a stronger case for the Jets to keep him.

On the flip side, Darnold hasn’t been asked to do much in that period, either. He has looked better as a game manager type, but is that what’s best for the Jets or Darnold?

A lot will depend on the Jets’ next head coach, too. How that person feels about Darnold — who has a year left on his rookie contract — certainly should be taken into consideration.

Now let’s take a look at the early winners and losers from the first round of bowl games, most of which featured non-Power 5 teams and more Day 3 prospects.


Nevada QB Carson Strong

It has been strangely quiet, buzz-wise, around the Wolf Pack program in general this season, and especially around Strong.

Now that they’ve completed a 7-2 season, capped by a bowl win over Tulane, there has been a little more attention paid to what they’ve done. And Strong is considered the favorite for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.

The redshirt sophomore was the triggerman for the Wolf Pack’s Air Raid system, completing more than 70 percent of his passes despite throwing the ball nearly 40 times per game.

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The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Strong notched a 27-4 TD-INT ratio and averaged a healthy 8.1 yards per attempt in nine games despite Nevada losing its leading receiver from 2019, Elijah Cooks, in the opener. In the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over the Green Wave, Strong completed 22 of 28 passes (78.6 percent) for 271 yards, five TDs and no picks.

Strong has at least two years of eligibility remaining, but there’s at least a chance he sniffs around at his draft stock before making a call on that. More likely, he returns as a 2022 draft prospect and enters next college season as one of the more intriguing QB prospects.

BYU wide receivers

We’ve written extensively on QB Zach Wilson, and we’ve even touched on the Cougars’ interesting prospects on the offensive line and on defense.

One spot we’ve not gone into depth on has been wideout. BYU has at least three who could end up getting looks in the NFL: Dax Milne, Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u.

All three have eligibility remaining, and it would not be surprising to see Romney return to school with his brother, Baylor, who would be a leading candidate to replace Wilson when he vaults to the league.

The 6-1, 190-pound Milne has been Wilson’s security blanket most of the season. He’s a very clean route runner with late separation, and his hands are reliable, sort of in the Cooper Kupp-Jakobi Meyers mold.

Pau’u has helped his cause the most this season. He was arrested for DUI last June and had to be readmitted onto the team after a yearlong suspension. He finished his redshirt junior season with 45 receptions for 603 yards and four TDs, stacking his three biggest yardage games in the final three games of the season.

Pau’u is the most likely of the three to leave early, even if he’s no guarantee to land in the top 100 picks. If they all return to school, the Cougars should be loaded again on offense. Underclassmen running backs Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa, and tight ends Isaac Rex, Carter Wheat and Masen Wake also are expected back, even if the offensive line will suffer heavy losses.

Louisiana RB Elijah Mitchell

The 2021 running back crop isn’t as sexy a group as we imagined back in the summer, but it’s by no means a disappointment.

Mitchell is a player we like a lot in the middle rounds of the draft, a highly productive back despite sharing carries every year for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Mitchell and Trey Ragas split work this season, and those two also did so with 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers seventh-rounder Raymond Calais (now with the Los Angeles Rams).

Mitchell carries his 218-pound frame well, with smooth, easy acceleration and soft hands as a receiver. He isn’t a speed back, and some NFL scouts actually gave the 222-pound Ragas higher grades over the summer.

Louisiana RB Elijah Mitchell was named MVP of the Servpro First Responder Bowl. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Louisiana RB Elijah Mitchell was named MVP of the Servpro First Responder Bowl. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But Mitchell has helped his cause more this season and projects to be a more universally appreciated prospect of the two. Against UTSA in the First Responder Bowl on Boxing Day, Mitchell ran 19 times for 127 yards and a touchdown, and caught two passes for a team-high 45 yards. For that effort, he was named the game’s MVP.

We’ll next see Mitchell at the Senior Bowl, where he joins a tightly packed group of prospects that includes UCLA’s Demetric Felton, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, North Carolina’s Michael Carter, Missouri’s Larry Rountree and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert. The Senior Bowl might not always be a RB showcase, but that game and the week of practice prior will help start to separate a few of them.

Style-wise, we see a little of 2020 Los Angeles Chargers fourth-rounder Joshua Kelley and 2020 New York Jets fourth-rounder La'Mical Perine in Mitchell. He could be taken in a similar range next spring.

Memphis OT Obinna Eze

The nearly 6-foot-8 Eze has shown some nice potential this season after taking a bit to develop early on for the Tigers after the Nigerian-born prospect was a four-star recruit.

Eze stood out a few times in the bowl game win over Florida Atlantic, and his draft status has been simmering after a nice 2020 season. He had a little trouble handling speed rushers against Cincinnati and Tulane, but Eze projects to be an interesting Day 3 option should he enter the draft mix.

It’s a deep group at tackle this season, but Eze’s length, mass and finishing ability make him the perfect later-round developmental prospect.


Day 3 wide receivers

Like it was in 2020, the wide receiver crop in the upcoming draft looks special again.

This past spring, there were six first-round wideouts and seven second-rounders. The 2021 version might not be as top-heavy this year, but the talent at the position appears commensurate.

The problem for the draft’s WR talents is twofold: One, with so many teams using higher picks at the position a year ago, there might be some reticence to do the same this coming draft. And two, the free agency crop at the position is considered unusually strong, as well.

The group will include: Allen Robinson (Chicago Bears), Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), JuJu Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh Steelers), Kenny Golladay (Detroit Lions), A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals), Corey Davis (Tennessee Titans), Will Fuller (Houston Texans), Nelson Agholor (Las Vegas Raiders), T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis Colts), Curtis Samuel (Carolina Panthers), Sammy Watkins (Kansas City Chiefs), Allen Lazard (Green Bay Packers) and Marvin Jones Jr. (Lions).

That list doesn’t include salary-cap casualties, trade candidates and restricted free agents (such as the Denver Broncos’ Tim Patrick).

It’s a crowded field. Teams might fill up their WR spots early, which could cause a trickle-down effect for the draft prospects. And receivers who might normally be top-100 candidates could slide to Day 3.

Donovan Peoples-Jones had to wait until Round 6 to hear his name called last spring, but his talent indicates he should have gone earlier. The same could be said for 2020 Buffalo Bills fourth-rounder Gabriel Davis and 2020 Chicago Bears fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney.

Expect some great WR values in Rounds 4-7 in April. The talent is there, and yet the opportunities to go higher might not be.

UCF WR Tre Nixon

Nixon’s 2020 campaign got off to a rousing start, with two TD catches in the season-opener against Georgia Tech. His day ended with an ambulance ride following a broken collarbone he suffered in the game.

The 6-1, 181-pound Nixon returned for the Cincinnati game a month ago, but outside of a few nice grabs against South Florida it has been a tough comeback. Nixon admitted he was “in a dark spot” during his rehab but should be credited for his toughness in fighting back to hit the field again in 2020.

Still, his production suffered, and Nixon’s drop rate — perhaps one of his bigger concerns as a prospect — remained high. In the bowl game loss to BYU, Nixon caught five passes (on 10 targets) for 48 yards, with one drop and a false-start penalty on a third-and-short play after the Knights fell behind 21-0.

We don’t know Nixon’s plans for the draft, but coming back and letting his collarbone heal could be the best plan of action. He’ll have Dillon Gabriel throwing him passes and could boost his draft stock with a more fruitful 2021 season.

North Texas DT Dion Novil

We highlighted the intriguing Novil earlier in the season as a player who fell below the radar, despite it being an underwhelming defensive tackle class in the 2021 draft.

Novil had a quiet performance in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, failing to register a tackle and playing only 27 of the team’s 61 defensive snaps. He also let a few would-be tackles slip through his 33-inch arms in what was a disappointing showing in the Mean Green’s season-ending loss.

Listed at 6-4 and 330 pounds, Novil earned first-team all-Conference USA honors this season with eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games. His play down the stretch seemed to wane following a monster game against Rice, with only five tackles and no big plays in his final four outings.

Also, scouts say he’s closer to 6-foot-1 and around 320 pounds. Even in a shallow DT crop, Novil has work to do to firm up his draft stock.

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