2021 NFL Rookie Class Impact: AFC East

With the 2021 NFL draft now in the rearview mirror and most of the rookies having already taken the practice field with training camps soon approaching, we’re starting to get an idea of how these draft classes will impact each roster this fall. 

In this series, I’ll break down the most likely instant-impact rookies from each class, while also providing some insight into why certain early picks may not see the field. 

And while I won’t assign a specific grade to each draft class, I will offer a quick assessment of the overall draft haul for each team and some thoughts on their draft process. 

All stats mentioned are from Sports Info Solutions, unless otherwise noted.

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo probably didn’t land an immediate starter in its draft class, but Gregory Rousseau (first round) should have a role in the defensive line rotation. Rousseau is an effective edge rusher, but in 2019 he actually lined up at defensive tackle on 34% of his pass-rush snaps—and generated a 19.3 percent pressure rate in that role. 

With Rousseau’s versatile skill set, it should be easy for HC Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier to move him around in various sub-packages, creating opportunities for him to get after the quarterback. 

Carlos Basham Jr. (second round) does not have as much experience as a versatile weapon (only 13% of snaps on the interior line), but at 6’4”, 274 pounds, he likely has the skill set required to offer depth along the line. 

By drafting a pair of 6’8” offensive tackles—Spencer Brown (third round) and Tommy Doyle (fifth round)—it appears Buffalo has an image of what their ideal protection for Josh Allen looks like in the future. But neither is likely to win a starting job as a rookie. 

Damar Hamlin (sixth round) will probably be limited to special teams duties early in his career, but don’t rule out him eventually winning a job in Buffalo. At Pittsburgh, coaches raved about his football intelligence. A special teams contributor with elite intelligence is the perfect Day 3 pick. 

Through the first five rounds, Buffalo came away with two defensive linemen and two offensive tackles, none of whom are likely to win starting roles this fall. That was a surprising choice for a team hoping to compete for a Super Bowl, but clearly Buffalo chose to focus more on their future needs.

Pass-rushers Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are both over the age of 33, and right tackle Daryl Williams could potentially be cut loose after the 2021 campaign. So while this class may not produce much as rookies, it’s conceivable three starters could emerge in 2022. 

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins wanted to make Tua Tagovailoa more comfortable, so they went out and landed his slot receiver from college. 

In 2019 at Alabama, Tagovailoa targeted the slot on 40% of his throws, averaging 12.0 yards per attempt. As a rookie in Miami, he continued throwing to the slot (39% of his attempts) but ranked 33rd out of 35 quarterbacks with just 6.5 yards per attempt. 

Waddle lined up in the slot on 68% of his career snaps, and should immediately step into that role in Miami. 

Jaelan Phillips (fist round) was arguably the most physically gifted pass-rusher in this draft class but slid slightly due to injury concerns (concussions) and some clashes with the UCLA medical/coaching staffs, which led to a brief retirement and eventual transfer to Miami FL.

Miami traded Shaq Lawson and cut Kyle Van Noy, who accounted for 29% of the team’s QB pressures in 2020. After ignoring the position in free agency, it was a glaring need entering the draft and Phillips should have an immediate role as one of the Dolphins’ primary pass-rushers. 

As strong as the Dolphins defense was at times in 2020, they allowed 9.0 yards per target to slot receivers, which ranked 27th in the league. Enter Jevon Holland (secnd round), who was among the most effective slot corners in the country in 2019 (he opted out in 2020). 

Holland is expected to compete for the starting job at free safety, but Brian Flores has already been gushing about his versatility. Expect to see him do a bit of everything in Miami’s secondary this season. 

Liam Eichenberg (secnd round) should provide immediate depth on the offensive line, and Flores has stated he could play guard or tackle. That vague answer makes it sound as though there’s no immediate plan for Eichenberg, although Miami’s mediocre offensive line play in 2020 would seem to indicate he has a chance to win a job with a strong camp. 

Hunter Long (third round) is a well-rounded tight end, who could get on the field in 12 personnel packages as a rookie. 32% of Miami’s designed runs came in 12 personnel, so Long’s production as a run blocker could have immediate value, though Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen will compete for those snaps as well. 

It’s rare to find a draft class that has five players positioned to make an immediate impact—especially when the team is expected to compete for a playoff berth. This looks like one of the better draft hauls of 2021, both in terms of immediate and long-term value. 

New England Patriots

No one in New England’s rookie class is guaranteed a job, but DT Christian Barmore (second round) should at least participate in the defensive line rotation. Although he has the size to play nose tackle, and often did at Alabama, he moves well for a big man and could improve New England’s interior pass rush. Barmore led the SEC with a 16.5% pressure rate generated as an interior pass-rusher in 2020. 

DE Ronnie Perkins (third round) also figures to contribute as a pass-rusher, but it’s a crowded position due to Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, Matt Judon, and others also competing for playing time in similar roles. 

Perkins primarily lined up as a traditional defensive end at Oklahoma, but has the athletic profile of someone capable of playing a hybrid end/linebacker role in New England’s defense. That versatility should help him find a role. 

LB Cameron McGrone (fifth round) is a former five-star recruit and an exciting developmental prospect with elite traits, but don’t expect to see him on the field much except for special teams duties. 

McGrone has elite range and was a dominant run defender in 2020, with zero missed tackles一traits which bode well for a strong special teams performance. However, his inconsistent coverage production will likely hold him back from a bigger role early in his career. 

Of course, the wild card of this draft class is QB Mac Jones (first round). Cam Newton is likely to maintain the starting job at first, but if Jones eventually takes over, he has the traits to make an immediate impact. 

One thing Jones does especially well is avoid negative plays. When faced with pressure, Jones threw an interception or took a sack just 14.4% of the time, the seventh-lowest rate (out of 75 QBs) and the lowest rate among the first-round quarterbacks in this draft class.

It’s also worth pointing out, Bill Belichick selected two players from Alabama at the top of this draft. Belichick’s relationship with Nick Saban is well documented and he also has two coaches on staff (Vinnie Sunseri and Joe Houston) who were at Alabama for parts of Jones and Barmore’s college careers. 

We knew some teams were going to rely more heavily on their college connections this year due to the limited information available on prospects, and New England certainly appeared to go that route. 

It’s tough to get too excited about a class that probably doesn’t feature a single immediate starter. And it would not be surprising if Jones is the only player from this class to emerge as an eventual full-time starter. However, if Jones proves to be the answer at quarterback, this draft will be viewed as a success. 

New York Jets

It’s best to keep expectations in check for any rookie quarterback, but it shouldn’t be hard for Zach Wilson (first round) to immediately make the Jets a more explosive offense. 

In 2020, New York completed 64 passes at 10 or more yards downfield, a pathetic average of four per game. At BYU, Wilson more than doubled them, averaging nine completions per game at that distance, at a catchable target rate of 82.7%, seventh-best in the nation. 

With weapons like Denzel Mims, Corey Davis, Keelan Cole, and fellow rookie Elijah Moore (2nd round), the Jets offense should have plenty of juice to stretch the field for Wilson. 

Moore has the talent to make an impact and has gotten rave reviews throughout minicamp. His early role in the offense is still in question due to the presence of Jamison Crowder, who is likely locked into a starting role in the slot. Moore was in the slot on 71% of his targets in 2020 at Ole Miss. Crowder is in his final contract year and just took a pay cut, however, so Moore’s time is coming. 

OL Alijah Vera-Tucker (first round) is the other rookie who appears to have a guaranteed starting job. Vera-Tucker is expected to start at left guard, where he played in 2019 at USC. 

Vera-Tucker was dominant in that role with the Trojans, with just one blown block in 482 snaps in pass protection. With Vera-Tucker starting next to 2019 first-round pick Mehki Becton, the Jets could potentially develop a dominant left side of the line to protect Wilson. 

RB Michael Carter (fourth round) should also see the field early, but likely only as part of a backfield committee. 

Expect to see Carter on the field more often when the Jets are looking for a big play. He’s a home-run hitter, but can also be indecisive and is prone to negative plays. 

64% of Carter’s attempts went outside the tackles in 2020, where he averaged 7.5 yards per carry. However, 21.2% of those attempts outside the tackles also went for zero or negative yards. Teammate Javonte Williams was stuffed on just 9.4% of his outside attempts, indicating this is an issue specific to Carter’s style. 

Focusing solely on the players the Jets added, this stands out among the strongest classes in 2020. However, their process does deserve some criticism due to the trade up to acquire Vera-Tucker. 

A rebuilding team parting with a pair of third-round picks to move up for an interior offensive lineman is not a move that can be endorsed. Less than 50% of first-round guards get a second contract with their original team, so it’s foolish to be overconfident in your evaluation of a player like Vera-Tucker.