These career arcs of past NFL draft picks are ideal models for the offensive members of the NY Jets’ 2021 rookie class.
Which career paths can we look back on as optimal guides for the 10 members of the New York Jets‘ 2021 draft class? That is the question we are going to answer today.
Unless otherwise noted, these player comparisons are not chosen based on body type, play style, or anything related to on-field strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to identify players whose development arcs represent a realistic positive scenario for each rookie.
Zach Wilson: Andrew Luck
The Andrew Luck model is a great one for any highly-drafted quarterback. It sets realistic rookie-year expectations and features substantial year-over-year progression.
Luck was instantly a competent NFL quarterback who could win games, but he certainly was not a stud as a first-year player.
In his rookie season, Luck completed 339 of 627 passes (54.1%) for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. Luck ranked 26th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks in passer rating (76.5) while leading the Colts offense to 19th in points per drive (1.76). Indianapolis went 11-5 and earned a trip to the playoffs.
Zach Wilson will probably not hit Luck’s yardage total, as the Colts loaded Luck with a high volume of pass attempts (5th-most in the NFL) while the 2021 Jets offense figures to be run-heavy.
However, from an efficiency perspective, Luck’s rookie season is a reasonable guideline. He was nowhere near awful like many rookies tend to be, but he also wasn’t average just yet, settling in as a below-average quarterback and leading a slightly below-average offense. Luck showed a ton of exciting flashes while going through normal rookie-year bumps.
At the same time, Luck won a lot of games, which set him on a positive path going forward. It would be unfair to expect Wilson to win 11 games for the Jets this year, but if he could grab at least seven or eight wins, that would be a healthy jumping-off point from the perspective of establishing a winning identity early in his career.
In his second season, Luck completed 343 of 570 passes (60.2%) for 3,822 yards, 23 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He leaped eight spots to 18th in passer rating (87.0) while the Colts offense jumped eight spots to 11th in points per drive (1.97).
Indy once again went 11-5 and returned to the playoffs, claiming a Wild Card win over the Chiefs after going one-and-done in Luck’s rookie year. In the victory, Luck posted a 98.3 passer rating, throwing for 443 yards and four touchdowns (in addition to three interceptions) while leading the Colts to 45 points.
That was a big improvement over his ghastly rookie-year Wild Card performance against the Ravens. In his playoff debut as a rookie, Luck threw for 288 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception on 54 passes (59.8 passer rating) while leading the Colts to nine points.
Altogether, that was quite a solid second-year leap from Luck – but his Year 2-to-Year 3 leap was even bigger.
After setting a solid foundation as a rookie by playing at a below-average level and winning games, Luck built off of it and grew to an average level in his second season before establishing himself as a star in his third year.
In 2014, Luck completed 380 of 616 passes (61.7%) for 4,761 yards, a league-high 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Luck ranked seventh in the NFL in passer rating (96.5) and led the Colts offense to seventh in points per drive (2.18). Indianapolis had another 11-5 season that featured another step forward in the playoffs. The Colts won two games before falling to the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
Injuries would begin to derail Luck’s career in the 2015 season. Nevertheless, he remained a star quarterback whenever healthy from his third season onward.
Here’s a simple synopsis of Luck’s three-year growth curve:
- Year 1: 26th in passer rating, offense ranked 19th in points per drive, 0 playoff wins
- Year 2: 18th in passer rating, offense ranked 11th in points per drive, 1 playoff win
- Year 3: 7th in passer rating, offense ranked 7th in points per drive, 2 playoff wins
The Jets would be thrilled if Wilson developed in a similar fashion.
Alijah Vera-Tucker: Mike Iupati
Alijah Vera-Tucker screams “high-floor prospect.” His fundamentals and technique are already so proficient that it is hard to envision him being a bad NFL starter, even as a rookie. His ceiling is the greatest question mark – can he be a top 3 type of player or will he settle in as a top 10 guy? – but Vera-Tucker seems to have a high likelihood of being at least “good” from the beginning.
Mike Iupati’s career arc perfectly resembles the image that comes to mind when projecting Vera-Tucker. Iupati was a mid-first-round pick who instantly established himself as one of the better guards in the league and maintained that level of play for a long time.
Selected 17th overall by the 49ers in the 2010 draft, Iupati started all 16 games at left guard in his rookie season and earned an 82.1 overall grade at Pro Football Focus that ranked sixth-best among left guards and 10th-best among all guards.
In each of his first seven NFL seasons, Iupati ranked top-16 among left guards (minimum 500 snaps at LG) in overall PFF grade. Iupati placed top-6 in five of those seven seasons:
- 2010 (SF): 82.1 grade (6th of 31 left guards)
- 2011 (SF): 79.0 grade (5th of 32 left guards)
- 2012 (SF): 83.1 grade (2nd of 29 left guards)
- 2013 (SF): 70.6 grade (16th of 30 left guards)
- 2014 (SF): 80.6 grade (4th of 31 left guards)
- 2015 (ARI): 80.3 grade (3rd of 29 left guards)
- 2016 (ARI): 69.8 grade (16th of 30 left guards)
Injuries began to wreck Iupati’s career as he hit the 30-year-old wall after the 2016 season, but he put together an excellent 7-year run.
It certainly seems like quite a lot to ask Vera-Tucker to come straight through the door and start playing like a top-six left guard immediately, but if the Jets did not think he was capable of doing that, they probably would not have traded two third-round picks to get him.
Elijah Moore: Percy Harvin
Elijah Moore seems to be poised for a big role in the Jets’ offense early in his career despite slipping to the 34th overall pick. Right off the bat, he should see a high volume of targets in addition to a sizable diet of opportunities as a rusher.
Percy Harvin was selected in a fairly similar range as Moore (22nd overall by the Vikings in 2009) and came into the league offering similar versatility and elusiveness. Like Moore, he was drafted with the idea of being featured right away in a role that would allow his athleticism and pure skill with the ball in his hands to shine. He was also the same age as Moore currently is, with both entering their rookie season at 21 years old.
Harvin’s early-career role and production are an excellent model for what Moore’s numbers could end up looking like. He was immediately a featured weapon who saw plenty of action as a rusher. Following his rookie season, Harvin’s involvement and production increased each year.
In his rookie season, Harvin saw 91 targets and 15 rushing attempts in 15 games, an average of 7.1 plays per game. He posted 790 receiving yards and 135 rushing yards, averaging 61.7 scrimmage yards per game.
Harvin continued to rack up plenty of targets and rushing attempts each year. He made the most of the opportunities given to him as he consistently produced at an efficient level.
Here is a look at Harvin’s per-game averages from 2009 to 2012:
- 2009: 6.1 targets, 52.7 receiving yards, 1.0 rushes, 9.0 yards (61.7 scrimmage yards)
- 2010: 7.8 targets, 62.0 receiving yards, 1.3 rushes, 7.6 yards (69.6 scrimmage yards)
- 2011: 7.6 targets, 60.4 receiving yards, 3.3 rushes, 21.6 yards (82.0 scrimmage yards)
- 2012: 9.4 targets, 75.2 receiving yards, 2.4 rushes, 10.7 yards (85.9 scrimmage yards)
People often forget how good Harvin was at the start of his career. He averaged 73.8 yards from scrimmage per game over his first four seasons – pace for 1,181 yards over 16 games. Harvin also had 20 receiving touchdowns, four rushing touchdowns, and five kickoff return touchdowns – an average of 8.6 touchdowns per 16 games.
Injuries ruined Harvin’s career after the 2012 season (yes, I know, this is the third player in a row I selected who ended up having injury problems), but through four seasons, he was an electric offensive player who was fed a lot of touches in both phases, many of them being drawn up for him in a creative fashion.
That sounds exactly what the Jets want Elijah Moore to be.
Michael Carter: Tevin Coleman
Yes, Michael Carter has an unusually good opportunity ahead of him for a fourth-round pick, but we have to be objective and understand how low we should keep our expectations for a fourth-round running back.
Of the 65 running backs selected in the fourth sound since 2001 who got playing time as a rookie, only seven of them (10.8%) ranked top-30 among running backs in PPR fantasy points as a rookie. Just two (3.1%) ranked top-25 and none ranked higher than 14th.
Obviously, this is not a fantasy article, but it puts into perspective how unproductive (and uninvolved) fourth-round rookie running backs tend to be.
Here is a list of RBs selected in Round 4 since 2001. It shows their rookie-season PPR finish and their career-best PPR finish.
The last rookie-season Top 25 was in 2011. Only 7 went on to reach top-10 status.
This is a Michael Carter tweet. pic.twitter.com/9ILCwfRqG1
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) July 2, 2021
With all of that said, this is certainly a unique situation for Carter. The Jets have one of the least proven running back groups in the league. There is a golden opportunity for Carter to earn plenty of carries in Mike LaFleur’s committee backfield.
Before getting to our player comparison, it’s worth looking at the number of touches that typically go around in a committee. Here are the 49ers’ leaders in carries per game over LaFleur’s tenure there (excluding 2017, when Carlos Hyde carried the load):
- 2018: Jeff Wilson (11.0), Matt Breida (10.9), Alfred Morris (9.3)
- 2019: Tevin Coleman (9.8), Matt Breida (9.5), Raheem Mostert (8.6)
- 2020: Raheem Mostert (13.0), Jeff Wilson (10.5), Jerick McKinnon (5.1)
If the Jets follow this model, there should be plenty of carries available for up to three running backs. It would be hard for Carter to not seize a key role in this type of offense.
Let’s move on to our career arc comparison for Carter: his elder teammate Telvin Coleman. I believe Coleman is a strong model for Carter both in terms of career arc and skill set.
Coleman was an early third-round pick of the Falcons in 2015, being taken with the 73rd overall pick.
Playing behind Devonta Freeman in his rookie season, Coleman received 87 carries over 12 games, an average of 7.3 per game. I would expect Carter to be closer to the 9.0 or 10.0 mark this year, but that’s right in the same ballpark. Coleman did a good job with those opportunities as he picked up 392 yards for an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
Coleman’s role expanded from there. He was never the go-to guy for Atlanta or San Francisco, but he received a significant amount of playing time and developed into a trusted option in the passing game. From 2016-19, Coleman averaged 10.0 carries and 2.6 targets per game. That’s closer to where Carter could end up as soon as his rookie season.
Carter has a complete skill set that gives him the potential to develop into an every-down workhorse at some point down the line, but for now, Coleman makes sense as a realistically optimistic ceiling. Not only is Coleman’s usage a solid guideline for where Carter could fall in this Jets offense, but Coleman’s prime strengths are two of Carter’s best strengths as well.
Coleman has made his money through explosive runs and efficient pass-catching. While his down-to-down rushing consistency and propensity for stuffed runs has limited his potential to become a go-to guy, he has always been relied upon to pick up runs for 15+ yards at a great rate. Additionally, Coleman’s propensity for drops has prevented him from becoming a heavily utilized receiver, but his overall production as a receiver remains excellent.
Those two abilities were among Carter’s top strengths at North Carolina. There are questions he needs to answer in a few different areas, but he appears to have fairly strong odds of translating his explosiveness and receiving efficiency to the NFL.
Keep your expectations for Carter tempered. Even in a favorable situation like this one, it would simply be ignorant to think he has a good chance of having a huge season. Fourth-round picks rarely put up notable numbers.
If Carter can have a Coleman-like rookie season – producing efficiently on less than 100 carries – and then develop into a Coleman-esque running back on a yearly basis throughout his Jets career – providing plenty of big runs and solid per-play receiving efficiency even if he never becomes a high-volume star in either phase – that would make him an outstanding fourth-round pick.