These career arcs of past NFL draft picks are ideal models for the defensive 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? Yesterday, we answered that question for the four offensive players in the class. Today, we will move on to the six defensive players.
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.
Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen: Foyesade Oluokun
With the duo of fifth-round pick Jamien Sherwood and sixth-round pick Hamsah Nasirildeen, the Jets took two shots at the dartboard in hopes of hitting the bullseye once. That bullseye would be an athletic and versatile starting WILL linebacker who makes a successful transition from the safety position.
A former pupil of Jeff Ulbrich‘s in Atlanta, Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun is an outstanding model for Sherwood and Nasirildeen. His on-field profile closely matches what the Jets are aiming to mold at least one of these two rookies into, and his career development arc is also a solid guideline for the two New York youngsters.
Oluokun was a sixth-round pick of the Falcons in 2018. Just as Sherwood and Nasirildeen are hoping to do, Oluokun played a large role in the Atlanta defense right away. He appeared in all 16 games as a rookie and played 48.1% of the Falcons’ defensive snaps. Oluokun remained a rotational piece in 2019 before being promoted to a starting role in 2020, representing a realistic three-year growth curve for a late-Day 3 draft pick.
Like Sherwood and Nasirildeen, Oluokun came into the league with a safety background – although he last played it in high school and had already transitioned to linebacker in college.
That could leave Sherwood and Nasirildeen needing more time to develop than Oluokun did, but nevertheless, the player that Oluokun has become in the NFL is exactly what Ulbrich is going to want his new set of young linebackers to be.
Oluokun was the lightest linebacker in the league this past season, listed at 215 pounds. Atlanta took full advantage of his superior mobility and safety background. Oluokun lined up outside of the tackle box on 41.8% of his snaps, ranking fourth-highest out of 73 qualified linebackers. Additionally, the Yale product lined up either in the slot, at free safety, or at outside cornerback on 18.0% of his snaps. That ranked fifth-highest.
While Oluokun is no superstar, he is a solid starter. His 56.6 overall Pro Football Focus grade in 2020 ranked 40th out of 88 qualified linebackers (55th percentile). Plus, his versatility offers the Falcons a lot of flexibility that allows them to increase the unpredictability of their play calling and move other players into positions that suit their strengths.
If just one of Sherwood or Nasirildeen could turn into Foyesade Oluokun, it would be a win for the Jets.
Michael Carter II: Brian Poole
We move on to our second Falcon who shared time with Ulbrich: Brian Poole.
Michael Carter II is a rare fifth-round pick who enters his rookie season with a relatively high chance of becoming an opening-week starter. Carter II’s only competition for the starting slot cornerback role is Javelin Guidry, a 2020 undrafted free agent who played less than 200 snaps in his debut season.
Guidry played well in his limited time on the field, but early indications from minicamp and OTAs are that this is an open competition – one that features Carter II as the early front-runner. Carter II was taking a healthy number of the first-team slot reps by the end of OTAs, according to Jets X-Factor’s Robby Sabo.
Poole came into Atlanta as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and seized the team’s starting slot role right away, just as Carter II is hoping to do. He appeared in all 16 games and played 75.1% of Atlanta’s defensive snaps, ranking third among cornerbacks with 654 snaps in the slot.
Since then, Poole has established himself as one of the most consistent slot cornerbacks in the league. He remained Atlanta’s starting slot man in each of the next two seasons and then handled the role for the Jets from 2019-20. His coverage has been solid; he has given up an average of 7.0 yards per target in his career, a solid rate compared to the 2020 league average among cornerbacks (8.0).
Carter II’s dominant slot coverage in the ACC suggests he could have a good chance of becoming an instant-impact player just as Poole was. When covering the slot in 2020, Carter II allowed 15 catches on 31 targets (48.4%) for 122 yards (3.9 per target), one touchdown, and one interception. That’s a passer rating of 59.1 – elite stuff.
Jason Pinnock: Bashaud Breeland
Like Carter II, Jason Pinnock has a chance to be an opening-week starter for the Jets, although he has a little more competition in his way. Bless Austin and Isaiah Dunn are Pinnock’s top competitors for the starting outside cornerback spot opposite Bryce Hall. All three players seem to have a legitimate chance to win the job.
Pinnock just might be able to seize a starting spot to begin the season. Austin struggled mightily in 2020 while Dunn’s undrafted free agent status may put him at a disadvantage compared to the more expensive Pinnock.
However, even if Pinnock does claim the job, his resume of collegiate production suggests that he has a high likelihood of needing some time to develop before he can become a solid starter. Pinnock allowed 24.5 yards per reception in 2020, the second-highest rate among FBS cornerbacks that allowed at least 10 catches. Additionally, in each of the last three seasons, Pinnock allowed exactly five touchdown catches and at least three catches for 30+ yards.
With that level of production in college, it would take a massive amount of growth this offseason for Pinnock to be a good NFL player as a rookie. He has the ceiling to become great down the line, though.
As Joe Blewett delved into on film, Pinnock balances out his brutal reps with some truly fantastic ones. He’s extremely hit-or-miss. The misses tend to be ugly and the hits tend to be beautiful. For that reason, the elite potential is there, coming on the strength of his enticing length, physicality, and smooth hips.
With all of this in mind, the best career arc model for Pinnock would be a player who started on the outside as a rookie and struggled but developed into a useful player down the line.
Bashaud Breeland fits the bill.
The Clemson product was selected by Washington in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He started 15 games as a rookie and largely struggled. Breeland posted a PFF coverage grade of 49.9 that ranked at the 17th percentile among qualified cornerbacks. However, he showcased potential as he posted a total of 14 passes defended that tied for 14th in the NFL.
Breeland developed into a solid starter for Washington over the following three seasons. From 2015-17, he started 42 games for the team (playing in 44) and performed well as he allowed only 6.9 yards per target and ranked sixth in the league with 46 passes defended over that span.
Pinnock could experience a similar arc. Even if he struggles early, he will maintain the potential for substantial growth in the future.
Brandin Echols: Justin Bethel
Brandin Echols appears to be further away from a starting spot than Carter II and Pinnock. For him, it makes more sense to identify a player who received little-to-no playing time on defense as a rookie and then developed into a valuable piece later on.
Justin Bethel’s career makes sense as a reasonable expectation for Echols, who was the 200th player chosen in the 2021 draft.
A sixth-round pick of the Cardinals in 2012, Bethel proved to be a great special teamer and solid backup cornerback over six seasons in Arizona. He was immediately a high-impact special teams contributor and maintained that role throughout his Cardinals career, while on the defensive side, he needed a few years of development before he could be trusted to contribute as a key reserve.
Bethel led the Cardinals with 336 special teams snaps as a rookie, appearing regularly on every unit except for the field goal and extra point protection unit. He would go on to rank first or second on the team in special teams snaps in all six of his seasons there. Bethel became a dominant tackler in kick coverage, ranking top-26 in the league in special teams tackles every year, including No. 2 in his second season and No. 1 in his third.
Defensively, Bethel was seldom used over his first two seasons, playing just 12 snaps and allowing a 37-yard touchdown on one of them. Arizona began to grant him defensive playing time in his third season, and he provided decent production as a backup throughout his final four seasons there.
From 2014-17, Bethel played 1,371 defensive snaps (342.8 per season) and posted a composite PFF coverage grade of 58.2, which is respectable for a backup. It’s only a few ticks below the 2020 league average for cornerbacks (61.0).
Every player in a draft class cannot be a home run. It has never happened and it probably never will. Some players in every team’s draft class are going to fall well short of their ceiling.
With that being said, the factor that tends to separate the average draft classes from the great ones is whether the non-home run picks still provide some sort of impact. Can you rack up singles and walks instead of strikeouts? That is the key question.
If a team can net a few useful backups and special teamers out of their Day 3 picks, it goes a long way towards improving the depth of the roster. If a team’s less-than-stellar picks flame out of the league in a year and give them nothing, the picks go to waste and the team is left picking up scraps off the waiver wire to fill out their depth chart, which leads to a decrepit roster.
There’s nothing sexy about labeling Justin Bethel as a ceiling for Echols, but it is a realistic projection that would still make him a successful pick at No. 200 overall. Most selections in this range amount to nothing. Netting a six-year decent backup cornerback and top-notch special teamer with the 200th pick is a significant victory.
Jonathan Marshall: Beau Allen
Jonathan Marshall is going to have a rough time getting on the field this season, barring injury. With numerous established studs ahead of him on the defensive line depth chart, he will likely only see a handful of snaps per game at most.
Long-term, more opportunities could open up for Marshall. Following the 2021 season, Foley Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers will hit free agency. The Jets will also have the flexibility to easily escape Sheldon Rankins‘ contract.
New York would certainly love to have Marshall develop quickly enough to prove worthy of replacing one of those players. It is going to be difficult for the Jets to pay every member of their stacked defensive line, so it would be enormously helpful if they can have the substantially cheaper Marshall at least come close to replicating the impact that one of those players provides.
Beau Allen is a good example of a late-round defensive tackle who showcased yearly development after barely playing like a rookie.
Selected by Philadelphia in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, Allen played just 12.2 snaps per game in his rookie season, starting none of the 16 games he appeared in. He participated in a measly 16.8% of the Eagles’ defensive plays.
In his second season, Allen became a bigger part of the defense. He averaged 21.4 snaps per game and played 28.2% of the snaps.
Allen’s playing time increased in each of the next two seasons as well, rising to 25.8 snaps per game (40.8%) in his third year and up again to 28.2 snaps per game (41.1%) in his fourth.
Nobody would consider Allen an amazing player. He had 2.0 sacks and 10 tackles for loss over his four years and 63 games in Philadelphia. Regardless, he was a decent situational player for the Eagles who contributed as a rookie and was trusted to handle a bigger role each season. It would be greedily optimistic to hope for more than that out of a seventh-round pick.
Marshall is a much different prospect than Allen – Marshall has freakish athletic talent that grants him tantalizing upside while Allen is a more of a dirty-working player (although Allen had good athletic numbers coming into the NFL as well) – but it is important to keep expectations realistic when projecting a draft pick’s future. Marshall was the 207th pick. If he had a great chance of succeeding in the NFL, he would not have been passed on 206 times.
It is best to remain pragmatic when deducing a rookie’s ceiling. Otherwise, you are bound to be disappointed.
Replicating Allen’s production for the Eagles – four years of decent play as a rotational interior lineman featuring year-by-year growth – would make Marshall a success story out of the No. 207 slot.