While the Patriots won their fifth straight AFC East title last season and continue to be one of the most consistent franchises in the NFL, the Jets, Dolphins and Bills continued their recent struggles. New England remains the only team in the division to finish above .500 since the Jets went 11-5 in 2010 and, while Miami and New York were knocking on the door at 8-8 last season, Buffalo made the loudest noise on draft day in an attempt to break through.
Buffalo Bills: Sitting with the ninth overall pick and a need for another wide receiver, the Bills sent their selection along with a 2015 first and fourth-rounder to Cleveland for the fourth overall pick, where they selected Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. We graded Watkins as the top receiver in the class, slightly ahead of Mike Evans, and there is no doubt the Bills got a playmaker with elite skills to help E.J. Manuel develop. They were able to move Stevie Johnson for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2015 that could turn into a third-rounder as well, but trading up to select a player at the draft’s deepest position is questionable. Without a first-round pick next year, this move adds pressure to the front office and coaching staff to make the playoffs in 2014.
Buffalo added offensive line help in Round 2, drafting Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandijo. Kouandijo has great size (6-6, 322) but his play dropped off as a junior and an arthritic left knee scared some teams away. With Cordy Glenn locked in on Manuel’s blind side, Kouandijo should compete with Chris Hairston to start at right tackle. The Bills added to their defense in Round 3 with Louisville linebacker Preston Brown. With Brandon Spikes on a one-year contract, Buffalo envisions the run-defending Brown as their 2015 starting middle linebacker. A solid athlete and tackler, Brown fits the same two-down mold as Spikes. Fourth-round pick Ross Cockrell got a fifth-round grade from us and, while he’s currently buried on the depth chart, his ball skills and awareness in zone coverage make him a good sub-package prospect. In the fifth round, the Bills picked up another monster lineman, Baylor guard Cyril Richardson. A mauling run blocker most effective in small spaces, Richardson was considered a Day 2 prospect until his severe lack of movement skills were exposed at the Senior Bowl. He has starting potential in a power running game, which the Bills may be looking to employ to aid Manuel.
Buffalo drafted two players in the seventh round, Florida Atlantic linebacker Randell Johnson and Miami tackle Seantrel Henderson. Three suspensions and inconsistent play on the field along with a failed drug test at the NFL Combine dropped Henderson, a Day 1 or 2 physical talent, all the way to the seventh round. NFL teams and scouts have serious questions about whether the light will ever go on for Henderson, but if it does he has the size and athleticism to be a very good starter. Johnson didn’t make our top 300, but his long arms and 4.6 speed make him an intriguing project as a pass rusher. He’ll need to carve out a special teams role to assure a place on the roster. After the draft, the Bills added undrafted Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler. An average athlete with good instincts and awareness, Ladler was a fifth-round prospect on our board and has the aggressive mindset, range and ball skills to be a solid contributor if he makes the team.
Grade C+ Watkins is a great player but the price to move up may prove to be too high for Buffalo, a team now under immediate pressure to win. They did a nice job adding two prospects with starting potential to their offensive line and while I like Brown, we had him rated as a fifth-rounder. Grabbing Henderson late and Ladler off the wire were shrewd, low-risk moves by the Bills that could pay dividends long-term. Buffalo added talent to their roster, but their grade reflects the added pressure of making the playoffs in 2014 and overpayment for the fourth pick.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins need to find a way to keep Ryan Tannehill off his back this season and drafted Tennessee tackle Ja’Wuan James to do just that. After unsuccessfully trying to trade up to grab Zack Martin or trade down to add additional picks, Miami ended up with a player they coveted even if the value wasn’t there. Rated as a second-rounder on our board, James’ consistency and experience could lead to a Week 1 starting job at right tackle. While not the most fluid pass blocker, James is patient in his sets and will help open holes for a run game that struggled last season.
Second-round pick Jarvis Landry was extremely productive at LSU, but watched teammate Odell Beckham Jr. go in the first round despite lesser numbers. While Landry’s size (5-11, 205) and speed (4.55) are far from spectacular, his route-running ability allows him to gain separation while he shows sticky hands and the awareness to work back to his quarterback and find open spaces in zone coverage. He should beat out Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews for the third receiver role. Third-round pick Billy Turner is a developmental prospect from North Dakota State who could settle in at right tackle or guard. Athletic with a nasty attitude, Turner has a starter’s skill set if he takes well to NFL coaching and improves his technique. Just a season after spending second and third-round picks at cornerback, the Dolphins took Liberty cornerback Walt Aikens in the fourth round. An Illinois transfer with good size (6-0, 199), Aikens shows good awareness but is not effective in downfield coverage. We had a seventh-round grade on him. Miami added tight end Arthur Lynch and Jordan Tripp in the fifth round, both representing good value at those slots. Lynch is a balanced in-line tight end who will likely max out as a second tight end, while Tripp is another small-school prospect out of Montana. Like Turner, he brings a nasty attitude to the field and plays hard until the whistle despite average speed (4.63) for his 234-pound frame.
Sixth-round pick Matt Hazel from Coastal Carolina is a possession receiver who sinks his hips well out of his routes and shows solid hands. Despite 4.47 speed, he doesn’t stretch the field and will likely fill a depth role. Seventh-round pick Terrence Fede is a nice upside stash for Miami as a 6-4, 278-pound defensive end with 4.78 speed. Fede dominated small-school competition at Marist and shows good instincts while playing with attitude. The Dolphins made a nice splash in free agency after the draft, added multiple prospects with draftable grades. Center Tyler Larsen projects as a solid backup and defensive tackle Anthony Johnson has Day 2 upside at a no-risk cost. Derrell Johnson is a strong-side linebacker who stacks well and is a solid tackler against the run. Running back Damien Williams has good size, patience and receiving ability and could compete for a roster spot, while Alabama’s Deion Belue is a solid zone prospect who can provide secondary depth.
Grade C+ While Miami ended up with a lot of players with draftable grades on our board, none of them ranked in our top 50, an indictment on their first-round pick. James can be a good player, but there’s a reason they were looking to trade down once Martin and the other top tackles came off the board. After last year’s Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito fiasco, the Dolphins drafted players who work hard and bring the right attitude on the field. There was also a noticeable small-school theme to Miami’s draft and while that landed them upside players like Turner and Fede, it’s possible that the Dolphins could look back on this draft in a few seasons and see minimal impact to their roster.
New York Jets: Armed with 12 draft picks, the Jets were in position to add much needed talent and depth through the draft. First-round pick Calvin Pryor was the 18th-ranked player on our board and the Jets drafted him with the 18th overall pick. A perfect fit for Rex Ryan’s defense, the aggressive, hard-hitting Pryor immediately becomes the team’s most talented safety and shows the range and ball skills to be effective in coverage, despite inefficiencies in pursuit and against play action. Second-round pick Jace Amaro fills a big hole at tight end for New York and gives Geno Smith an additional weapon on offense. At 6-5, 265 with 4.69 speed, Amaro is a great athlete with solid hands who can attack the seam and create separation on intermediate routes.
Third-round pick Dexter McDougle was a head scratcher to many, and he wasn’t ranked in our top 300 prospects. Coming off a shoulder injury that depressed his stock, McDougle could fill a nickel role if he returns to full health but was a significant reach who would have been available later. Drafting Jalen Saunders in the fourth round surprised as well with Jeremy Kerley being a reliable slot receiver, but Kerley is in the final year of his contract and the Jets’ offseason additions may push him out the door in favor of a slot playmaker like Saunders, who has 4.44 speed and also returns punts. Another fourth-round receiver, UCLA’s Shaq Evans, has good size (6-1, 213) and strong hands with ability after the catch and should compete for targets in training camp. With their third pick in the fourth round, the Jets drafted athletic Furman guard Dakota Dozier. Dozier needs to improve his base strength but has good feet, moves well, plays nasty and could eventually become a starter at a position of weakness.
Fifth-round linebacker Jeremiah George has size limitations (5-11, 235), but scrapes well and shows sideline-to-sideline range. He struggles taking on blocks and stopping ballcarriers on initial contact but can be a solid backup, especially with the Jets’ defensive line keeping blockers away from his frame. Sixth-rounders Brandon Dixon, Quincy Enunwa, IK Enemkpali and Tajh Boyd are all role players. Dixon stands 5-11, 203 with 4.42 speed and special teams skills to boot, while Enunwa is another size/speed project who needs to improve his consistency to make it off the practice squad. Enemkpali has potential as a situational pass rusher despite poor measurables, while Boyd is a former top quarterback prospect who was buoyed by a great support cast at Clemson. He’ll battle Matt Simms for the third quarterback spot and could be the Jets’ long-term answer as a backup if he can improve his accuracy and mechanics. Seventh-round pick Trevor Reilly had an early Day 3 grade on our board and is a physical, efficient player who will add depth to the Jets’ linebacking corps, but he’ll be 26 this fall. Undrafted free agent Kerry Hyder was stamped with a late Day 3 grade and has a legitimate chance to make the roster as a backup five-technique and one-gap sub-package rusher, with a great first step and good movement skills despite lacking natural bulk at 290 pounds.
Grade B The Jets added tons of depth to their roster this offseason, which should help John Idzik and Rex Ryan preach competition at almost every position over the summer. Pryor and Amaro should be impact players from Day 1 but after that, the Jets’ draft has some question marks. They got questionable value on some of their mid and late-round picks but considering how many picks they had and the fact that their top six draftees could all play important roles at some point in the next two years, the Jets come out of the draft looking better than their division rivals in terms of both depth and top-end talent.
New England Patriots: While the Patriots continue to win the division, they seem to become more vulnerable every season and haven’t drafted as well as in the past. Fortunately for them, they still have Tom Brady and none of their competitors are ready to take the throne. New England’s first-round pick this season was Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, an explosive three-technique prospect with two ACL surgeries on his resume. If he can regain his athleticism, Easley combines explosiveness with great hand moves on the inside to provide consistent interior pressure and disrupt opponents’ rhythm. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was New England’s second-round pick and with Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his contract, Garoppolo has a legitimate chance to be the heir to soon-to-be 37-year-old Tom Brady. Scouts are torn on Garoppolo’s upside and he isn’t a great deep passer, but has a West Coast skill set and one of the best mentors to learn from.
Without a third-round pick, the Patriots had three in the fourth and took Florida State center Bryan Stork, Wisconsin running back James White and Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming. Fleming was overshadowed by his teammates at Stanford but his strength and footwork make him a worthwhile project with starting upside. Stork was an All-American who also saw time at guard, but isn’t dominant in any facet of the game and projects as a versatile backup. White is strong and quick with great vision and strong hands as a receiver. He has a complete skill set without any dominant physical traits, but will be good insurance with both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley playing out the final year of their contracts.
New England had four picks in the final two rounds, adding guard Jon Halapio, defensive end Zach Moore and safety Jemea Thomas in the sixth round. Halapio moves well but needs to improve his strength, even at 323 pounds, to be anything more than a backup. Moore is a developmental prospect who dominated at Concordia-St. Paul and has good upside as a pass rusher. He must improve his strength and hand usage to be more effective against the run, but has nice potential in the sixth round. Thomas is a hard-hitting safety who lacks prototypical size (5-9, 192), which hurts him against tight ends and taller receivers in coverage. He has the mindset to be a core special teamer with the potential to work himself into a dime role down the line. Seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon is just 5-7, 185 pounds but his 39.5-inch vertical allows him to win battles as a shorter receiver. Quick in and out of his routes, Gallon lacks great long speed but has potential as a solid underneath receiver in the slot as well as on special teams. Undrafted tight end Justin Jones from East Carolina has great size at 6-7, 277 pounds but missed his senior season due to eligibility issues. If he makes the roster, his size and athleticism could make him a threat in the red zone.
Grade C New England has made some head-scratching picks in recent drafts, and 2014 was no different. While Easley has the potential to outplay his draft position, he’s also a risky player who has had both knees reconstructed, despite filling a serious need at defensive tackle. Garoppolo has starter potential but if Brady is still going strong in 2017, which is certainly a big if, the Patriots won’t know if Garoppolo is ready when his contract is set to expire. Fleming was a solid pick on Day 3 and White could contribute in the backfield, but this draft class is lacking in immediate impact unless Easley is 100 percent recovered. The Patriots will need to continue to ride Brady and their inept division rivals to stay atop the AFC East.