Super Bowl LVI's in the books, ending the longest season in NFL history. How did the new guys perform in the expanded 285-game slate? Gennaro Filice and Nick Shook are taking a division-by-division look at each team's rookie class, providing grades and analysis on Year 1 production. Filice examines the AFC South below.
- (195) Roy Lopez, DT, 16 games/15 starts
Notable Free Agent Signee
- Jimmy Morrissey, C, 5 games/4 starts
All things considered, 2021 had to be the most depressing year in the two-decade history of the Texans franchise. But amidst all the negative energy, the 2021 rookie class served as a beacon of hope in Houston. That's a major credit to the scouting staff, considering the Texans didn't even go on the clock until Round 3 and ultimately left the draft with a five-man class. Shoot, Jacksonville made five picks before Houston's first selection. And yet, the Texans unquestionably boast the AFC South's most productive rookie class.
Let's begin where everything begins in this league: at the quarterback position. In January of last year, Deshaun Watson requested a trade. A few months later, he was facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. Suddenly, the Texans had to start over at the most important position in the sport. They scrambled to acquire Tyrod Taylor in free agency and Ryan Finley via trade, then grabbed Mills with their highest draft pick. A five-star recruit out of high school, Mills was plagued by injuries during his four years at Stanford, starting just 11 total games before deciding to forego his remaining eligibility and enter the 2021 NFL Draft. The eighth quarterback off the board, Mills entered Year 1 as the anonymous backup to the emergency starter. But the Football Gods continued their relentless smiting of Taylor, who injured his hamstring in Week 2, forcing the rookie into action. Mills flashed promise in his first two months of NFL action -- remember when he nearly slayed Bill Belichick's Patriots with a 312-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece? -- but Taylor regained the starting job upon return from injured reserve. Houston eventually went back to Mills in mid-December and the 23-year-old produced some sparkling numbers in his final five starts of the season: 68.4 comp%, 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 102.4 passer rating. He even outdueled quarterbacking darling Justin Herbert in a shocking upset of the Chargers. It remains to be seen what the rebuilding Texans do this offseason, but having an intriguing second-year option at quarterback is something no one saw coming at this time last offseason.
Beyond Mills, Houston got solid returns from Collins, Jordan and especially Lopez, a sixth-round pick who started 15 games. The Texans entered the 2021 college marketplace with a losing hand of draft cards, but in Year 1, this rookie class easily took the AFC South pot.
- (65) Andre Cisco, S, 17 games/3 starts
- (145) Luke Farrell, TE, 15 games/4 starts
- (209) Jalen Camp, WR, 3 games/1 starts (w/ HOU)
Let me preface this blurb with a necessary disclaimer:
Due to the unmitigated disaster that was Urban Meyer's 13-game stint in Duval, all current perspectives on these Jacksonville Jaguars are subject to change.
OK, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let's get down to brass tacks on this draft class. Honestly, it actually wasn't all bad. But the Year 1 setbacks for Jacksonville's two first-round picks contaminate the rest of the group. Coming out of Clemson, Lawrence was universally viewed as a generational quarterback prospect, a John Elway/Andrew Luck type of CAN'T-MISS talent. The No. 1 overall pick was basically locked in the moment Lawrence declared for the draft. So, with all that as the backdrop, it was quite a letdown seeing the rookie fail to complete 60 percent of his passes (59.6), average an NFL-low 6.0 yards per attempt and throw an NFL-high 17 interceptions. His passer rating of 71.9 finished south of every qualified passer besides a fellow passenger on the rookie struggle bus, Zach Wilson. So, what happened? Well, as mentioned above, the head coach didn't exactly create an environment for success. Furthermore, the offensive line was pretty suspect and Lawrence's surrounding skill-position talent left plenty to be desired. When you're leaning on Laquon Treadwell and Jamal Agnew as go-to guys, it's a problem. Etienne, Jacksonville's second first-round pick, certainly would've helped on the weaponry front, but he suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason. And then Meyer had a strange obsession with his former Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, to the detriment of eternally underrated back James Robinson and the Jaguars' offense as a whole. Long story short, the quarterback's lackluster play deserves context. Year 1 was highly disappointing, but it doesn't doom him to eternal busthood. And on the plus side, he closed out the season with his best NFL performance to date in Week 18, shockingly preventing the Colts from securing a playoff spot in a 26-11 Jaguars win.
Now that we're talking about good things, let's give a shoutout to three rookies who left Jaguars fans with positive vibrations by season's end. Campbell steadily improved over the course of his debut campaign as a 14-game starter, while Little and Cisco both finished the season with quality play in the starting lineup.
- (No. 21) Kwity Paye, DE, 15 games/15 starts
- (54) Dayo Odeyingbo, DE, 10 games/0 starts
- (127) Kylen Granson, TE, 17 games/0 starts
- (165) Shawn Davis, S, 1 game/0 starts (w/ GB)
- (218) Sam Ehlinger, QB, 3 games/0 starts
If you came here for extensive Kwity Paye analysis, you're in luck! A 15-game starter, the first-round pick logged 642 snaps -- 80 more than the entire rest of the draft class combined. Now, the Colts took Odeyingbo knowing he was in the midst of a lengthy recovery from a torn Achilles and Ehlinger was always viewed as a developmental prospect, but Davis didn't make the roster and eventually relocated to Green Bay, while the others simply failed to make an impact. So, let's get back to the one draft pick who did ...
Paye, who was born in a refugee camp in Guinea and has a backstory that's worth nine minutes of your day, took some time to get his sea legs in the NFL. One problem: Paye's actual legs weren't right. A sprained ankle cost him time in training camp, and then a hamstring injury basically sidelined him for three games in the regular season. But the Michigan product really came on in the second half of the season, providing 31 of his 38 pressures and all four sacks in Weeks 9-17. Thanks to this strong finish -- and, admittedly, underwhelming first-year production from this DE class -- Paye earned a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. His improvement over the course of the season maintained the steady upward trajectory he showed throughout his collegiate career. The 23-year-old's pass-rushing plan still needs more polish, but don't be surprised if he doubles his sack total in Year 2, giving the Colts some real edge juice to complement DeForest Buckner's interior disruption.
- (No. 22) Caleb Farley, CB, 3 games/1 start
- (53) Dillon Radunz, OL, 12 games/1 start
- (205) Racey McMath, WR, 9 games/0 starts
- (215) Brady Breeze, S, 9 games/0 starts (5 w/ TEN, 4 w/ DET)
Notable Undrafted Free Agent
- Naquan Jones, DT, 13 games/5 starts
Jon Robinson has developed a habit of rolling the dice in Round 1. Sometimes his hand is red hot (SEE: Jeffery Simmons in 2019), other times he craps out (Isaiah Wilson in 2020). Unfortunately, the Farley selection fell into the latter scenario in Year 1 -- albeit for completely different reasons than Wilson, who didn't even last a year in Tennessee due to a laundry list of problems. Farley was initially viewed as a top-10 overall talent in this prospect crop, but a back surgery one month before the draft underscored a concerning injury history and sent his stock tumbling. Robinson stopped the fall at No. 22. "Our doctors and trainers spent a lot of time analyzing all of the stuff and talking with Caleb over the phone," the GM said a day after making the pick. "We are super stoked to have as part of our football team." Sadly, the man's injury luck could not be worse. After missing three games with a shoulder issue, Farley made his first NFL start in Week 6 and promptly tore the ACL in his left knee. This coming four years after he tore his right ACL at Virginia Tech. (Seriously, WTF?) Back on his Sisyphean road to recovery, Farley's easy to root for, but hard to bank on. Just a brutal situation. While Tennessee hopes Farley can eventually fulfill his promise as an eraser on the outside, the Titans know they have an emerging stud on the inside. Molden proved to be a steal at No. 100 overall, deftly handling slot-corner duties on Mike Vrabel's much-improved defense.
The rest of Tennessee's draft class was marred by injuries and invisibility -- Fitzpatrick spent most of the year on the practice squad and Breeze finished the season as a Detroit Lion. The Titans did find a nice piece in the undrafted free-agent market, though, as Naquan Jones helped fill the nose tackle void left by free agency departure DaQuan Jones. (No relation, but how great is that?!)