It's that time of the year, folks.
NFL draft analysts and insiders have started rolling out preliminary predictions for the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. released a mock draft on Tuesday morning featuring a decision by the Jets at No. 2 that's sure to grab your attention.
Rather than addressing their quarterback conundrum, taking either BYU's Zach Wilson or Justin Fields from Ohio State, Kiper has New York taking Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith second overall.
Here's his explanation:
This is where the intrigue in the draft begins. Will the Jets stick with quarterback Sam Darnold for another year, or will they take either Zach Wilson or Justin Fields? (Or maybe even trade for Deshaun Watson?) The good news for general manager Joe Douglas and new coach Robert Saleh is that they have three months to figure it out. This is a huge decision, and Douglas and Saleh have to be 100% sure that Wilson or Fields is an upgrade over Darnold. My feeling right now is that yes, Darnold's stats are ugly, but he's only 23 and he has had no offensive talent around him for three years. Do the Jets really want to move on from him and watch him thrive elsewhere? That's why they could give him a one-year audition under Saleh, pick the Heisman Trophy winner at No. 2, and give Darnold one more shot to put all of his talent together. Smith is the true No. 1 target that Darnold hasn't had.
To Kiper, building around Darnold is the best decision for the Jets. Darnold may be coming off an awful campaign in 2020, finishing last in the league in multiple categories, but he's only 23 and has the raw talent to perform at this level.
In other words, rather than abandoning ship as Darnold enters his fourth season in the NFL, Kiper believes the quarterback can turn his career around if he's surrounded by playmakers on offense.
Alabama's DeVonta Smith distinguished himself this past year as one of the best wide receivers in the nation, becoming the first wideout to win the Heisman in three decades. His performance in the national championship—going off for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone—certainly influenced many to move him up on their draft boards.
There's still a chance New York can target another quarterback in a trade—perhaps Deshaun Watson—but taking one of the best players available with the second pick certainly can't hurt.
As for New York's second first-round pick, Kiper has the Jets addressing a weakness on the defensive side of the ball. The analyst predicts that New York will take cornerback Jaycee Horn (of South Carolina) with the 23rd pick.
Here's Kiper with more:
The Jets have needs all over. After I gave them wideout DeVonta Smith at No. 2, they really have to go with the best available prospect here to build up their talent base. I think they will likely bring back free-agent safety Marcus Maye, but we know Robert Saleh's defense is built around big defensive backs. The 6-foot-1 Horn -- yes, his father is former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn -- is a fit. He had two interceptions (both in the win over Auburn) in seven games last season before he opted out, but he has great instincts in coverage and should pick off more passes in the NFL. This is also a spot to watch for edge rushers -- New York needs to improve there.
Jaycee Horn played three years at South Carolina, picking off two passes in seven games this season. New York's secondary struggled quite a bit in 2020, so taking a cornerback here in the first—using a pick acquired from the Seahawks in the Jamal Adams trade—would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Ideally new head coach Robert Saleh and his fresh defensive staff can help defensive backs like Ashtyn Davis and Bryce Hall (from New York's 2020 draft class) develop as they enter their second year in the league. Factor another stud like Horn into the mix, while making sure to re-sign safety and leader Marcus Maye, and the Jets will continue to build their secondary into a formidable unit.