Saturday, August 13, 2022

AFC rookies to watch in 2021: A.J. Epenesa and 15 others who could immediately replace veterans

Things change rapidly in the NFL, jobs are tenuous, and every year a crop of young, cheaper players replace veterans, even productive ones. This year we’re likely to see a slower acclimation processes for rookies because of the unusual on-boarding due to COVID-19, but with the salary cap set to dip over the next few seasons, almost every team will be factoring cap hits into personnel decisions more than ever. 

Below, you’ll see all 16 AFC teams, the veteran who’s set to be replaced and the rookie who will do the replacing. Some of the established players have strictly been depth options during their pro careers and will give minimal cap relief to their respective teams if released. A few in line to be replaced are household names and will save their clubs plenty of money upon getting cut (or traded). Or simply moving ahead and staying ahead of them on the depth chart. 

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

Rookie: EDGE/DL A.J. Epenesa

Veteran set to be replaced: EDGE Mario Addison

The Bills obviously have high hopes for Epenesa, their first pick in the 2020 draft. Epenesa is a powerful, three-down edge rusher/defensive line hybrid that many — including myself — believed would go in the first round but lasted until the back portion of Round 2.

Murphy had five sacks in 2019, all of which came in the second half of the season. However, through two years in Buffalo, he’s disappointed in creating consistent pressure as a pass rusher. Beyond the obvious presence of Epenesa, the Bills also added veteran Mario Addison — who blossomed under Sean McDermott in Carolina — this offseason. Epenesa brings more versatility, run-stopping strength, and, most importantly, ways to win as a pass rusher. If cut, Murphy would save the Bills $7.5 million. 

What’s the biggest question for every team entering training camp? Pete Prisco joins Will Brinson to break it down on the Pick Six Podcast; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness fired into your eardrums.

New York Jets

Rookie: WR Elijah Moore

Veteran set to be replaced: WR Jamison Crowder

Winters was a full-time starter in 2018 but after mostly discouraging play in 2019 was placed on IR in November with a dislocated shoulder. The Jets have gotten good return on investment on their 2013 third-round pick, but for the first time in a while, he’ll have serious competition at his position with Clark, a truly punishing road-grader, in the mix. 

Sure, pass protection is king in the NFL, and Clark is further behind in that facet than paving lanes for the ground game, yet Winters was not particularly good in either area during the first half of last season before his injury. Beyond that, New York signed veterans Greg Van Roten and Josh Andrews in free agency. Also, Winters would skim $7.2 million off the Jets’ cap if cut. If Clark shows any semblance of competence as a pass blocker, GM Joe Douglas will likely be enticed to let Winters go.  

New England Patriots 

Rookie: DL Christian Barmore

Veteran set to be replaced: DL Byron Cowart

I highlighted Jennings as the sleeper rookie with the talent and polish to make an instant impact, and with that prediction comes some ramifications. Simon was signed in 2018 and fared decently well as a part-time, do-anything defender in Bill Belichick’s defense. But Jennings is a younger version of Simon, and he enters the Patriots’ locker room after being coached by Belichick’s buddy Nick Saban at Alabama. While he won’t be the most athletic strong-side linebacker in the league, Jennings plays with outstanding leverage, is rarely out of position and knows how to use his hands as a pass rusher. And the Patriots would save $2.3 million if Simon is released. 

Miami Dolphins 

Rookie: OL Liam Eichenberg

Veteran set to be replaced: OL Michael Deiter

Godchaux has overachieved since the Dolphins made him a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of LSU. Has he ever excelled? Not really, although he started all 16 games in each of the past two seasons in Miami. 

Davis, a mammoth defensive lineman, had his most productive season at Alabama as a sophomore in 2017, yet never built on it, and finished his career there as a towering, run-stopping force with minimal ability as a pass rusher. All that describes the exact role Godchaux played with the Dolphins. At 6-6, Davis naturally has more positional flexibility, and if released, Godchaux would take $2.1M off Miami’s cap, not that the Dolphins are in dire need for money. 

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens 

Rookie: OL Ben Cleveland

Veteran set to be replaced: OL Bradley Bozeman 

Moore’s story is a pretty remarkable one and indicative of the recent lack of depth in Baltimore’s receiver group. He was a fourth-round pick in 2016 and has clung to a roster spot ever since, despite never catching 20 catches in a single season. He’ll be up against Duvernay, a third-round pick with sub 4.40 speed.

Duvernay had a massive eruption in his senior season at Texas that was bolstered by a high number of screens, but he tracks it beautifully down the field and gives Lamar Jackson another speed option outside of Marquise Brown. Baltimore re-signed Moore in March, but Duvernay — and sixth-rounder James Proche — mean the writing is probably on the wall for the veteran wideout. 

Cincinnati Bengals 

Rookie: OL Michael Jordan

Veteran set to be replaced: OL Jackson Carman 

Here’s all you need to know about what the Bengals previously thought about their linebacker group — they tripled up on the position in the draft. 

Logan Wilson was the first linebacker picked. He’s born to command the middle. Davis-Gaither is new-age outside ‘backer with twitchy change-of-direction talent, the mature ability to defeat blocks en route to the ball carrier and plenty of experience and effectiveness blitzing around the edge. Evans has the body of a weak-side, playmaking linebacker, he just hasn’t played much during his first three years with the Bengals, and now there are three new linebackers on the roster. 

Cleveland Browns 

Rookie: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

Veteran set to be replaced: WR Taywan Taylor 

Taylor flashed with the Titans — the team that picked him in the third round in 2017 — but was traded to the Browns last August. Things didn’t really go well for Taylor during what was a flop of a season for Cleveland’s offense in 2019. He was targeted once and didn’t make the catch. 

And as a big-play specialist in college — Taylor averaged at least 17 yards per grab in his final three seasons at Western Kentucky — Taylor will have legitimate competition in 2020 for that role by way of sixth-round rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones. No, DPJ was never a routine, huge-play producer at Michigan, but he did run 4.48 with an absurd 44 1/2-inch vertical and phenomenal 139-inch broad jump (both in the 99th percentile at the receiver spot).  

Pittsburgh Steelers

Rookie: RB Anthony McFarland

Veteran set to be replaced: RB Jaylen Samuels

Going bold with this one, because Samuels filled in admirably mostly as a receiver while Pittsburgh’s backfield was ravaged by injury in 2019. However, his 2.7 yards-per-carry average is impossible to ignore, and suddenly, the Steelers’ running back room is crowded. 

McFarland is a springy, ultra-explosive runner who averaged a bulky 6.7 yards per carry on 245 total carries over the past two seasons at Maryland. Somehow, he didn’t have a good combine, yet he’s significantly more electric on the field. His vision as a zone runner is outstanding too. Behind James Conner, there’ll be plenty of jockeying for two spots, and I can envision McFarland beating out Samuels this summer. 

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs 

Rookie: LB Willie Gay

Veteran set to be replaced: LB Damien Wilson

A layup here, as Gay was a second-round selection despite playing in just five games in 2019. Athletically, he’s a missile on the field and fluid in coverage. He’s precisely the type of linebacker Kansas City desperately needs. 

Wilson was a full-time defender for the Chiefs last season and simply doesn’t have the range or coverage smoothness to be an effective linebacker in today’s NFL. If fully healthy, Gay’s athleticism still pop instantly and make it relatively easy for the Chiefs to clear $4.5 million in cap space by releasing Wilson. 

Denver Broncos

Rookie: TE Albert Okwuegbunam 

Veteran set to be replaced: TE Jeff Heuerman 

Heuerman enters camp as Denver’s No. 2 tight end. His grasp on that label is tenuous with Okwuegbunam, Drew Lock’s former go-to target at Missouri, now in the mix. Together, Albert O and Lock connected for 72 receptions for 881 yards and 17 touchdowns (!) over two seasons with the Tigers. 

Beyond the already established rapport Lock has with Okwuegbunam, Heuerman is in the last year his second contract in Denver, a deal that would feature $3.8 in cap savings with just $500,000 in dead cap if he’s released. Heuerman’s career high in catches is 31, and last year he had only 14. 

Los Angeles Chargers

Rookie: LB Kenneth Murray

Veteran set to be replaced: LB Denzel Perryman

The Chargers traded a second-and third-round pick to move up in the first round to grab Murray, so he better be replacing someone. And he will. Perryman, the compact second-level defender picked by the Chargers in the second round of 2013, never flourished as a starter, and while he’s on a second contract with the team, he’s seen the linebacker group get rebuilt around him over the past few years. 

Murray is a long, dynamic athlete with incredible range against the run and an ultra-aggressive nature as a blitzer. Beyond Murray, Los Angeles signed Nick Vigil — a multiple-year starter in Cincinnati — during free agency and saw flashes from last year’s fourth-round pick Dru Tranquill last year in limited action. The Chargers could be inclined to just keep Perryman as his dead cap hit would be $5.5 million if released, but it would come with nearly $2 million in cap savings. However, if he’s far down the linebacker depth chart, it’s probably not worth taking on his $7.5 million cap hit in 2020. 

Las Vegas Raiders

Rookie: S/LB Tanner Muse

Veteran set to be replaced: LB Nicholas Morrow

I’m uncomfortable with this pick, because I didn’t think Muse should’ve gone anywhere near the third round in the draft, but that’s where the Raiders picked him, which indicates how strongly they feel about his future in the NFL as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Despite being blessed with 4.41 speed at 6-2 and 221 pounds, Muse is slightly stiff when changing directions. He did intercept four passes in his senior season at Clemson though. 

Morrow was the weak-side linebacker for the Raiders last season with mediocre-at-best results, and he was a liability in coverage. There’s not a penny of guaranteed money left on his contract, and if cut, Las Vegas saves $3.5 million.

AFC South

Houston Texans 

Rookie: DL Ross Blacklock

Veteran set to be replaced: DL Angelo Blackson

Blackson played just under 40% of the defensive snaps in 2019 and registered just 20 tackles without a sack. At 6-3 and close to 320 pounds he has ideal 3-4 end size but simply wasn’t effective against the run nor as pass rusher. 

Enter Blacklock, a younger, sleeker defensive lineman who excels exploding up the field and joins the Texans with a few pass-rushing moves to complement his lightning-quick first step. There’s no guaranteed money left on his contract, and if cut, Blackson would save the Texans nearly $4 million. Blacklock won’t come in and have a J.J. Watt-like impact, but his plus athleticism will allow him to win initially as he learns the intricacies of beating NFL blockers on a regular basis. 

Tennessee Titans

Rookie: CB Kristian Fulton

Veteran set to be replaced: CB Malcolm Butler

Another bold pick, as Butler’s been a starter in Tennessee since signing with the team in 2018, and he obviously has ties to coach Mike Vrabel. Butler rebounded from a down 2018 with a respectable second season in Nashville last year, so it’s conceivable to see the arrow pointing up. Fulton’s going to give Butler all he can handle competition-wise. LSU has a long history of producing NFL-ready defensive backs and he played lockdown football over the past two seasons in the SEC. 

Butler is 30 now, and he has the third-highest cap figure on the team at $13.3 million. If Fulton beats him out, the Titans would likely look to trade him, but a flat-out release would save the team $5.3 million (while absorbing a $8 million dead hit). While somewhat unlikely, every summer a collection of well-known veterans are released. And Fulton has the game to be a cheaper — and better — No. 2 cornerback option than Butler. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Rookie: DL Davon Hamilton

Veteran set to be replaced: DL Abry Jones

Hamilton, the penetrating nose tackle, was picked by the Jaguars in the third round after he erupted with six sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss after just one sack and 10.5 tackles for loss combined in his first three seasons in Columbus. At nearly 6-4 and 320 pounds, he has an NFL body and surprises interior blockers with how fast he gets off the ball and the leverage he generates on his bull rush. 

His presence likely signals the end of Jones’ long stay in Jacksonville, or at least his time as a part-time contributor on the Jaguars’ defense. He did start 15 games in 2019 and had two sacks as a block-eating trench player, but Hamilton is simply more dynamic of an athlete and Jones’ contract has no guaranteed money left. If he’s released, Jacksonville saves $4 million with no dead cap hit. 

Indianapolis Colts

Rookie: WR Michael Pittman

Veteran set to be replaced: WR Zach Pascal or Marcus Johnson

The Colts severely lacked depth at receiver in 2019 but actually received quality production from Pascal and Johnson, who together, caught 68 passes for 884 yards and seven touchdowns. But it’s unlikely both will get as much run in 2020 as they did last season, given second-round pick Pittman’s presence on the roster. The 6-4, 223-pounder slowly improved his statistics during a four-year tenure at USC, which culminated with a masterful 101-catch, 1,275-yard, 11-score senior campaign. 

Pittman is the type of big body Philip Rivers has loved targeting in his illustrious career, and while he plays to every inch of his size, Pittman has enough athleticism and polish to create separation for a possession receiver.  

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