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AFC rookies picked after Day 1 of NFL Draft who could earn key roles in 2024: Malachi Corley among 16 sleepers

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Last year, Tank Dell of the Texans, Keeanu Benton of the Steelers, and Colts receiver Josh Downs were a few of the AFC rookies picked after Day 1 who were key players on their respective teams right away.

In 2022, Breece Hall and Dameon Pierce were AFC Day 2 picks who played like first-rounders in Year 1 in the NFL. The season before that, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith went from somewhat obscure non-Day 1 picks to integral pieces of the Chiefs offensive line as rookies.

In 2020, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, Steelers receiver Chase Claypool, and Patriots guard Michael Onwenu were AFC rookies who weren’t selected on Day 1 of the draft but sure as heck played like Day 1 selections during their debut season. 

The year before that, A.J. BrownDiontae Johnson and Gardner Minshew headlined those outstanding value selections. And you, NFL fan starved for football, know all about your favorite team’s first-round pick in the 2024 draft. Now it’s time to really get acclimated with the non-Round 1 selection who has the talent — and situation — to flourish as a rookie. 

Earlier this week I ran through who these players can be this season for each NFC team. Below is the AFC edition. 

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

DT DeWayne Carter
Drafted:
 No. 95, third round
Impressive stat to know: Pressure-creation rate of 9.8% in his final two seasons at Duke

Any number at or around 10% for a defensive tackle’s pressure-creation rate is outstanding, and Carter managed to do it on close to 800 pass-rushing opportunities in his final two years as a Blue Devil. And he nearly reached that 10% benchmark thanks to a variety of moves, loose hips, first-step burst, and sustained speed to the quarterback. On the first play of every game, Carter flipped on the motor, and it never shut off until the final whistle. 

Now, the Bills do have Ed Oliver up front and re-signed DaQuan Jones this offseason. But this is a defense that’s desperately needed another upfield disruptor either next to or behind Oliver on the depth chart. Sean McDermott rotates defensive linemen more than any other coach in football — and even if new defensive coordinator Bobby Babich calls the plays, we can assume that general philosophy will be the same. In 2023, seven defensive linemen played between 29% and 68% of the snaps. 

Carter will be a low-key vital part of Buffalo’s rotation and has the skill and talent blend to pop in Year 1. 

Miami Dolphins

WR Malik Washington
Drafted:
No. 184, sixth round
Impressive stat to know: 42.5-inch vertical at 5-foot-8 1/2″ and 191 pounds

Speed. It’s the first element everyone thinks of when facing the Dolphins. How are you going to stop everything down the field with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle when you’re not testing the maximize range of your linebackers with the stretch run plays featuring the fastest running back tandem in the league, Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane

A perfect addition to this vertical-based passing attack is Washington, a dynamic, ultra-explosive underneath weapon who specializes after the catch. The short not small wideout had 111 catches last season at Washington and forced 35 missed tackles on those snags. He’s the ideal complement to what the Dolphins’ main objective is on offense. I don’t care he was a sixth-round pick. He’s going to contribute early. 

New York Jets

WR Malachi Corley
Drafted:
No. 65, third round
Impressive stat to know: Forced a missed tackle on a 27.7% of his 259 career catches in college

The Jets have established receiving options in budding superstar Garrett Wilson and longtime vertical rebounder Mike Williams. Now they have a rugged yards-after-the-catch pinball in Corley to act as an extension of the run game and provide Aaron Rodgers with an easy outlet that can turn passes across the line of scrimmage into 5-plus-yard gains with reasonable regularity. 

At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Corley is almost identically sized to young rocket of a back Breece Hall — 5-11 and 217 pounds at his combine. While the aerial portion of the offense will run through Wilson, Corley has the unique skills to contribute right away. He doesn’t need to master a multitude of routes to get open. Most of his targets will be of the schemed-open variety. 

New England Patriots

TE Jaheim Bell
Drafted: No. 231, seventh round
Impressive stat to know: Forced a missed tackle on 38.2% of his 94 receptions at South Carolina and Florida State

Another ridiculous asset after the catch, Bell had no business going in the seventh round. Not in today’s NFL, that has gotten more and more YAC-predicated over the past five years. No, he’s not going to separate like some of the better tight ends in football. But utilized as a gadget-y type out of the backfield and on routes against zone underneath, Bell can thrive right away in New England. 

And the Patriots don’t have a receiver and tight end room bursting at the seams with explosive, big-play generating talent. Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper will see traditional tight end targets well before the rookie. Bell has a different type of athletic profile than either and was impossible to corral in space in both the SEC and ACC over the past three seasons. He can be a favorite target of Drake Maye in their rookie seasons together. 

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

WR Jermaine Burton
Drafted: No. 80, third round
Impressive stat to know: Averaged 18 yards per catch on 132 receptions at Georgia and Alabama

Burton has an excellent frame and athleticism profile to star down the field in the NFL. Over 6-foot, just over 190 pounds with 4.45 speed with vertical and broad jumps each above the 80th percentile at his position, indicating he has elite-level explosive traits. 

What rounds out Burton’s downfield speciality are his hands. His contested-catch win rate was over 52.6% — and contrary to the popular “50-50 ball” phrase, any figure of that statistic above 50% is very good — and he had four drops on 197 career targets in college. 

For as awesome of a duo as Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins is, Cincinnati had a void in the field-stretcher niche. Burton can come in, run intricate downfield routes like he did at Georgia and Alabama, and make an impact as a low-volume, big-play type instantly. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

LB Payton Wilson
Drafted: No. 98, third round
Impressive stat to know: Two seasons with over 100 tackles at NC State

I cannot rave enough about Wilson in Pittsburgh. I ranked Wilson at No. 1 in my player-team fits piece a few weeks back, few weeks back, so it would be silly not to highlight him again. Actually, second-round center Zach Frazier would’ve been a sensible selection here too. Both are going to play in Year 1, without question. Wilson can be better. 

This is a supremely gifted athlete who was wildly productive as a blitzer, against the run, and in coverage at NC State. He had 13 pass breakups and seven interceptions in his five-year stint with the Wolfpack. And the Steelers were desperate for steady — and explosive — linebacker play a season ago.  

Cleveland Browns

LB Nathaniel Watson 
Drafted:
No. 206, sixth round
Impressive stat to know: Missed 24 tackles on 2,420 career collegiate snaps

Could’ve gone with second-round defensive tackle Michael Hall or fifth-round receiver Jamari Thrash here. Instead, I decided on Cleveland’s sixth-round linebacker, mostly because of his unique, throwback size and style. 

This is a sizable inside linebacker by today’s standards. He’s over 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds with nearly 33-inch arms. And he plays like an early 2000s downhill thumper. No hesitance nor care for his body when flying toward the line of scrimmage. Vitally, Watson is an incredibly sure tackler. The Browns have Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to get to outside runs. He’s their sideline-to-sideline specialist. Watson can contribute in Year 1 between the tackles with his run-halting speciality. 

Baltimore Ravens

EDGE Adisa Isaac
Drafted: No. 93, third round
Impressive stat to know: Wingspan, 40-yard dash, vertical, and broad jump all above the 62nd percentile at his position

Isaac wasn’t quite Chop Robinson athletically or from a production perspective. But just because he was rushing opposite a future 21-year-old first-round pick doesn’t mean he can get to the quarterback. 

An above-average athlete who loves to get low around the corner on his outside speed rush, Isaac is the exact classification of edge rusher the Baltimore defense needs considering David Ojabo has dealt with a litany of injuries and hasn’t met hype when healthy. Isaac registered a pressure on close to 15% of his pass-rushing opportunities over the past two years at Penn State. 

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

CB Jarrian Jones
Drafted: No. 96, third round
Impressive stat to know: 40-yard dash, vertical, and broad jump all above the 85th percentile at his position

Jones was one of the largest and most athletically gifted nickel cornerbacks in a class loaded with good ones. Mostly operating out of the slot, the Mississippi State turned Florida State standout had five interceptions and nine pass breakups across five collegiate seasons. He’s nearly 6-foot and 190 pounds, so it’d be easy to mistake him for a boundary cornerback. 

The Jaguars signed Darnell Savage in free agency, but he’s best away from the line of scrimmage. They don’t have an established, steady nickel cornerback. That’s precisely what Jones was in four seasons with the Seminoles. He has the athletic chops and smarts to assume that role immediately in Jacksonville.   

Indianapolis Colts

WR Adonai Mitchell
Drafted: No. 52, second round
Impressive stat to know: 40-yard dash, vertical, and broad jump all above the 88th percentile at his position

Mitchell was the surprise fall from the stacked receiver class. No one expected him to be picked in the 50s. He was hardly a YAC weapon at Texas, but there was some thought it was due to the mostly perimeter, chain-moving responsibilities he had with the Longhorns after his stay at Georgia. 

Regardless of whether or not you liked Mitchell on film or his analytics profile, there’s no questioning he’s a size-and-speed specimen at over 6-foot-2, 200 pounds with sub 4.40 speed. He averaged over 150 yards per catch on his 93 collegiate career catches with 11 touchdowns in 2023. For his slenderish size, Mitchell bends awesomely at the top of his route stem, giving him the natural ability to mature into a stellar route runner.  

Houston Texans

S Calen Bullock
Drafted:
No. 78, third round
Impressive stat to know: Nine interceptions and 15 pass breakups in three years at USC

Bullock was probably the best pure free safety in the 2024 class. Floated to the football repeatedly and demonstrated tremendous ball skills after zeroing in on where the pass was headed. Now he’s not going to be a force against the run, but the Texans could use more turnover-creation on a defense that only had eight interceptions in 2023, which tied for the second-lowest in football. 

Jimmie Ward has long been a fun, reasonably reliable safety-slot cornerback. Bullock, at a unique, 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds with 4.45 speed can bring a new, faster element to that position for Houston.  

Tennessee Titans

LB Cedric Gray
Drafted:
No. 106, fourth round
Impressive stat to know: Five interceptions and 13 pass breakups in his final three seasons at North Carolina

Gray is only 21 years old and was one tackle away from three-consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons for the Tar Heels. An adequate athlete with a 40-yard dash, vertical, and broad jump all north of the 60th percentile at the linebacker spot, he has the physical skills to make plays downhill and when sinking in coverage. 

Tennessee lost Azeez Al-Shaair in the AFC South to the Texans, so there was a crying need for a heady and rangy second-level defender who doesn’t necessarily need to come off the field in passing situations. That’s exactly the player Gray was from the moment he stepped on campus in Chapel Hill. 

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

S Jaden Hicks
Drafted:
No. 133, fourth round
Impressive stat to know: 37.5-inch vertical (75th percentile) and 6.88 three-cone time (72nd percentile) 

Hicks going in Round 4 was baffling to me. This is a nearly 6-foot-2, 210-plus pound safety/linebacker with clearly plus agility and explosive traits who was wildly productive in the Pac-12. Hicks had back-to-back 75-plus tackle seasons for the Cougars with three interceptions and six pass breakups. 

Many of his tackles were of the thudding variety. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deploys safeties and cornerbacks as well as any in football, and while there are some young pieces on the back end in Kansas City, none possess the size and linebacker qualities of Hicks while maintaining coverage talent. 

Las Vegas Raiders

RB Dylan Laube
Drafted:
No. 208, sixth round
Impressive stat to know: 68 catches for 699 yards and seven receiving touchdowns in 2023

The Raiders running back depth chart is not exactly threatening anyone on paper. Zamir White is the presumed starter. There’s Alexander Mattison. Ameer Abdullah and then Laube, a ready-to-go scatback who probably would’ve been an instant Pro Bowl with the Patriots during the Tom Brady era. 

Just because Laube played his college ball at New Hampshire doesn’t mean he’s a low-level athlete either. He ran 4.54 at over 200 pounds with a vertical at the 70th percentile and a 6.84 three-cone that placed him in the 85th percentile at the position. Laube can make defenders miss with reasonable regularity and quickly prove his worth as a pesky underneath receiving option. 

Denver Broncos

CB Kris Abrams-Draine 
Drafted: No. 145, fifth round
Impressive stat to know: Seven interceptions and 34 pass breakups in his final three seasons at Missouri

Abrams-Draine must’ve been more of a injury flight risk than we all thought during the pre-draft process, but there’s no way his film and workout suggested he be picked in the fifth round. If he can return to 100% health, Abrams-Draine can be an annoying slot cornerback for opposing offenses. 

Well-timed blitzes off the edge, impeccable instincts and ball skills, and the suddenness needed to close windows in a flash at the NFL level.  He had 2023 rookie standout Ja’Quan McMillian are very similar as players. 

Los Angeles Chargers

WR Ladd McConkey
Drafted:
No. 34, second round
Impressive stat to know: Forced 30 missed tackles on 119 career catches at Georgia (25.2%)

The Chargers have to replace more targets and a higher target percentage than any team in football, so I’m compelled to feature McConkey. Oh, and I had a top 20 overall grade on the former Georgia receiver. Beyond a tiny frame and catch radius, McConkey brings it all to the table — serious speed, route-running nuance, and dynamic ability after the catch. 

Now, he could struggle against press coverage early, but facing that wasn’t a problem for him across three highly efficient seasons at Georgia, and I love the idea of Justin Herbert throwing him passes in Los Angeles.  

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Author: Chris Trapasso
June 5, 2024 | 10:05 am

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