Versatility and adaptability are keys in life, and as Zach Davidson is hoping to prove, also valuable in the upcoming NFL Draft.
In this week’s edition of Inside the Draft:
- We’ll learn how the New York Jets can ruin the 2021 draft, for everyone else if not (for once) for themselves.
- We’ll determine if Clemson’s Travis Etienne is just another college superstar running back destined for a short, ordinary NFL career.
But first, let’s meet one of the most talked-about, and unusual, small-school sleepers in the 2021 draft class.
Zach Davidson may be the best combination tight end/punter in college football history.
He may also be the only combination tight end/punter in college football history.
OK, that’s not true: punters who played other positions (especially quarterback) were common until about 40 years ago. Penn State had a quarterback-turned-tight end named Bob Parsons who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1972 and became their punter for a decade. But yeah, if we have to go back nearly 50 years for even a remotely similar example, then a tight end/punter combo is a pretty rare phenomenon.
“I met a couple of quarterback-punters and some quarterback-tight ends, but never someone who made an impact as both a punter and tight end,” Davidson told Inside the Draft. “It’s a pretty unique situation.”
Davidson is preparing to enter the NFL as a 6-foot-7 playmaking tight end. But he’s also practicing his punting on his downtime. He caught 15 touchdown passes in 2019 and earned all-Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association status as both a tight end and a punter, so it’s possible he could help an NFL team at either position. Or maybe both.
Davidson began punting at the Pop Warner level in the third grade. He practiced with the tight end group when he reached Webb City High School in Missouri, but punting was his primary responsibility. “We were a split-back veer team. We didn’t have much use for a vertical threat tight end,” he explained.
Webb City won back-to-back state championships during Davidson’s prep career: great news for the school and his teammates, but bad news for the guy who only takes the field if the offense stalls. Davidson punted just 48 times in his junior and senior season combined; he earned All-State recognition, but not the attention of Division I recruiters.
Local D-II school Central Missouri recruited Davidson as a punter. Head coach Jim Svoboda decided Davidson could do more after he attended a Webb City basketball game where Davidson was starting in the backcourt. “In the first two minutes, he watched me steal the ball twice at the top of the key, take it down and dunk it,” Davidson said.
“Later that night, he texted me, ‘Yeah, we’re going to try you out at a couple different positions.’”
Davidson learned the tight end position behind All America selection Seth Hebert for two seasons, then came into his own as a downfield threat in a pro-style offense when Hebert left in 2019. Then came COVID: the Central Missouri Mules were one week away from their season opener when the NCAA and lower-level conferences began canceling entire seasons.
The Mules kept practicing through October while trying to schedule scrimmages or exhibitions against other schools before finally pulling the plug on football in mid-autumn.
The silver lining of the canceled season was that Davidson spent weeks working with new offensive coordinator Lucas Lueders, who emphasized option routes and pre-snaps reads in installation sessions for games that never happened. “It allowed me to see the game from a different perspective,” Davidson said.
As a small-program standout with only one year of starting experience at tight end, Davidson is understandably raw by NFL standards. On the other hand, he has done things no other tight end prospect has ever done. For example, imagine sprinting down the field on deep routes on second and third down, only to have to catch your breath and mentally collect yourself to punt while teammates are jogging off the field on fourth down.
“It’s the toughest part of my game,” Davidson admitted. “It took me a second at the start of the season to figure it out. But being able to hone my breathing and calm myself down really allowed me to better play the game mentally.”
Davidson grew up watching Tony Gonzalez and says he has watched Travis Kelce’s film “an ungodly number of times.” He has also been studying up on George Kittle, Andrew Waller, Mike Gesicki and others. “Knowing that I have only played one season, I have a lot of growing to do. So I want to have as many tools in my bag as I can,” he said.
Davidson projects as a mid-round developmental tight end, like small-school products Dallas Goedert (Eagles) and Adam Trautman (Saints) before him. He’s a project, but most of the tight ends in the 2021 draft beyond Florida’s Kyle Pitts are projects.
Few of the others have Davidson’s combination of size and open-field agility. And after a year in which NFL teams were forced to use practice squad wide receivers as quarterbacks, the ability to stash an emergency punter on the tight end depth chart may be an appealing bonus for some teams.
In fact, about two dozen teams met with Davidson during the College Gridiron Showcase. And many of them sounded interested in the tale of a prep punter who became an All America tight end while remaining a punter.
“I definitely feel like I had the most intriguing story,” Davidson said.
Sure. At least until some wide receiver/placekicker comes along.
Year of the Jets
There’s a reasonable chance that the New York Jets potentially might not screw up this year’s draft for themselves. Probably. Maybe.
Sorry. When being optimistic about the Jets, it’s best to pile on the qualifiers.
The Jets are now run by a qualified and well-regarded brain trust led by general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh, not the backstabbers, blowhards, back-room politicians and over-promoted suit-fillers who ran the organization in years and decades past. They possess the second, 23rd, 34th, 66th and 91st-overall picks, meaning they should come out of the 2021 draft with several future impact players, including (probably) a new franchise quarterback.
All the Jets must do is avoid doing any of the things the Jets have done in so many past drafts. No whiffing hard at edge rushers (Vernon Gholston, Quinton Coples). No whiffing hard at defensive backs (Dee Milliner, Calvin Pryor). No whiffing galactically at quarterback (Christian Hackenberg, Geno Smith). No ignoring high-leverage positions like offensive tackle to draft linebackers and safeties. And do forth.
With so many picks at their disposal, the Jets’ 2021 draft strategy will not just reshape their roster but cause a ripple effect around the NFL. Let’s examine some likely Jets draft scenarios to discover how they could impact both the Jets and the rest of the draft board.
The Keep-it-Simple Approach: The Jets select a quarterback — let’s say Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson — with the second-overall pick, then select the best available athletes for the rest of the draft. It’s easy to imagine them coming away with a top wide receiver (Minnesota’s Rashad Bateman, for instance) and a high-upside edge rusher (Joseph Ossai of Texas, perhaps), plus some other building blocks.
The Keep-it-Simple approach may be the best approach as long as the Jets select the right quarterback. And the “selection” itself might not be as important as what comes next.
Let’s face it: the reason Sam Darnold is not in the same category as fellow 2018 draftee Baker Mayfield (if not Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson) is that former Jets head coach Adam Gase ruined him with a terrible system, weak supporting cast, the shortsighted decision to rush him back from some injuries and illnesses and general seismic incompetence.
Inside the Draft believes both Fields and Wilson have outstanding potential, but neither are anywhere close to NFL-ready. Saleh, Douglas, coordinator Mike LaFleur and others must commit to a quarterback development model. If they cannot or do not wish to do that for some reason, the Jets should consider a different tactic.
The Blockbuster Trade Down: Some team is likely to offer a dump truck full of draft picks for the chance to select Fields, Wilson, or some other quarterback favorite. The Jets could move down to 6th (Eagles), 8th (Panthers), 15th (Patriots), 19th (Washington) or 20th (Bears), then either pick from the bottom of the quarterback prospect rack or commit to Darnold for another year.
Dealing from the bottom of the quarterback deck would be a bad idea. After all, that’s what their potential trade partner would be moving heaven and earth to avoid. Committing to Darnold also sounds like a stalling tactic, but this whole scenario is a stalling tactic.
Trading down would bring bouquets and chocolates from the Moneyball crowd and signal to Jets fans that they will spend another autumn paying more attention to mock drafts to games. Inside the Draft hates the idea of punting on a quarterback in a draft class with four-to-six really good ones.
This scenario could result in an Eagles quarterback controversy, which would blow up the Internet for the next few years. Or, poor Wilson or Fields would get the “heir apparent to Tom Brady” treatment from the Patriots, something Bill Belichick probably realizes would be counterproductive to their development. Or Teddy Bridgewater could suddenly become available, leading to another mini-blockbuster.
Or the Bears could simply select the wrong quarterback with the second-overall pick. Does Mitch Trubisky have a younger brother?
In other words, the best thing about a Jets blockbuster trade is how much easier it would make Inside the Draft’s job.
The Non-Quarterback at #2 Gambit: What if Darnold had LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase to throw to? Or Oregon’s Penei Sewell at right tackle and Mekhi Becton at left tackle? And then the Jets could really beef up the line with Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis at 23 and the running game with Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne at 34.
After all, Mayfield improved in 2020 when his coaching and supporting cast improved. Why can’t Darnold do the same thing?
The Non-Quarterback Gambit can work in harmony with a blockbuster trade, of course. If the Jets do decide to pass on a quarterback, they would be foolish to not try to trade down for extra capital as well.
While grabbing blue chips at other positions and trying to salvage Darnold sounds wise, it’s the sort of risk-averse reasoning that led to the Jets drafting Smith and Hackenberg in the second round after taking Darron Lee or Milliner (and Sheldon Richardson) in the first round. It’s contrarian message-board reasoning, not a reliable team-building philosophy.
The Deshaun Watson Pipe Dream: In this scenario, the Houston Texans organization comes to its senses and the Jets trade the second and 23rd picks, plus lots of 2022 and 2023 draft picks and Darnold or whatever, for Watson. Then they figure the rest out as they go.
If the Jets have a chance to trade for Watson, they should send Jack Easterby a voicemail/telegram/Da Vinci Code-style riddle or whatever else gets the message across. The Jets have enough picks to tempt the Texans, and Easterby seems like the sort of guy who could be snookered if you catch him just after Apostolic Yoga and before he hydrates with his patent-pending “Winner Water” (tap water he shouted slogans at).
But the big problem with the Watson scenario is that the Texans are likely to dither through free agency, the draft and even through a training camp holdout. The Jets cannot pass up a Fields or Wilson in the hand (or extra picks from a team with a real front office) for a Watson in the weeds.
The best thing about Jets 2021 draft scenarios is that even the weakest of them is much more fun to think about than the dismal reality of the 2020 Jets. Draft speculation is all about hope, after all. Jets fans have a real reason for hope. That’s more than they usually have.
The Skeptic’s Guide to Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.
Travis Etienne’s ceiling comparison: Alvin Kamara
Travis Etienne’s floor comparison: C.J. Spiller
Oooh, let’s talk about drafting a running back! And not just any running back, but one with an enormous reputation, lots of mileage, and whose overall numbers declined in 2020 when the program around him looked a little more vulnerable! This should provide some fun and level-headed reactions!
Etienne has been one of the most productive and exciting players in the nation over the last three college seasons. But he’s a running back. So any conversation about him must fit within the parameters of the never-ending Running Backs Don’t Matter conversation.
SANE, RATIONAL ANALYST: There’s a mountain of both statistical and anecdotal evidence to indicate that drafting a running back in the first round, especially among the top 10-15 picks, is a terrible investment, because such running backs barely outperform running backs drafted in later rounds while costing more money and eating up a draft pick better used at a higher-leverage position.
REACTIONARY OLD-SCHOOL FOOTBALL TOUGH GUY: Nuh-uh.
THIRSTY TRY-HARD ANALYTICS GENIUS: Actually, running backs are so utterly worthless that they should be ground up and fed to “positionless defenders.” Anyone who disagrees simply doesn’t appreciate football on as many levels as I do.
In addition to the reactionary and thirsty takes, there’s the “This Guy is Different” fallacy at running back. Yes, everything the rational analysts say about running backs is true, but this guy is different because he is so useful in the passing game, or so athletically unique, just wants it way more than anyone else, or whatever.
Recent “different” guys have included Christian McCaffrey (injured most of last year), Saquon Barkley (injured most of last two years), Ezekiel Elliott (finished 11th in rushing but first among running backs in fumbles last year) and Leonard Fournette (don’t you dare force me to type something in these parentheses).
So there’s no good argument for drafting Etienne with a top 10 pick. That’s fine since the top of this year’s draft board will be a mad scramble for quarterbacks and wide receivers, anyway. Also, most of the NFL is now hip to the dangers of overvaluing a running back.
What about the bottom of the first round. Wouldn’t it be great to see the speedy, elusive, dynamic and versatile Etienne paired with Tom Brady for the Buccaneers or Josh Allen for the Buffalo Bills?
Yes, it would be fun to see Etienne join some contender with an already high-powered offense. He could have as big an impact as Clyde Edwards-Helaire had for the Kansas City Chiefs this year. Edwards-Helaire looked like the ultimate all-purpose weapon when he left LSU. He was supposed to make the Chiefs’ offense go super Saiyan.
And he was fine: 803 yards, four touchdowns, some receptions, two 100-yard games, a few nice runs when the Super Bowl was already getting out of hand. Just fine. Almost as good as Washington third-round pick Antonio Gibson and undrafted Jacksonville Jaguars rookie James Robinson, in fact.
It can be hard to project all-purpose backs from college to the NFL because it is not always clear how effective as pass protectors or useful they will be when executing complex passing-game concepts as rookies.
Etienne did so many things in the Clemson offense that he should acclimate well, just as McCaffrey and Barkley did as rookies. But that will bring us right back to the problem of spending a high pick at a position where peaks are brief, injuries are constant and quality no-name replacements are plentiful.
Inside the Draft is seeing Alabama’s Najee Harris ranked ahead of Etienne on some media draft boards. Some teams surely prefer the beefier Harris, and not just because some scouts and general managers believe in their hearts that it is still 1977.
Harris is getting a Derrick Henry bump, and offenses of the Shanahan/McVay/LaFleur school have a role for a sturdier, more traditional rusher. That said, Inside the Draft would rather attend Jack Easterby’s Biblical Comedy Jam than draft a big back ahead of a quicker all-purpose back, especially early in the draft, and most of the NFL has figured out why by now.
Drafting Etienne at the tail end of the first round could make sense for some of the playoff-caliber teams already mentioned: they will likely get his best seasons, with the option of keeping him for a fifth year, at a spot in the draft where the best edge rushers, receivers and offensive linemen will likely be gone.
Etienne has the potential to be an Alvin Kamara who can carry an offense. But he could also be like C.J. Spiller, the Clemson burner drafted 9th overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2009 who maxed out as the big-play threat in a committee and faded quickly as running backs often do.
Look, Inside the Draft wants to see what Etienne (and Harris and others) can do at the NFL level, too. We’re also looking forward to seeing what McCaffery and Barkley can do if they ever operate at peak capacity for 16 games again. That’s the problem with running backs. And no, this guy probably isn’t different.