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AFC East rookie grades: Sam Darnold gives Jets reason to hope

The 2018 NFL season is in the books, meaning the 2019 NFL Draft is coming down the pike. But before we completely shift focus to the next crop of prospects entering the league, let's take full stock of the rookies who just finished up Year 1. In this division-by-division Rookie Grades series, we're evaluating each team's 2018 draft class and spotlighting areas to address this offseason. Nick Shook examines the AFC East below.

Round 1: (No. 11 overall) Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, 16 games/11 starts.

 **Round 2:** (42) 
 Mike Gesicki, TE, 16 games/7 starts. 
 **Round 3:** (73) 
 Jerome Baker, LB, 16 games/11 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (123) 
 Durham Smythe, TE, 15 games/2 starts; (131) 
 Kalen Ballage, RB, 12 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (209) 
 Cornell Armstrong, DB, 15 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (227) 
 Quentin Poling, LB, 0 games/0 starts; (229) 
 Jason Sanders, K, 16 games/0 starts. 

Fitzpatrick wasn't at the level of fellow rookie defensive back Derwin James, but he was still effective in a variety of roles for Miami's defense, racking up 80 tackles, nine passes defensed and two interceptions. Gesicki wasn't quite the weapon we expected him to be as a rookie, but has room to improve. Baker was a solid addition at linebacker opposite fellow Buckeye Raekwon McMillan, logging 79 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception. Smythe wasn't much of a statistical factor (six catches for 50 yards) in a crowded tight end group. Ballage was buried at running back behind Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake but exploded for 123 yards and a touchdown in Week 15, which was his lone legitimate opportunity up to that point. He stands as a contender for the starting job in 2019. Armstrong is a developmental prospect. Poling was the lone Miami draft pick to not make the final 53-man roster, but he was added to the practice squad. Sanders was a welcome addition at kicker, making 90 percent of his field goal attempts and 35 of 36 extra-point attempts in his first season. In all, the Dolphins landed three immediate contributors in Fitzpatrick, Baker and Sanders, and that number could rise to five, depending on the play of Ballage and Gesicki.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** 
 Cameron Wake is going to be a free agent, and at 37 years old, he isn't exactly a candidate for a new deal, save for a short-term contract. It's time the 
 Dolphins find their next edge rusher. Miami also needs to re-sign 
 Ja'Wuan James to keep the line intact. Might the 
 Dolphins take another crack at finding a No. 1 receiver after 
 DeVante Parker didn't pan out? 

Round 1: (No. 3 overall) Sam Darnold, QB, 13 games/13 starts.

 **Round 3:** (72) 
 Nathan Shepherd, DT, 16 games/5 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (107) 
 Chris Herndon, TE, 16 games/12 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (179) 
 Parry Nickerson, CB, 16 games/2 starts; (180) 
 Foley Fatukasi, DT, 1 game/0 starts; (204) 
 Trenton Cannon, RB, 16 games/0 starts. 

The Jets are thrilled by the potential of Darnold, who looks like he might be able to develop into the franchise quarterback the team has sorely needed. Herndon was productive as a rookie. In fact, I selected him as New York's unsung hero for the 2018 season. Shepherd himself said last week he's not satisfied with where he is after his rookie season, which is encouraging for a player who didn't make a huge statistical impact but stands to solidify his status as a starter going forward. Nickerson and Cannon were reliable special teamers, and Nickerson could see a larger role in 2019. It's not a deep class, but with Darnold on the roster and Herndon there as a target, it's a solid haul.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** The 
 Jets could look at a receiver in either free agency or with a mid-round pick, but first, do they chase a running back? Might that back be 
 Le'Veon Bell? Center is a need, as is left guard and right tackle. It's likely the 
 Jets will pursue an edge rusher in either the draft or free agency. Corner is also a position that needs addressing, with 
 Buster Skrine and 
 Morris Claiborne headed toward free agency. 

Round 1: (No. 7 overall) Josh Allen, QB, 12 games/11 starts; (16) Tremaine Edmunds, LB, 15 games/15 starts.

 **Round 3:** (96) 
 Harrison Phillips, DT, 16 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (121) 
 Taron Johnson, CB, 11 games/2 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (154) 
 Siran Neal, S, 16 games/0 starts; (166) 
 Wyatt Teller, G, 8 games/7 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (187) 
 Ray-Ray McCloud, WR, 10 games/1 start. 
 **Round 7:** (255) 
 Austin Proehl, WR, 0 games/0 starts (with Los Angeles Rams). 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 Robert Foster, WR, 13 games/3 starts. 

The jewel of this class thus far is Edmunds, a linebacker who looks like he'll be a mainstay in Buffalo's defense for years to come. Allen's evaluation depends on who you talk to: He's better than anyone else Buffalo had at the position after trading away Tyrod Taylor, but his passing at multiple depths of the field needs work. His big arm created some highlight completions, and his running ability was the talk of the town, but he's yet to prove he'll be "the guy" in Buffalo. He has the tools to improve, though. Phillips was an excellent grab in the third round and will step into the retiring Kyle Williams' place next season. Johnson was a solid rookie who has plenty of upside as Buffalo searches for a corner opposite Tre'Davious White. Neal was an important special teamer. Teller received some late-season starts but is a bit of an unknown moving forward. McCloud was overtaken by Foster, who appeared out of nowhere to contribute late in the season. Proehl spent 2018 with the Rams and didn't appear in a game. Buffalo's second, third and fourth picks carry this class, which could end up with a better grade if Allen develops into a franchise quarterback.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Despite the success of Foster (and in a smaller role, Isaiah McKenzie), the 
 Bills still need to find a bonafide No. 1 receiver. The offensive line was an issue, too, and should be addressed. 
 LeSean McCoy won't be in Buffalo forever, meaning running back could also use an addition. Defensively, Buffalo had one of the better under-the-radar units in the league, especially when 
 Matt Milano was healthy. It will be interesting to see what they do at corner opposite White. Do they stick with Johnson, or use him as a slot corner and find someone to play on the outside? 

Round 1: (No. 23 overall) Isaiah Wynn, T, 0 games/0 starts; (31) Sony Michel, RB, 13 games/8 starts.

 **Round 2:** (56) 
 Duke Dawson, CB, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (143) 
 Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB, 3 games/2 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (178) 
 Christian Sam, LB, 0 games/0 starts; (210) 
 Braxton Berrios, WR, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (219) 
 Danny Etling, QB, 0 games/0 starts; (243) 
 Keion Crossen, DB, 11 games/0 starts; (250) 
 Ryan Izzo, TE, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 J.C. Jackson, CB, 13 games/5 starts. 

Michel was a major factor in New England's ground-based run to the Super Bowl and had a very good rookie season overall. Wynn stands to be a key piece up front if he can return at full strength in 2019. (A torn Achilles ended his 2018 campaign in the preseason.) Dawson's situation was an interesting one, as he was a healthy scratch late in the season after starting it on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury. Jackson, meanwhile, stepped in to play quite well down the stretch, earning five starts, recording 24 tackles, six passes defensed and three interceptions. He played a key role opposite Stephon Gilmore and behind Jason McCourty and could end up being a starter, depending on what happens with McCourty, who's due to become a free agent this offseason. Crossen is a corner with premier speed who is perfect for defending the league's fastest weapons (see: his performance against Tyreek Hill in the AFC title game). As is commonly seen with a class heavy in Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) picks, a lot of these Patriots rookies didn't produce much. The miss -- at least to this point -- on Dawson hurts, but Michel and Jackson should be in New England for years to come, Crossen could carve out his long-term niche, and Wynn could end up being a very good pick.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Wynn's status is important, as 
 Trent Brown is headed toward free agency. The defensive line has some questions with a few key players also approaching free agency, but its depth was its strength. Could 
 Trey Flowers find himself elsewhere in 2019? Receiver is also a question mark with 
 Josh Gordon's status again uncertain, though the 
 Patriots aren't a franchise that typically chases a young No. 1 receiver. Will the 
 Patriots attempt to re-sign kicker 
 Stephen Gostkowski? Wideout 
 Chris Hogan? 
 Phillip Dorsett? 
 Jason McCourty? New England will have a bounty of 2019 draft picks -- the Pats figure to have more than 10 selections, once compensatory picks are awarded -- with which to address some of these potential questions. A good amount of lower-tier turnover on the roster could again be ahead. 

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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