24/04/2024

The Kentucky Wildcats' Max Duffy is one of the top Australian prospects ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. Photo: Max__Duffy / Twitter

With a history of Australian punters entering the NFL system, we take a look at some of the leading Aussie prospects ahead of Thursday's draft.

The NFL Draft is fast approaching, set to begin on April 29. The Inner Sanctum is here with your NFL Draft Preview, looking at the Australians pushing for selection, and all the major stories.

The three day event marks the entrance to the league to some 257 prospects, followed by many more who will join teams as undrafted free agents.

The first day will be Round One, made up of 32 picks. This year, there is less speculation about who will go at the top of the draft, with the likely number one pick having been considered a fait accompli since the minute the 2020 draft ended.

The Golden Arm

Trevor Lawrence is considered the best prospect in years, and will almost certainly get picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars first overall to be their quarterback of the future.

Lawrence, who played his college football at Clemson in South Carolina, has been presumed to be the number one pick in this draft for the past three years since he first burst to national attention as an 18-year-old.

Second is widely tipped to be Zach Wilson, a former quarterback at Brigham Young University. Wilson rose to prominence over the COVID-affected season, and is the consensus number two pick. He is expected to be the next in a long line of ‘saviours‘ for the New York Jets.

Lawrence and Wilson are so widely tipped to go first and second that most consider that the draft starts at number three, with the 49ers on the clock.

The Intrigue Starts at No. 3

In a dramatic turn, it’s expected that as many as five quarterbacks could go in the first 10 picks, where normally to have three selected that early would show a strong cohort.

The certainty of the draft has been minimised, after COVID-19 affected both the college football season last year, and the pre-draft Combine and interview process. Many are concerned that this will be the most volatile draft class in a decade, due to the lack of certainty regarding certain prospects.

San Francisco holds the number three pick, after trading significant assets to step up to the top of the draft. Despite the move, there are only whispers about which quarterback the 49ers will take.

After that, the mystery really begins, with Atlanta (who may be in the market for a quarterback), Cincinnati (who took a quarterback number one last year) and Miami following, an elite class of wide receivers ripe for their picking.

Storylines to Watch

Five Quarterbacks in the Top 10 – Such a combination has never happened in history, but with three in the top three a certainty, and mooted options at picks four, eight and nine (pending any further trades), it is a genuine possibility.

With Lawrence, Wilson, Mac Jones (formerly Alabama), Trey Lance (formerly North Dakota State) and Justin Fields (formerly Ohio State) all on the table, the record is fair game.

Elite Wide Receivers – Last year’s draft class of wide receivers was considered one of the best ever, breaking all sorts of records.

This year may be even better, with Alabama and Louisiana State each producing multiple highly-touted receivers. Outside of those two colleges, there are even more elite players that are expected to take the league by storm.

Weak Defensive Class – It’s quite possible that no defensive players will be taken in the top 10, another shocking statistic that would have shocked the NFL’s conscience in previous years.

This year, with many of the elite defenders having opted out of the COVID-19 affected season, and so many quarterbacks and receivers tipped to go early, there may not be space in the top 10 for defenders at all.

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There is much speculation about which teams will unearth their franchise futures, and all will be revealed over the three days this weekend.

Aussie Watch

Max Duffy, who played for the Kentucky Wildcats, is likely to be the first punter drafted this year. Duffy, who played for the Fremantle Dockers in 2014-15, will become just the second player to be drafted in both the AFL and NFL if he is drafted.

Duffy has shown not just proficiency with his kicking, but has also shown that he has the instincts and tackling honed from a junior AFL career that will hold him in good stead in the NFL.

James Smith, who punted for the Cincinnati Bearcats is the other contender for the top punter in the draft. Smith was recognised as the best punter in his college league, the AAC, in all four years of his college career. He was named as the First-Team All-AAC punter in 2017 and 2018 and the Second Team in 2019 and 2020.

Duffy and Smith are likely to join existing Australian punters Michael Dickson (Seattle Seahawks, formerly Swans Academy), Cameron Johnston (formerly Melbourne Football Club), Arynn Siposs (St Kilda), Jordan Berry and Mitch Wisnowsky flying the flag of the ‘Aussie rules technique’, in the words of the NFL commentators.

Where to Watch

The draft will be televised on Kayo/ESPN, and will be widely covered on Twitter and NFL.com

The first round starts at 8pm Thursday 29 April (in the US), 10am AEST on Friday, and will continue on Saturday and Sunday in Australia.

A Future Preview

Daniel Faalele is a slightly different case. Rather than being a punter, he plays offensive tackle, a position where his hulking size (205cm, 181kg) will be an advantage if he can show the necessary speed to compete at the NFL level.

Jordan Mailata is an Australian product who plays offensive tackle, having spent the last few seasons on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster. It is possible that he will start for the Eagles in 2021, taking over the position for the future.

Faalele has played for the Minnesota Gophers for the last few years, and has intrigued with a combination of size, power and speed that has him in consideration for the highest ever Australian drafted.

He will likely be the highest ever drafted Australian, and just the second non-punter behind Adam Gotsis if he enters the draft in 2022.

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