NFL draft grades. Love them or hate them, you know that one of the best discussion starters out there is trying to put a rating onto an NFL draft class. That applies both in the immediate aftermath of the weekend, as well as a few years down the road after their careers have taken shape.
Draft opinions tend to trade facts for optimism, in my view. Every year has a “generational talent,” every first-round pick is a Pro Bowl talent, every late-round pick should be able to start eventually, et cetera. Starting in 2018, I worked on building my own player career projections for Buffalo Bills draft picks. The projections look for players with similar size and athleticism, similar college stats, similar draft positions, and other commonalities. Those players are then used to project a floor, ceiling, and middle ground for each draft pick. I’ve tried to refine the process each year.
After three years, I like to revisit the draft classes and look back, both to see how general manager Brandon Beane did and to evaluate my projections.
The 2019 class, overall, was a B-minus type of class, with no overperformers and one bust. The Bills landed a starting DT who still has Pro Bowl upside, a starting RB, a starting TE with Pro Bowl upside, and two special teams players who stuck around for multiple seasons. They also drafted a right tackle who converted to guard and is now a backup, picked a late-round LB who never saw the field, and drafted a TE who started four games and had a couple memorable catches. With the exception of LB Vosean Joseph, who didn’t make the team, and DE Darryl Johnson Jr., who was traded to the Carolina Panthers in his third season, every player is still with the team entering 2022.
How did that result match up against the projections? And how realistic were my predictions, in the first year of this exercise? Let’s take a look:
Ed Oliver, DT (pick 9, round 1)
Floor: Grady Jarrett
Ceiling: Geno Atkins
Bell curve middle: Jurrell Casey
Alright, this is regrettable for me. As a draft evaluator, I was intensely biased towards Oliver’s NFL success, and I think I allowed that bias (as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of head coach Sean McDermott’s defense) to affect the projection.
Grady Jarrett as a floor was a major mistake. Since I published the 2019 article, Jarrett made two Pro Bowls and signed contracts with about $70 million guaranteed. Having an average case be a player with as many Pro Bowl appearances as Casey was also laughable, in hindsight. I believed the Bills would use Oliver as a free rusher much more than they did. Between DL limitations and the scheme preference to flow things through their secondary rather than the front four, Oliver ended up playing way more containment in his first three seasons.
He’s essentially followed Jarrett’s career track through three seasons, and that’s a solid outcome for a first rounder, but he hasn’t graduated to an All-Pro talent by any stretch.
Lesson learned: Don’t let personal bias impact a statistics-based projection.
Cody Ford, OL (pick 38, round 2)
Floor: Ebon Britton
Ceiling: Mitchell Schwartz
Bell curve middle: Langston Walker
Ford’s career hasn’t deviated outside his projection, although he’s clearly failed to meet the expectations from when he was drafted. He did follow the Ebon Britton path of moving to guard, and has 38 appearances and 27 starts in his first three seasons. He has a small chance to stick around with the Bills after his rookie contract expires, but his athletic limitations ended up being exactly as problematic as they could’ve been.
I’m satisfied with how I projected this one.
Verdict: At floor
Lesson learned: You can move a slow-footed tackle to guard, but you can’t make him stick.
Devin Singletary, RB (pick 74, round 3)
Floor: Joe McKnight
Ceiling: Devonta Freeman
Bell curve middle: Jerious Norwood
Singletary neatly fits above Jerious Norwood in his three-year career, notching 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns so far. It seems that he was too slow to ultimately be the all-purpose feature back that Devonta Freeman was, but Singletary’s improved play strength in year three made him a clear number-one back in Buffalo’s offense.
Overall, I feel pretty well about this projection.
Verdict: Above middle
Lesson learned: You don’t need speed to be a successful running back, as long as you bring something else to the table.
Dawson Knox, TE (pick 96, round 3)
Floor: Travis Beckum
Ceiling: Chris Cooley
Bell curve middle: Jordan Cameron
Evaluating Knox’s career is tricky, because after two seasons he seemed like he wasn’t going to amount to something, and suddenly in his third season he was an every-down player who caught nine touchdowns. We still don’t know if that turned the corner on his career or if it was a fluke, although it seems like the former.
Overall I think Knox is more or less on track for his middle comparison, Jordan Cameron. He was targeted with way less volume in his breakout season, but still kept pace with Cameron’s Pro Bowl year. He isn’t at the level of Cooley, who was successful from the get-go, and whether Knox surpasses Cameron going forward essentially comes down to staying healthy.
Verdict: At middle
Lesson learned: You honestly need more than three years to decide if a tight end panned out.
Vosean Joseph, LB (pick 147, Round 5)
Floor: Sean Porter
Ceiling: Nigel Bradham
Bell curve middle: Tank Carder
In my projection for Joseph I mentioned that expectations need to be adjusted for late-round picks, who often don’t have any impact on their team. That was even more true than I expected for Joseph, who landed on injured reserve in his first season and was waived in his second—before ever playing a game. He’s now playing in the CFL, but technically his outcome was worse than the floor I’d projected: Sean Porter did have game appearances and stuck around the league on practice squads for five years.
Ultimately I think Joseph suffered because he wasn’t prepared to play on special teams, and that’s the best path to an NFL roster for a player of his profile. Being a chase and tackle linebacker and not playing in the kicking game just doesn’t work in the modern NFL.
Verdict: below floor
Lesson learned: Really, the chance that a late-round player never lands on a roster is higher than you think.
Jaquan Johnson, CB (pick 181, round 6)
Floor: Ahmad Black
Ceiling: Matt Bowen
Bell curve middle: John Wendling
When I wrote my projection for Johnson, I tried to use his college experience and “intangibles” (team captain) to present him as a high-floor player. In retrospect, I think that showed as another form of bias—one that unfairly shifted the career expectations for Johnson. Going forward, I intend to leave off the character qualities in my projections and focus solely on college stats/impact and athletic measurements.
Right now, Johnson’s on track for the middle of his career. He’s been a key special teams reserve for the team, although not on the level of Siran Neal. He has yet to break into a defensive role, but he’s blocked by two excellent veterans. We’ll see if he eventually grows beyond his current ability, but I’m fine with his progress as a core special teamer.
Verdict: At middle
Lesson learned: Don’t let notions of player character impact your projection, good or bad.
Darryl Johnson Jr., DE (pick 225, Round 7)
Floor: Joe Kruger
Ceiling: Bobby McCray
Bell curve middle: Michael Buchanan
This is another projection I feel pretty good about. Johnson did manage to stick in the league, with special teams actually being his calling card. He had two sacks in his first two seasons, matching Michael Buchanan’s output, and he was playing about 65% of snaps on special teams and 22% of snaps on defense.
Traded to the Panthers for year three, Johnson didn’t make it to the field that often, appearing in only three games. He’s definitely a far way away from his high ceiling, but as a seventh-round pick he did okay for himself.
Verdict: At middle
Lesson learned: Even defensive ends can have an impact on special teams.
Tommy Sweeney, TE (pick 228, Round 7)
Floor: Rob Blanchflower
Ceiling: Jim Dray
Bell curve middle: Dan Gronkowski
One final projection I’m satisfied with. Sweeney’s versatility and pro-style college experience made it seem like he could stick, at least, as a TE2 or TE3 with a team. He lost one season to COVID-19 complications, but his other two years were more or less in line with his middle projection, Dan Gronkowski.
Sweeney could be cut this year, with OJ Howard in the mix for the Bills, and so this is his career inflection point (again, demonstrating how hard it is to evaluate tight ends after three years). After three “meh” seasons, Gronkowski didn’t play again. After three “meh” seasons, ceiling player Jim Dray developed into a TE2-type with a little bit of pass-catching upside to go with his blocking skills. Sweeney could go either way.
Verdict: At middle
Lesson learned: Still tough to judge tight ends after three years, but the separation between Sweeney and Knox is crystal clear.