An important step of any football player evaluation is to calibrate it against what you know. What players like him have you seen before? Who has the same size, the same speed, plays the game the same way? Under this approach, it’s possible to set expectations for a player’s career—helpful to understand who qualifies as a “bust” and who outplays his draft status.
My methodology for this is to take each player and find similar examples from the past 20 years of football—players drafted at roughly the same place, with similar body types and athleticism, similar college production and similar styles of play. These players then represent a full range of outcomes, which I use to predict the “floor,” “ceiling,” and the “bell curve middle” for each prospect.
I’ve been running this exercise for the past two seasons, and you can see the 2018 edition here and the 2019 edition here.
Now, on to the comparables for the Buffalo Bills’ 2020 NFL Draft class. What’s your opinion of this group?
Floor: Kevin Dodd
Ceiling: Ray Edwards
Bell curve middle: Kony Ealy/Za’Darius Smith
I have all kinds of faith in head coach Sean McDermott’s coaching staff, but I’ll tell you up front that A.J. Epenesa’s projection under this model is disheartening. I searched the past 20 years of drafts for DE/DL players who measured between 6’3” and 6’6”, 270 to 285 lbs, who ran a 40-yard dash worse than 4.80. For context, Epenesa was 6’5” 275 lbs and had a 5.04.
The list of just over 100 players can be divided into three categories:
- 3-4 DEs like Tamba Hali, Malik Jackson, Shaun Ellis, Brett Keisel, and Tyrone Crawford
- Slow edge rushers who qualify as busts: Derrick Harvey, Taco Charlton, Da’Quan Bowers, Kevin Dodd, Datone Jones, Kony Ealy, Tank Carradine, Bronson Kaufusi...
- Successful power/tweener edges: Michael Bennett, Greg Hardy, Za’Darius Smith, Ray Edwards
And to give you an idea of how lopsided this list sits, aforementioned bust Charlton, now looking for his third team in his fourth season after being a first-round pick, is above the median for this group. In terms of career accomplishments, he’s better than average over the last 20 years.
This list has a wide variance at the top and a long tail of terrible. So where will Epenesa end up? It’s a challenge to say, but I’ll say this: The difference between, Epenesa as a prospect and, say, Kevin Dodd as a prospect (who I’ve put as his floor) is that Epenesa won with power in college. Dodd won more often with speed, which didn’t translate.
In the middle, I’ve envisioned two different trajectories here. I could see an argument for Kony Ealy; the former second-round pick had 15 sacks, 14 passes defended, six forced fumbles, and two interceptions in his first four seasons, but only started 19 of 65 games (and played 2019 in the XFL). If you’re more bullish, I could see Za’Darius Smith—the defensive end cashed in after four years, 58 games, 16 starts, and 18.5 sacks, and he broke out with 13.5 sacks this year as a full-time starter for the Green Bay Packers.
At the best case, I think Epenesa could have a career like Ray Edwards, who played well as Jared Allen’s partner, and accumulated 29.5 sacks in five seasons (before signing a big free-agent contract and having his production fall off a cliff). If you’re an optimist, you could argue for Michael Bennett, but I can’t endorse it.
Floor: Terrance West
Ceiling: Travis Henry
Bell curve middle: C.J. Anderson
When Devin Singletary was drafted, I mentioned how mid-round running backs have good career odds, and Zack Moss’s size and speed numbers put him in better territory than Singletary. There are plenty of short and stout runners with passable athleticism who put together strong careers—and not too many who outright busted.
Terrance West was the all-time leading rusher for Towson, and an absolute touchdown machine in college. As a rookie, he had 171 carries for 673 yards and four TDs. He ended up in the doghouse after showing up to camp overweight, but later reemerged for the Ravens. In four years, he had 2,160 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. C.J. Anderson was technically undrafted, but if Moss has that career it’s nothing to complain about. From 2014 through 2018 (five years) Anderson had 3,416 rushing yards, 900 receiving yards, 22 rushing TDs, five receiving TDs, and was a rock-solid pass protector.
If Moss shows that he’s better than his Combine numbers, he could approach feature back territory—and there’s no better fit than Travis Henry. They even had the same height and weight at the Combine. Henry, over seven seasons, totaled more than 7,000 yards from scrimmage and 40 touchdowns. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002.
Floor: Austin Pettis
Ceiling: Terrance Williams
Bell curve middle: Doug Gabriel
Players with Davis’s combo of size, production, and baseline athleticism rarely end up as all-out busts, especially given his mid-round pick status. I targeted similar players who weren’t burners in college, but still piled up big plays and became known for their body control downfield. At worst, Davis could have a career like Austin Pettis—four seasons as a team’s backup receiver, never stepping into relevance. I really like Terrance Williams as a comparison for Davis, and if not for injuries and off-field issues, Williams could’ve become a team’s long-term number-two receiver—where I think Davis could settle in the best case.
In the middle is another former UCF Knight: Doug Gabriel. Gabriel found his niche as a rotational receiver and big-bodied kick returner, with four solid seasons of production before his NFL career closed.
Floor: Aaron Murray
Ceiling: Kirk Cousins/Matt Barkley
Bell curve middle: A.J. McCarron
In the past 20 years, over a hundred quarterbacks have been drafted in the round four to six range. A majority never started a game. Many do become “serviceable” backups, meaning they’ll play for a number of years and end up throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.
Fromm’s clear limitation is his questionable arm strength, made worse by poor throwing mechanics. So when we consider his career outcomes, we’re going to find similarities. For the worst case, I go back to his Georgia predecessor Aaron Murray. Murray owned a bundle of school records, but his smaller size and weak arm made him a late pick who never appeared in a game. In the middle of the pack, I go with another below-average athlete, possessing a below-average arm, who nonetheless starred under the spotlight in college: A.J. McCarron. He’s bounced around backup jobs for six seasons, with a 2-2 record in four starts, six career passing TDs and three career INTs. Now, to consider his best case, you have to decide whether you believe a quarterback (this quarterback) can improve his arm strength to a passable degree. If you agree, I would swing with Kirk Cousins, who overcame his “game manager” projection to become a long-term starter. Not a believer? Then go with Matt Barkley, who started for one season (not great results) and has spent the rest of his career to this point as a backup.
Floor: John Potter
Ceiling: Dustin Hopkins
Bell curve middle: Caleb Sturgis
Between 2000 and 2019, there were 35 kickers drafted from among the fifth through seventh rounds. 22 of those players managed to play more than a full season of games, and half played at least 45 games. Of the players who haven’t yet hit that number, five are active players who simply haven’t been in the league long enough to qualify. In other words, Bass has good odds to have an impact, just by showing up in the list.
For the worst case, I think back to John Potter, a strong-legged kicker with a career conversion rate of 72%, planned as a kickoff specialist. He managed six games in Buffalo, played in three for Washington the next year, and then was out of the league. The best case? Another former Bills pick, Dustin Hopkins. He converted 78.6% of kicks in college (actually worse than Bass’s college aggregate) and he found his form in his third season after bouncing around the league. For the past five years in Washington, he’s kicked touchbacks on 71% of kickoffs and succeeded on 85% of his field goals. On average, look at a guy like Caleb Sturgis. He kicked for six seasons in the league, with a touchback rate of 51% and a field goal success rate of 80%. Those were passable numbers for a while, but eventually teams moved on to someone better.
Floor: Dezmin Lewis
Ceiling: Danario Alexander
Bell curve middle: Marcell Ateman
There aren’t great odds for a wideout in the 6’4” 210-lb range with good jumping numbers but a mediocre 40-yard dash. The New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas breaks the scale, with elite value despite his Combine. After him, the top five includes Michael Clayton, Rueben Randle, Danario Alexander, and Austin Pettis—and three of those were early picks. Half of the players who fit this profile never appeared in an NFL game. Aside from Thomas, there was exactly one single 1,000-yard season among all the players and all the seasons in this group.
Alexander is the realistic best outcome, a player with three seasons, 1400 receiving yards, and ten touchdowns, before injuries ended his career. I also like a Marcell Ateman comparison—the players win in similar ways. Ateman’s still young, with only two seasons, 20 catches, 270 yards, and a touchdown to his resume. Worst case, we simply don’t see Hodgins have any impact. Take Dezmin Lewis, who had a single pass target and no catches in the entirety of his career, despite dominating his college competition and earning a Senior Bowl invite before the draft. I could’ve also named Brandon Kaufman, Cayleb Jones, David Sills, Marcus Lucas, Marcus Henry, J.R. Russell...
Floor: Renard Cox
Ceiling: Demetrius McCray
Bell curve middle: Mario Butler
There aren’t many players with Jackson’s combo of taller, thinner build, below-average agility, and physical style of play. Still, he definitely fits a type—though it’s not one with a great NFL prognosis. Out of 27 similar players I found, more than half were essentially bit players whose accomplishments were limited to a single season at best. Take Renard Cox, a 6’0” 191-lb UDFA who played in five career games without recording a single statistic. For a “best case” target, my mind jumps to Ross Cockrell, but I think there’s a talent gap there. I’d instead settle on Demetrius McCray, a former seventh-round pick who played four seasons and picked up 16 starts along the way. In the middle is Mario Butler, who found his way to playing time in his fourth pro season, contributing nine tackles and defending five passes during that year. He finished his career with 14 game appearances and one start.