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Revisiting player career projections from the 2018 Buffalo Bills draft class

Has Brandon Beane’s first draft class passed muster?

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.

Now that we’re three years in, and have a better understanding of each player from the 2018 draft, it’s time to look back on the first batch of Bills drafted by general manager Brandon Beane. Overall, this is an excellent top-to-bottom draft class that landed two Pro Bowl talents, a starter who was named second-team All-Pro, another starter, a rotational player, and two excellent special teams players who could still demonstrate value on offense or defense. Unfortunately, not every player stayed with the Bills.

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:

Josh Allen

Floor: Jake Locker
Ceiling: Ben Roethlisberger
Bell curve middle: Joe Flacco

We all know how polarizing of a prospect Allen was in college. When finding comparables for him, I looked for players with similar size, small-school backgrounds, play styles, and accuracy stats. Though at the time, I received pushback for calling Average Joe Flacco the middle outcome for Allen—that was still talking about a ten-year starter.

In year three, everything came together in a near-MVP season for Allen. In all honesty, it may have been a better year than any Ben Roethlisberger ever had. With our new knowledge of Allen’s development, Roethlisberger becomes the standard and a new ceiling has emerged: Brett Favre.

Verdict: At ceiling

Lesson learned: A boom-or-bust prospect can truly boom when everything comes together.

Tremaine Edmunds

Floor: LaVar Arrington
Ceiling: Brian Urlacher
Bell curve middle: Nick Barnett

Can a player be both underrated and overrated at the same time? That quantum quality belongs to Edmunds, whose career is tough to explain. Start with a fantastic rookie season with 80 solo and 121 total tackles, 12 passes defended, two INTs, two forced fumbles, seven QB hits, and two sacks. All of those numbers are career highs. Edmunds had a successful impact season in year two, albeit with fewer splash plays, and was selected to his first Pro Bowl (as an alternate). In year three, a lingering shoulder injury led to the worst year of his career, but Edmunds was also officially named to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

It’s weird to talk about a two-time Pro Bowler and think he needs to show improvement, but that’s where he’s at. And yet, entering year four of his career, Edmunds is still younger than half the rookies the Bills just drafted.

Looking back, I’m not a huge fan of the comparisons I used here, since Arrington was awarded more in his short career than Barnett in his long and steady career. Still, Edmunds showed that he has as much tackling range as Barnett. If he can bring the splash plays back into his game, he’ll exceed that comparison and start drawing comparisons to loftier names.

Verdict: At middle

Lesson learned: Career length, injury history, impact plays, team record, and award recognition all factor into the ways we measure a player’s success.

Harrison Phillips

Floor: Marvin Austin
Ceiling: Ahtyba Rubin
Bell curve middle: Stephen Paea

It hasn’t been the easiest road for Phillips, who suffered a torn ACL (his second) at the start of his sophomore season. After 35 total tackles in his rookie year, he returned in year three with only 18 total tackles in 12 games played. So far in his career, he only has four TFLs (all from his rookie year) and a half sack. There are some encouraging signs—though he only had seven tackles on 195 snaps in the first half of the 2020 season, he was much more productive returning after the Bills benched him, with 11 tackles on 137 snaps to end the year. Phillips also started playing on special teams, which could help him secure a roster spot in 2021.

At the moment, Phillips is clearly trending below Stephen Paea, given that we’re talking about him as a potential training camp cut. But his story isn’t over yet.

Verdict: Above floor

Lesson learned: Injuries can derail a career, and past injury can correlate to future injury.

Taron Johnson

Floor: DeAngelo Smith
Ceiling: Leonard Johnson
Bell curve middle: Bene Benwikere

Among players in the 2018 draft, Johnson ranks, 17th in tackles, 22nd in interceptions, and 18th in passes defended. In terms of cornerbacks from that group, he sits behind Jaire Alexander, Denzel Ward, Tre Flowers, Donte Jackson, and Carlton Davis in terms of approximate value. For three seasons, he’s been a “starter” at nickel CB for the Bills. His position hasn’t been fully challenged yet, but he also didn’t really distinguish himself, aside from suffering injuries, until landing two game-changing pick-sixes in 2020. As far as a fourth-round pick goes, that’s a solid outcome and a successful one.

From the perspective of my original comparisons, Johnson is firmly at the ceiling, just because Leonard Johnson maxed out as a solid nickel corner and special teams player in his seven-year career. Taron Johnson has already shown that capacity. In retrospect, there was room to reach higher, even considering Johnson’s FCS background and below-average size and athleticism. He had the right skillset for the defensive role the Bills would use him in.

Verdict: At ceiling

Lesson learned: Even though day-three picks often don’t pan out, it’s okay to dream a little on their best-case scenario.

Siran Neal

Floor: Crezdon Butler
Ceiling: Justin Bethel
Bell curve middle: Darrell Stuckey

Through three years, Siran Neal has only started one game (on defense). However, he’s been one of the top special teams players on the Bills since he joined them. A durable and hard-hitting safety, Neal has 60 tackles, four TFLs, and two forced fumbles in his career. He’s Buffalo’s “secret superstar” on the special teams unit.

So far, he’s right on par for Darrell Stuckey, whose career lasted seven seasons and included one Pro Bowl nod. Neal does have a few more snaps on defense, but hasn’t developed into a core part of the group—and he doesn’t have the Pro Bowl caliber performance that Justin Bethel turned in.

Verdict: At middle

Lesson learned: Special teams is a good path to the field for late-round corners/safeties/linebackers who can’t break into the defensive lineup.

Wyatt Teller

Floor: Julian Vandervelde
Ceiling: Marshall Newhouse
Bell curve middle: Joe Looney

This is a bit of a fun one. Considered a “steal” in the fifth round, Teller found his way onto the field with the 6-10 Bills as a rookie, starting seven games. After Buffalo signed a slew of veterans to upgrade the line for 2019, Teller didn’t make the cut, and they traded him to the Cleveland Browns. Teller earned a starting role partway through the season in 2019, and was locked in as the starting right guard for 2020. That’s when he prodigiously upped his game (almost beyond what the pre-draft scouts thought he was capable of). He suffered a season-ending injury after 11 games, but was named a second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press.

Heading into year four, Teller seems like he’ll crack the ceiling before long. Looney was never a full-time starter like Teller, and Newhouse was never awarded for his performance. As long as Teller stays healthy, he can outperform this projection.

Verdict: At ceiling

Lesson learned: Teller really was a draft-day steal, who just needed time and the right situation to flourish.

Ray-Ray McCloud III

Floor: Robert Herron
Ceiling: Dexter McCluster
Bell curve middle: Keenan Howry

McCloud did not survive his first round of cuts with the Bills, but played ten games as their returner in his rookie season. He played a year for the Carolina Panthers, then emerged as a more dangerous return specialist with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They also used him as a gadget receiver on offense, where he touched the ball 24 times for 152 yards.

By breaking into the offensive playbook, McCloud seems to be having a slightly better career than Howry, who had three career catches. He’s still a long way away from the amount of production that McCluster amassed on offense, but this is a solid career for the former sixth-round pick.

Verdict: Above middle

Lesson learned: A late-round pick known for kick returning can stick in the NFL with those returning skills, long enough to earn time on offense.

Austin Proehl

Floor: Devon Wylie
Ceiling: Jarius Wright
Bell curve middle: Jordan Shipley

Proehl has yet to break onto an NFL roster as he enters the fourth year of his career. The story isn’t over yet, as he signed a futures contract with the San Francisco 49ers in January, but don’t count on it.

The estimate here was way off—projecting an average case of Jordan Shipley, who caught 52 passes in his rookie season, just doesn’t make any sense in hindsight. Wylie, who played in eight career games and caught six passes, was better served as the middle marker instead of the floor.

Verdict: Below floor

Lesson learned: Even a “polished” pick at the end of a draft is a long shot to make NFL appearances, unless they have special teams upside.