One of my favorite NFL Draft exercises is to take the players drafted by the Buffalo Bills and predict their careers. After exhaustive exposure to years of debates about how sixth-round picks have starter upside and first-round choices who don’t make the Pro Bowl are busts, I decided to use historical data to model incoming rookies. With size, athletic testing, and college experience taken into account, I try to project realistic career trajectories for these players.
This project is now entering year four. You can see each of the past iterations here:
And now it’s time to look through the 2021 group. How do you feel about these rookies?
Floor: Antwan Odom
Ceiling: Jason Pierre-Paul
Bell curve middle: Mathias Kiwanuka/Ezekiel Ansah
Given how the pre-draft buzz about Rousseau mentioned his poor workout numbers, I’m surprised how optimistic the projection looks. Players from 6’4” to 6’8” with a weight of 260 lbs to 280 lbs, even with a poor vertical jump and broad jump, are still great company, thanks to Rousseau’s great 40-yard dash and 10-yard split. There are some dominant players in the list, and if I look at top-64 picks, the median player is currently Ziggy Ansah.
If we want to talk about ceiling, Jason Pierre-Paul is the perfect match. A player with very similar size and athleticism, he even played only one college season, just like Rousseau. He’s a three-time Pro Bowl player with 89 career sacks.
Not every player here was a sack machine. Several demonstrated value as run stoppers and edge setters. As a middle-ground example, Mathias Kiwanuka played nine seasons and averaged four sacks per year, where Ansah had a much more explosive impact but dealt with several injuries.
There were a few players who didn’t pan out, although first-round picks often get the benefit of the doubt and play out a few seasons as a starter anyway. Antwan Odom, a second rounder with 52 career starts and 23.5 career sacks, represents the low end of Rousseau’s projection. If you’re really pessimistic about Rousseau, consider Phillip Merling, the 32nd pick in the 2008 draft. He started five games in his six-year career.
Carlos Basham Jr.
Floor: Tarell Basham
Ceiling: Will Smith
Bell curve middle: Shaq Lawson
At 6’3 and 275 lbs, Basham measured in as a pretty remarkable all-around athlete in his workouts. In college, Basham wasn’t a sack machine, being more successful shutting down the running game. Over four seasons, he had 20.5 career sacks versus 36.5 TFLs. His comparable list contains bulky defensive ends and some 3-4 ends.
Overall, the player that matches the best for Basham is Shaq Lawson. The former first rounder never became a sack artist, but frequently pressures the quarterback nevertheless. He’s also excellent playing the run. At the top end, hope for a career like Will Smith. He was a real-deal pass rusher, and made one Pro Bowl. With 67.5 career sacks and 20 forced fumbles, he was a core part of the New Orleans Saints’ defense for his whole career.
For the floor, we’ll go with Basham’s cousin, Tarell Basham. As you might have guessed, they had similar measurables and each played well at low-ranking FBS schools. Tarell, picked 80th overall, just did not work out for the Indianapolis Colts. He lasted one season, was waived and claimed by the New York Jets, and didn’t distinguish himself over the next three seasons. He has 12 career starts and 7.5 sacks.
Floor: Jason Spriggs
Ceiling: Eric Winston/Nate Solder
Bell curve middle: Alex Barron/Brian O’Neill
You’ve already heard plenty about Brown’s special athletic ability, so you were wondering how he stacks up in reality? The first detail of note here is that it’s extremely rare for players with Brown’s athletic ability to be picked later in the draft. Out of 22 similar players from 2000-2020, half were first-round picks, and 16 were picked in the top two rounds.
It’s tempting to compare Brown against Nate Solder, or Joe Staley (whom he trained with pre-draft), but both were first-round picks. Ultimately, I settled on Eric Winston. Winston played for the Miami Hurricanes instead of Northern Iowa, but was originally a tight end, like Brown. A third-round pick, he started 87 consecutive games at right tackle for the Houston Texans. He had two more seasons starting for the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals after that, then played out his remaining career as a backup for the Cincinnati Bengals.
For a floor, we’ll use Jason Spriggs. One of the few hyper-athletic tackles who didn’t pan out, the former second rounder has started nine games in the first four years of his career. He’s still in the league, but definitively settled into backup territory by now.
Choosing a middle is difficult, again keeping in mind that so many of these players were first-round picks. Those guys usually get plugged in right away, where Brown will almost certainly sit as a rookie.
I settled on two options. One is Alex Barron. The former first-round pick started 75 games at both right and left tackle in his career, but was considered a “bust” overall. He was notorious for committing penalties and giving up bunches of sacks. So, we’re talking about a low-end starter. The other projection is Brian O’Neill, entering his fourth season with the Minnesota Vikings. Another tight end who converted to tackle in college, he became Minnesota’s starting right tackle midway through his rookie year. He’s owned that job ever since, and turned in solid work (if not making a Pro Bowl yet).
Floor: Bruce Campbell
Ceiling: Jared Veldheer
Bell curve middle: Seth Wand
Take everything I said about Brown and apply it to Doyle. If you’ve been following the draft, you know how eerily these two players compare to each other. Doyle is not quite as athletic as Brown, and he also has experience playing left tackle, but the skillset is similar.
As a fifth-round pick, Doyle has a shorter leash than Brown. He’ll probably be granted a chance to stick on the 53-man roster as a rookie, but might be the last man out from the offensive line. We should also acknowledge that, with Dion Dawkins already entrenched, it would be very improbable for both of these rookies to become starters for the team in the future, and that’s okay.
The comparison list here reflects Doyle’s high-risk, high-reward nature, with a wide range from floor to ceiling. At best, he could be Jared Veldheer, who emerged from Hillsdale College in the third round to start 114 games at both left and right tackle in his career. At worst, you look at Bruce Campbell. An extremely athletic player from Maryland, the fourth-round pick never developed into a starter after three seasons and 19 game appearances.
In the middle is Seth Wand, formerly of the Division II Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. He was mainly a backup in his career spanning 2003 to 2008, but did start 18 games for the Texans in that time.
Floor: Jaymar Johnson
Ceiling: Johnny Knox
Bell curve middle: Kyle Williams (not the Bills one)
Stevenson’s asset is his speed and vision with the ball in his hands. At 5’10” and 180 lbs, he doesn’t have the size to play physically as a receiver, and he struggled with injuries in his college career. He has kick return upside, and that could get him onto the field as a team’s speed receiver eventually.
Players of his size rarely emerge from the later rounds to become major receivers. Round three can claim Emmanuel Sanders, Tyler Lockett, and T.Y. Hilton. Day three, though? The best player from that neighborhood was Johnny Knox, a fifth-round pick in 2009. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie on the back of an excellent kick-returning season, and also caught 45 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns that year. A season-ending ankle injury took him out of the finale. He was even better in 2010 and 2011, but a spinal cord injury ended his playing career. Still, that’s the ideal for what you get out of Stevenson: big plays on special teams and in the passing game.
On average, think about Kyle Williams (the receiver). He did some work as a kick and punt returner, though he notoriously fumbled away two punts in one playoff game, a loss to the New York Giants. In his five-year career, he caught 47 passes for 574 yards and four touchdowns.
Finally with the floor, we have Jaymar Johnson. The sixth-round pick worked hard as a rookie and ended up being activated for six games, returning 16 punts and catching one pass. He broke his thumb in 2010 and was waived so the Vikings could sign Brett Favre. He joined a practice squad and eventually appeared in one more game for the Cardinals.
Floor: Josh Gattis
Ceiling: Reed Doughty
Bell curve middle: Dean Marlowe
It’s probably not surprising that when I ran Hamlin’s data through my set, two of the high-end similar players to come up were Micah Hyde and Josh Norman—albeit, listed as cornerbacks. The Bills have their prototype, after all.
Safeties with Hamlin’s size are a solid bet in the late rounds, and the Bills have made hay on special teams from players like Siran Neal and Jaquan Johnson in the last few years. They may not start games, but they fit their role to a T.
For an upside play I picked Reed Doughty. In his early career, Doughty was a backup and sub-package player, with only nine starts and 86 tackles in three seasons. His role grew dramatically from there, and he finished out an eight-year career with 507 tackles and 11 passes defended.
Looking at the low end gives you Josh Gattis. He only appeared in four games in his rookie season, was waived, and never returned to the field. That happens all too frequently with late-round picks.
Moving to the middle, you won’t be surprised to see Dean Marlowe’s name since he’s already been compared with Hamlin. Marlowe was a useful cog in the Bills’ defense last year, but in the grand scheme of things he has seven starts and 31 games played in his career, and 38 career tackles. That’s right around the average for late-round safeties in Hamlin’s size range.
Rachad Wildgoose Jr.
Floor: Vontez Duff
Ceiling: LeShaun Sims
Bell curve middle: Demetri Goodson
Wildgoose, who’s closer to the hard-hitting side of the cornerback spectrum than the shutdown coverage side, doesn’t keep great company in the comparisons here. As a bulkier cornerback with average length, a slower 40-yard dash, and below-average agility numbers, his similarity list is peppered with busts and backups.
For an average comparison, look at Demetri Goodson, a former sixth round pick of the Green Bay Packers. He tried out some special teams work, got onto the field for three starts, and finished his three-year career with 30 total tackles.
The worst case is that Wildgoose simply never appears in the NFL. Nearly a quarter of the players in his group fell into this bucket. For one example, there’s Vontez Duff, who played cornerback for Notre Dame, was a sixth-round pick, and later landed in the Arena league.
Very few late-round picks had strong careers out of this group. The vast majority who stuck were fourth rounders. Darrick Vaughn had a small but mighty impact as a kick returner, but that’s not Wildgoose’s wheelhouse. Let’s take LeShaun Sims. A fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah, he’s been a special teams ace and sub-package defender all five years of his career. In 2020, his best season, he had an interception, four passes defended, and 52 total tackles.
Floor: Chad Ward
Ceiling: Matt Slauson
Bell curve middle: Alex Sulfstead
Anderson started 38 games for Texas Tech, all at right guard, but he’s expressed interest in cross-training. I compared him against a set of OL, OG, and OC players with his general size and speed qualities. It wasn’t a very large group, but it featured a good amount of impressive talent—which surprised me. Discounting first- and second-round picks, the top players from this group included Matt Slauson, who started 113 games at guard and center in his career. Wyatt Teller was another interesting name here, who’s obviously linked to the Bills from the 2018 draft, and is ascending to the top of the league at the moment.
Alex Sulfstead, a sixth-round choice who could play guard and tackle, represents the average case. He appeared in 18 career games and started three. A number of players also failed to appear in any NFL games, which sets up a realistic worst-case for Anderson. Chad Ward, a 2001 pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, represents that group.
Obviously this is a wide range—from zero games to a nine-year starter. In other words, the data thinks that Anderson is likely to have a very short career, but could potentially emerge to have had a very robust career ten years from now.