We are less than a month away from the NFL Draft!
Without an NFL Combine and coming off of a COVID-19 impacted season where schedules were limited to within conferences and were of unequal length, in addition to many players simply not playing, this hasn’t exactly been the smoothest of draft cycles.
Yet, by all indications, this is an incredibly talented draft class filled with athletic freaks at premium positions. With the draft being where the foundation of a team is built, this is an excellent development.
Projecting college prospects to the NFL level is quite the perplexing process. For the most part, the common way to do so is to watch their film and identify how skilled each player is. However, there are complications with this process. For starters, watching every play of over 300 prospects is quite time consuming. Thus, most tend to focus on a few games, and this obviously can lead to consequences. Catch a prospect in his best game, and you’ll think he is a superstar, after all; prospects need to be judged on their whole body of work, not just a few select games. Meanwhile, if a player makes a standout play, doesn’t look the part, or any small issue comes up, they tend to be evaluated in a non-objective fashion. Then, there are other biases, such as not wanting to be different, or trying to stand out with a “hot take”; also, how can we prove which analysts are the ones who truly give the most accurate assessments. In other words, the amount of potential negative ramifications from our current approach to evaluating NFL Draft prospects.
Thus, in an attempt to come up with a more objective way, I have created a predictive model to identify who the most valuable players will be from this draft. Essentially the process went as such:
- For each position, I ran studies to identify the main indicators of NFL success, analyzing college production data from Pro Football Focus and athletic testing.
- Using that weighting system created, a projected PFF grade was computed for each prospect.
- With that projected grade, a projected Wins Above Replacement was computed for each prospect.
- Based on the average amount paid for WAR and the amount paid for WAR at the specific position, this was converted into a projected value. Essentially, what a player would be worth on the open market.
Positional value is a critical aspect when it comes to player acquisition. It’s one thing to identify who the best players will be, but it’s another to acquire the players who will impact the game the most and make the most on the open market. Thus, quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive tackles, and, further down, offensive tackles and edge rushers, will have an edge over less premium positions, such as interior offensive line, linebacker, and running back.
With that being said, let’s get to my model’s official 2021 NFL Draft projections!
As you can see, there are quite a few surprises on this list compared to public consensus, though positional value still reigns supreme. Meanwhile, the projected values and grades are for the second year of a prospect’s career, as that is really the time you draft them for, rather than short-term gain. With that, let us go over each position group, analyzing the overall talent of this class, as well as the current evaluation process and notable predictive statistical indicators.
Common Statistical Indicators
Click here for a complete deep dive of the quarterback evaluation process.
The top five quarterbacks of this class each project as top-ten prospects since 2015, per my model’s research. As you can see, the top three are on a tier of their own , meaning they can be ranking in any order. As we have covered, Justin Fields’ combination of accuracy with a very high average depth of target, in addition to his rushing production and elite peripherals, give an edge over Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, though between Lawrence’s overall body of work and Wilson’s deep-ball numbers, they all have the makings of excellent quarterbacks at the next level.
Trey Lance is quite the perplexing projection, as his sample size is limited to one season in which he played at an FCS school and dropped back only 18 times per game. His accuracy numbers are concerning, but his rushing production and style of play (high average depth of target), make him a high-variance option worth betting on. For the most part, many see him as a much riskier player than Mac Jones, but is that actually the case? The margin for error for an immobile quarterback to succeed is very rare, which is why rushing production has actually been a statistical indicator of future success. Jones is very accurate, but his sample size is one year with a loaded receiving corps in a year where defenses have never been worse, so although he is worthy of a top-ten pick, that is more so due to the value of a rookie mid-tier quarterback rather than him being a true elevator of the personnel around him.
That’s it for the players who project as starters in this draft. Kyle Trask will likely be the next drafted player after a strong year at Florida, but he is also immobile and really struggled in his junior year. Stanford’s Davis Mills is an intriguing high-variance option since his sample size is limited, as is Jamie Newman, and perhaps you can talk yourself into Kellen Mond’s poor production being driven by an unfriendly offensive system and a lack of talent around him. Yet, the quarterback whose profile deserves more recognition is Sam Ehlinger, who has multiple seasons of well-above-average peripheral production; plus, if I’m taking a backup, I’d prefer one with the mobility he has.
Common Statistical Indicators
For running backs, a trait that stood out as being predictive of future success is the ability to create yards after contact, which makes sense; it’s a statistic indecent of the circumstances around them. Beyond that, PFF rushing grade and receiving grade, particularly the latter, were very important. At the running back position, production is pretty stable college to pro, though athletic testing numbers appear to serve as a nice finishing touch.
Based on my model, the top running back prospects of recent years are:
- Jonathan Taylor
- Alvin Kamara
- Kareem Hunt
- Christian McCaffrey
- Nick Chubb
That’s quite the nice run on successful running backs who weren’t considered the top players in their class, and also in the top half are fifth-round pick Aaron Jones and undrafted free agent James Robinson. In terms of their worst projected running backs:
- Wendell Smallwood
- Wayne Gallman
- Brian Hill
- Corey Clement
- Kallen Ballage
This all makes intuitive sense, and, hey, it was on the lower side on Leonard Fournette, despite him being the fourth overall pick!
NOTE: Saquon Barkley did not have full combine testing. He was quite the running back prospect and his production score reflects that, while his athletic testing numbers likely would have vaulted him near the top.
Move over Travis Etienne and Najee Harris, there’s a new sheriff in town! In fact, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams ranks as my models top-evaluated running back prospect ever! We’re talking about a player who ranks at or right near the top in:
- Career PFF rushing grade
- Career PFF receiving grade
- Career PFF grade
- Yards after contact per attempt
It’s easy to fall for Najee Harris’ production at a big-time program or another running back’s explosiveness, but Williams wins at the most predictive areas- creating yardage on his own and providing value as a receiver. That is also the case for some of the undervalued players on this list, mainly Louisiana’s Elijah Mitchell, who not only has a very strong statistical profile, but also ran a 4.41 40-yard dash with a 38-inch vertical- simply absurd testing numbers.
This is actually quite the deep class overall in terms of players who specialize in creating yardage after contact, receiving, or explosiveness. Given that it’s not a premium position, you shouldn’t splash on the position early, but with players like Mitchell, Pooka Williams, and others likely to be available and ready to succeed, you don’t need to. This will be a great opportunity for teams to address the position with as low of an investment as possible.
Common Statistical Indicators
Wide receiver is interesting in that the total package of metrics are more predictive than just one simply number: the final value is greater than the individual parts. However, if there’s one number I don’t believe is looked at enough with receiver prospects, it’s creating yardage after the catch. This showed up as being the most predictive metric of future success, and it’s easy to see why; we are trying to look at the more stable and most independent areas of play, and generally those who create yardage after the catch do so because they create separation, rather than relying on contested catches. Lower-round receivers such as Stefan Diggs and Diontae Johnson rated well in yardage after catch per reception, and the same goes for the likes. of Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, AJ Brown, DJ Moore, DK Metcalf, Darius Slayton, and Marquise Brown. On the other end of the spectrum, contested-catch receivers Miles Boykin, JJ Arcega Whiteside, and Chris Conley weren’t able to showcase this ability. Now, for every Brandon Aiyuk, there is a Henry Ruggs or Keke Coutee, while Courtland Sutton didn’t perform well after the catch. Yet, there is definitely a greater margin for error for the players who make plays after the catch.
- Amari Cooper
- Henry Ruggs III
- CeeDee Lamb
- DeVante Parker
- Laviska Shenault
It’s really a bummer than Ruggs struggled and wasn’t properly used with the Raiders in his rookie season. If used more as a do-it-all weapon rather than a pure deep threat, there is still plenty of reason to believe he can have more success, while Shenault is a name to keep an eye on with a greater opportunity in his second year with the Jaguars. For those wondering, players like Tee Higgins, Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, Jerry Jeudy, and Brandon Aiyuk also rate highly and demonstrate how lucky we have been to have so much receiving talent enter the league.
On the other end of the spectrum:
- Hunter Renfrow
- Travis Fulgham
- Jamison Crowder
- Olabisi Johnson
- Daesean Hamilton
Apparently, my model may be too low on smaller slot receivers, though so was the NFL when it comes to Hunter Renfrow and Jamison Crowder, though they do resemble a prototype the NFL still doesn’t seem the value highly. Of the model’s top overall fades, Myles Boykin, John Ross, and Christian Kirk stand out as proper projections, while one wishes it could have been higher on Terry McLaurin, Cooper Kupp, and Chase Claypool. Interestingly, it was quite low on Jalen Reagor, and it will be fascinating to see how the young receiver fares in his second season in Philadelphia after failing to meet expectations in 2020.
Last year’s receiver class was fantastic, but this one may be even better. Jamar Chase would rank as my model’s top receiver prospect ever evaluated, while Jaylen Waddle isn’t far behind.
One may be wondering how Waddle ranks ahead of Smith. Simply put, he was much more efficient than Smith, and in his opportunities, he has thrived, especially after the catch, since his freshman year. From there, yards after catch specialists Kadarius Toney and Rondale Moore will be interesting fits for offensive coordinators willing to use them to their fullest potential, while Rashod Bateman is more of a standard complete receiver.
Between his big-play ability, strong athletic profile, and performance after the catch, keep an eye on Tamorrion Terry, who played injured this year and didn’t have a good quarterback situation at Florida State, while Nico Collins’ size-speed combination and deep-threat prowess also should work well at the NFL level, similarly to Tylan Wallace. Furthermore, Marquez Stevenson, Dwayne Eskridge, and Anthony Schwartz are all underrated assets who make plays after the catch, though, to be fair, this draft is loaded with those types of players.
My model is a bit hesitant on Elijah Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr., though there is reason to be optimistic about both; my model has historically been slightly low on slot receivers while Marshall Jr. was having a breakout year in terms of producing after the catch and may simply be a role-diverse player. Then again, that’s a hypothetical, so the first round might be too rich, though I’ll never fault a team for taking a receiver in the first round, given the variation of the prospect evaluation process. Really, though, you’d be foolish to not at least double down on this receiver class. You need to be five deep at least at the position, and with the amount of talented overall playmakers from creating yardage after the catch and overall athleticism, the depth is fantastic. If my model is correct, the league is going to be surprised with the amount of quality options available to them if given the opportunity to produce, though situation will ultimately be the driving role in how these prospects ultimately turn out.
Common Statistical Indicators
Tight ends are very similar to wide receivers, with the weighting of production and athleticism being almost identical. However, athleticism matters much more as opposed to size, and standard production numbers (yards per route run) have a greater predictive significance. Additionally, one’s production in the deep passing game has been a quirky statistical indicator, while yards after catch isn’t as much so. This intuitively makes a lot of sense, as the tight ends that tend to separate themselves are the ones who can act as wide receivers, rather than a strict short passing target. The overall results of the model are promising:
- Evan Engram
- George Kittle
- Gerald Everett
- Noah Fant
- Mike Gesicki
How Kittle was a fifth-round pick is a mystery that needs to be solved. As a sophomore, he posted a 93.9 PFF grade, 7.4 yards after the catch per reception, produced in the vertical passing game, AND ran a 4.52 40-yard dash with a 132 inch broad jump. What else did he need to do? For the most part, my model prefers athletic tight ends as opposed to the sure-handed, “old reliable” prototype, which also correlates with the direction the NFL is going at the position. As offenses continue to open up, the bar for athleticism at the position will only continue to increase.
As for the bottom five:
- Jordan Thomas
- Eric Tomlinson
- Jesse James
- Ben Koyack
- Nick Vannett
Stiffer, less athletic tight ends dominate this list! A lot of these players are big targets that may be deemed useful in the red zone, but that is quite the small sample and none are currently starting players right now for that reason. There aren’t any notable “fades” from my model, but the main ones from a low production score standpoint would be former first-round pick Hayden Hurst and second-round pick Drew Sample.
Simply put, we have never seen a tight end prospect like Kyle Pitts. In fact, I believe he’s the top pure receiver in this entire draft, and my model would back that sentiment. He’s 6’5″, ran a 4.41 40-yard dash, and just posted a 96.2 PFF grade! Add in his production against single coverage, his 13.8 average depth of target, and his 15.9% alignment as an outside receiver, and it’s clear that he doesn’t need to be constrained as a tight end. Regardless of what role he’s in, he’s going to dominate. For the team that drafts him, which should probably the first one not taking a quarterback, it’s about extracting as much value as possible.
After that, there are a cluster players all similar to each other in terms of value, but completely different as players. Brevin Jordan profiles as the type of athletic, move tight end that my model has been fond of in the past, with his production after the catch being his main selling point. Meanwhile, Hunter Long stands out in terms his high yards/reception despite playing mostly as an inline tight end, and Pat Freiermuth is simply well rounded. They should all go in the first two rounds of the draft, but keep an eye on Kylen Granson, who produced tremendously working down the field, or Tommy Tremble, who is young for the class and posted very strong athletic testing numbers.
Outside of that, the quality of the class falls off, though there are still some interesting complementary options in terms of vertical threats. Given the lack of predictiveness of draft position compared to success at the position, teams would always be wise to take a shot on one of those options at the end of the draft.
Common Statistical Indicators
Production, production, production! PFF grades correlate quite strongly from college to pro for trench players, and, for that reasons, teams and analysts need to be careful not to chase athletic traits. Interestingly, run-blocking had a greater predictive influence than pass protection, which does make sense. Whereas pass protection can be influenced by scheme and how long the quarterback holds onto the ball, perhaps run blocking is the way to demonstrate true dominance and talent? Athleticism matters very little at this position compared to others, though the combination of size and movement drill numbers still is a useful finishing touch.
- La’el Collins
- Ryan Ramcyzk
- Jack Conklin
- Mike McGlinchey
- Taylor Decker
The overall predictiveness of offensive tackle production means that projecting them stands out as a strength of my model, and likely is the case for most production-based evaluation systems. Offensive tackles have a steep learning curve, but the NFL generally does a sound job of evaluating them, with most of the talent coming early in the draft. That correlates with the bottom-five prospects, mainly late-round picks:
- Dennis Daley
- Geron Christian
- David Sharpe
- Justin Herron
- Terence Steele
Of the lower projected players, Donovan Smith and Cody Ford stand out as the highest picks. There is slightly more significance with the junior year as opposed to other years, which makes sense given the general development curve of these players in terms of physicality, and that would help explain the success of rookie tackles Tristan Wirfs and Mekhi Becton. Furthermore, athletic numbers may have caused the league to be too low on Braden Smith, Orlando Brown, and Daryl Williams, all of whom had the production to warrant a first-round pick.
A few things stand out from model’s tackle rankings. One, there is a clear gap between the top player, the next five, and then the rest. Furthermore, the main differences with the projections and consensus opinion rely around a greater importance put on production.
Penei Sewell, as a 19-year-old, almost broke my model in terms of his overall production. That is absurd, and is why he is my model’s top-ranked non quarterback. The surplus value you’ll be getting on his rookie contract is tremendous, and the fact that he isn’t the clear-cut top ranked offensive tackle is a demonstration of recency bias and prospect fatigue after he didn’t play this season- biases we are specifically trying to get rid of with this process.
From there, the next five tackles are rather interchangeable. Christian Darrisaw and Rashawn Slater’s overall peripheral production is almost identical, though Darrisaw has the longer body of work and is more than a year younger. Furthermore, Teven Jenkins’ run-blocking showcased true dominance, and, also in the Big 12, Samuel Cosmi demonstrated consistent progression at Texas. Brady Christensen stands out as the most surprising ranking, but I cannot understand why he isn’t getting more attention. He has posted a PFF grade of 87.8 and 96 over the past two seasons, respectively, showcased fantastic athleticism at his pro day, and, by all reports, is seen as technically-refined player. It’s interesting how common it is for a player to be randomly overlooked in this process for no specific reason, with there being a clear split between those that believe he is a sure-fire tackle and those who are convinced he’ll move to guard.
It’s difficult to project Dillon Radunz, but his production at FCS North Dakota State wasn’t super impressive. Of the lower rated options, the one I’d take a chance on is Stanford’s Walker Little, who profiles well athletically and performed well as a pass protector in his lone season as a sophomore. Given the general progression curve of offensive tackles, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all to see him produce enough to be a top-ranked player in this class. Overall, though, while the depth of this class is quite strong when it comes to players who could profile as “swing tackle” options, you’d still want to address this position very early in the draft if you want to find a future starter.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
Common Statistical Indicators
For interior offensive line, production is far less stable from college to pro, and pass protection stands out as opposed to run blocking. My guess is technical refinement matters less so on the interior because of the huge difference between playing college interior defenders and those with elite power and speed, which is why the better athletes tend to perform. The three-cone drill is particularly significant, with the jumps and 40-yard dash factoring in as well.
Unfortunately, Quenton Nelson didn’t test at the combine, but he would have been a part of this top five:
- Forrest Lamp
- Joe Thuney
- Cody Whitehear
- Shaq Mason
- Brandon Scherff
What could have been of Forrest Lamp had injuries not been such a driving factor! Outside of his projection, it is very encouraging that Thuney, Whitehear, and Mason, who all have outperformed their draft position, rank very highly on this list; they all combined production with tremendous athleticism. With how this position is generally evaluated, it’s not one you need to invest in early. As for the bottom five:
- Dru Samia
- Nate Herbig
- Tyre Phillips
- Nick Gates
- Jamil Douglas
Later round picks that haven’t performed at the NFL level. This is good in terms of the accuracy of the model! There aren’t many “fades” from my model, though its skepticism of Lloyd Cushenberry and former first-round Billy Price appears to be validated.
These rankings mostly differ from consensus opinion, but remember the how volatile prospects at this position tend to be; draft position hasn’t been great in terms of predicting the best players, so different is expected in this case.
Trey Smith, Kendrick Green, and Creed Humphrey all tested tremendously, even after adjusting for it happening at their pro days. There isn’t a player among this group with elite production, outside of perhaps Alijah Vera-Tucker, yet the movement skills demonstrated by the top four appear to give them an edge. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if Vera-Tucker ended up as the best, as he’s the most refined. Trey Smith’s health concerns, Wyatt Davis’ injury history and regression, Creed Humphrey’s inconsistency, and Kendrick Green’s lack of track record as a superb pass protector make this quite the fascinating class, though Smith and Green should go late enough to be values.
Although difficult to project, Wisconsin Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz is worth the gamble given his athleticism, and he’s the polar opposite of Landon Dickerson, who is a fifth-year senior coming off of a breakout season, but also a torn ACL. Since teams should generally target players at this position later on, I’d advise them to take a look at Drew Dalman and Drake Jackson, who each project as a quality-enough starters and have the ability to fill in at center, something many teams need; looking at you, Steelers.
After Ben Cleveland, the quality of this class drops off a bit, but it’s still a deep group where an early investment is not needed. In an offseason where interior offensive linemen have been abundantly easy to come by and the steep learning curve players place at this position, I wouldn’t worry about investing early at the position.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
Outside of quarterback, there is no other position where athleticism carries as little predictiveness as is the case with interior defensive line play. Production is quite stable from college to pro, as PFF does a great job separating actual quality pass rush from clean up pressures, so taking athletic projects at the position is suboptimal. On the interior, pass-rush grade isn’t as predictive as run defense grade, and considering how important it is to have quality run defense on the interior to take the pressure off of defensive coordinators to sacrifice resources to stop the run, this is a welcome development. Still, the players who will generate interior pressure in the NFL are the ones who did so in college. That explains the top five projected players from my model:
- Quinnen Williams
- Grady Jarrett
- Leonard Williams
- Maurice Hurst
- Jonathan Allen
HMs: Vita Vea, Danny Shelton, Ed Oliver
All of these players performed tremendously in college and have continued to do so in the NFL. Jarrett stands out as a former fourth-round pick, especially since the reason he fell was since he didn’t have the prototypical size for the position. At the end of the day, though, at this position, production speaks for itself. That’s a theme with the bottom five as well, though a couple misses are present:
- Angelo Blackson
- Eddie Goldman
- Byron Cowart
- Antwuan Woods
- DJ Reader
Reader and Goldman have each developed into quality nose tackles, though they stand out as the main “misses” overall and the process of predicting them to outperform their college production would have been flawed- there wasn’t any reason to expect them to do something they hadn’t proved capable of doing. It’s nice to see that the model was skeptical of recent first-round disappointments Jerry Tillery, Robert Nkemdiche, and Taven Bryan. What is fascinating is that although it held all in strong regard, Justin Madubuike edged out Derrick Brown as the top interior defensive lineman last year, with third-round pick Jordan Elliot and second-round pick Raekwon Davis being ahead of first-round pick Javon Kinlaw. Considering that Madubuike performed well as a rookie while Kinlaw struggled, this is something to keep an eye on.
Christian Barmore deserves more recognition that he is getting, as he has a very similar projection to Jonathan Allen, ironically also from Alabama, had as a draft prospect. His overall volume numbers aren’t great, yet his overall efficiency is unprecedented. From there, there aren’t any premier players, though Levi Onwuzurike and Milton Williams both profile well as quality starters, with the next four all offering values either as situational pass rushers or nose tackles.
In general, you want to build a defensive line filled with cheap, quality depth. Thus, if you wait for the value to come into this draft class, it’ll be there. I am particularly fascinated by Wilson, who was an elite performer coming into the year, but struggled in the COVID-19 impact season. I usually would say that the numbers tell the story, but if we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that playing through it is quite the challenge. Also, in un-drafted free agency, keep an eye out for the abundance of nose tackles; teams who invest resources properly will be rewarded with adequate production at a very cheap price. Since this isn’t a premium position in terms of overall positional value, that is quite appealing.
Common Statistical Indicators
Similarly to interior defensive line, production is quite stable for edge rushers. Size/movement combination numbers matter slightly at this position, but if you weren’t able to rush the passer at a high level in college, it’s hard to expect you to be able to in the NFL. Thus, simply by sorting through PFF’s pass-rushing numbers, you could definitely identify who the top prospects should be. Production was not an issue for the top projected prospects from my model:
- Joey Bosa
- Chase Young
- Nick Bosa
- Myles Garrett
- Trey Flowers
Since production is stable from college to pro, it makes sense that the NFL does a relatively strong job evaluating edge rushers; the top four players listed all were selected within the first three picks of the draft. Meanwhile, we’ve definitely moved in the direction where a player like Trey Flowers, who didn’t have the prototypical length but a versatile skillset, is valued much more than as a fourth-round pick.
All hope isn’t lost for players who don’t produce, apparently, though!
- Romeo Okwara
- Yannik Ngakoue
- Za’Darius Smith
- Danielle Hunter
- Josh Sweat
The top four players on this list all have had at least one season of strong production, though outside of Hunter, who was developed tremendously by head coach Mike Zimmer as a former fourth-round pick, none of these players have been particularly consistent and did face a steeper learning curve. With successful skepticism towards Ben Banogu, K’Lavon Chaisson, Solomon Thomas, and even Bud Dupree, the importance of production still does show up, however- there is just inherent variance with the draft.
Remember, production is key! Jordan Smith has posted a PFF pass-rush grade over 91 in back-to-back seasons, posted a 20% pressure rate this season, AND has the length that teams covet with his 6’7″ frame. What am I missing? Similarly to Brady Christensen, it is hard to understand, outside of general biases with the current evaluation process.
Gregory Rousseau and Azeez Ojulari are young players from this class that have already demonstrated the ability to generate pressure, and outside of them, no other edge rusher presents value in the first round. There is some intrigue with Jaelan Phillips and Kwity Paye, but their overall body of work is limited, and there are plenty of less-regarded rotational edge rushers I’d rather invest in later on in the draft.
One notable player my model isn’t high on is Penn State’s Jayson Oweh. He simply doesn’t have the elite production that others did, nor did he generate pressure at a high enough rate consistently. Only having one season (which was shortened) as a full-time starter also doesn’t help his case, and other pass rushers have outperformed him.
Smith stands out one of the top values in this class, and with this not being a very strong edge rusher class, I’d wait until later on to add talent here. Athletic works in progress are the theme of this group, and given the stability of production here, I wouldn’t want to be the team that drafts them in the first round.
Common Statistical Indicators
With how open passing offenses are, it shouldn’t be a surprise that athleticism is critical at the linebacker position, especially the three-cone drill, which demonstrates their ability to change directions and adapt to any defensive scheme and whatever an opposing offense throws at them. In terms of production, coverage production definitely reigns supreme, and what one provides with run defense carries practically zero predictiveness. Thus, athletic coverage players are my model’s top projected prospects:
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Jordan Hicks
- Nick Vigil
- Willie Gay Jr.
- Fred Warner
I will not that that Roquan Smith, Isaiah Simmons, and Myles Jack would have ranked as the top-three players on this list had they completed their athletic testing. Outside of Vigil, this is a nice list full of underdrafted players, especially Warner, who was arguably the top linebacker in the NFL last year. As for the bottom five:
- Hardy Nickerson
- Deion Jones
- Kwon Alexander
- Benardrick McKinney
- Kenny Young
There are some notable misses here, with Jones production progression being simply unprecedented. The main theme I’d takeaway here is that coverage production can be unstable, though McKinney is more known as a run defender while Alexander’s career has been quite turbulent. The main model “fades” would be Jarrad Davis and Darron Lee, while its top “hidden gems” would be Warner, Hicks, and Cory Littleton.
Athleticism certainly is not an issue for Micah Parsons! Given the limited value of this position and his lackluster coverage production, my model doesn’t see him as a top-ten pick, but he is the top linebacker in this class, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (versatile coverage player) and Zaven Collins (strong pass rusher) offering interesting versatility.
Garret Wallow, Jamin Davis, and Baron Browning stand out as the athletic freaks of this class, and all have elite change of direction ability that project well at the next level. That unfortunately cannot be said for Missouri’s Nick Bolton, who ran a 7.4 three-cone and doesn’t have the length you’re looking for at the position. Perhaps his cited instincts can translate in the NFL, yet he profiles way too similarly to other strong college performers who simply didn’t meet the athletic threshold to be strong NFL producers.
Between Wallow, Browning, and some of the athletic players in this class, and early investment is not needed, especially since the correlation between draft position and success at linebacker is limited. Why spend a top-ten pick when one of those players or Jabril Cox will be available later on and also be adequate in pass coverage? The cost-benefit analysis logic of a high investment at this position isn’t there, particularly in an era where several top defenses (Rams, Steelers, Washington) didn’t exactly have elite linebacker play, or anything close to that.
Common Statistical Indicators
Really, what other predictive statistical indicators are there than coverage grade from PFF for cornerbacks? None of the other coverage statistics are very stable, so combining their production with athleticism is important. Mainly, that’s with the 40-yard dash, as this is the one position where straight-line speed is particularly important, while length appears to be overvalued. Also, with how volatile coverage play is, a strong overall track record, rather than just one sole season of production, is critical.
Unfortunately, many of the top performers, such as Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, and Denzel Ward, didn’t complete their athletic testing. It’d be silly not to include them, so using their 40-yard dash numbers as the main testing number, these would be the top prospects:
- Marshon Lattimore
- Jamel Dean
- Marlon Humphrey
- Greedy Williams
- Denzel Ward
Lattimore, Humphrey, and Ward all were premier prospects, but it’s encouraging to see the model’s strong projection for Jamel Dean, who has outperformed all expectations as a third-round pick. It’s hard to see why this is the class given the fact he posted a PFF grade over 80 in college and ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, though it does mirror the trajectory of a specific player in this draft class. Also, I’m really excited to see Greedy Williams back healthy this season for the Browns and paired with Ward!
The bottom-five cornerbacks didn’t exactly have the production-speed combination you’re looking for:
- Blessaun Austin
- Lamar Jackson
- Lonnie Johnson Jr.
- Marvell Tell
- JC Jackson
Jets fans, look away! Both Jackson and Austin played a lot for the league’s worst coverage unit, and it’s very surprising in hindsight that Johnson Jr. was a second-round pick after running a 4.69 40-yard dash and not having great production in college. Obviously, JC Jackson stands out as a sore thumb on this list, but, then again, he was un-drafted! Something worth noting is that the model was lower on Jeffrey Okudah and CJ Henderson last year compared to consensus and was rather high on Cameron Dantzler and L’Jarius Sneed, something that certainly worked out last season; Dantzler and Sneed were PFF’s top-two cornerbacks last year.
Although not in line with the elite prospects since 2015, Patrick Surtain still rates out tremendously well. His floor is as high as can be for a cornerback after three seasons as an above-average starter, and for whatever concerns there were about his speed, his athletic testing definitely debunks that. Unfortunately for Caleb Farley, back issues may cause him to fall, though he’s still worth a gamble given his talent and the value of the cornerback position. He’ll likely fall below Jaycee Horn, who never had elite production, though profiles well as someone with three consistent years as a starter.
Then, we get to Eric Stokes and Paulson Adebo, seen as day-two prospects. Let me convey this in simple terms: Stokes has earned a PFF grade over 80 and ran a 4.31 40-yard dash, while Adebo has 33-inch arms, ran a 4.42 40-yard dash and 6.7 three-cone drill, and posted an 89.2 and 78.6 PFF grade in his two full seasons, respectively. How they are not considered top-tier prospects is a mystery to me, though I will say Stokes compares very similarly to Dean, while Adebo’s comparison would be William Jackson. Those are two productive players worth first-round picks in my eyes! I’d also keep an eye on Ambry Thomas, Brandin Echols, Thomas Graham Jr., Tay Gowan, Oliajah Griffin, and Zech McPhearson as notable potentially undervalued assets.
When analyzing Greg Newsome’s low projection, let’s remember the potential consequences of overreaction to a small sample size at this position. Did Newsome go from a a player with two full seasons without a PFF grade over 63 to a productive player naturally or was that due to a small sample size season in which he faced inferior receiving corps? I’d lean the latter, and, at the very least, teams shouldn’t be buying him at his highest stock.
This is a very valuable position, and one that requires depth. With so many talented players in this class, I’d strongly recommend teams following the Bucs’ model by doubling down on cornerback prospects. There is too much potential value present to not try to capitalize on it, and simply taking one player expecting to fill a need is foolish given what we know about the steep learning curve rookie cornerbacks face.
Common Statistical Indicators
Production at the safety position is a little less stable than it is at cornerback, though, obviously, prioritizing coverage success over strong run defense is optimal given the extra predictiveness and value of the former. However, athletic numbers cannot be ignored here. Length is quite important and certainly also adds to overall versatility, which may explain its predictiveness, and while you don’t need straight-line speed as much, the three-cone drill and jumps do carry some value. It’s not quite an even 50-50 split between production and athleticism, but you certainly shouldn’t draft a player without taking both factors into account. This combination of production and athleticism is certainly present with my model’s top-ranked prospects at safety:
- Derwin James
- Marcus Williams
- Minkah Fitzpatrick
- Juan Thornhill
- Jamal Adams
Add in Justin Reid, Marcus Maye, and Justin Simmons, and this is quite a talented group of players. Simmons definitely stands out as someone whose athletic profile carried him a little more than his baseline of production, which is fascinating with players like Damarious Randall and Darian Thompson, lesser athletes with strong college numbers, not having as much success. Had he participated in the combine, Landon Collins likely would have made this list. In terms of the worst-five projected prospects:
- Johnathan Abram
- Troy Apke
- Jordan Whitehead
- Keanu Neal
- Will Harris
Abram didn’t go through all the drills at the combine, but his production score was such an outlier in terms of how low it was and it’s incredible in hindsight that he was a first-round pick. Neal, meanwhile, had an incredible athletic profile yet a very low production score, which speaks to the importance of athleticism and size at the safety position. It would have been optimal for my model to be higher on Budda Baker, though it skepticism of Terell Edmunds, Josh Jones, and Taylor Rapp has mostly been justified, while it was able to predict strong careers for Simmons, Maye, Reid, and Xavier Woods; Marcus Williams also wasn’t seen as the elite talent my model would have projected him to be.
Recency bias has hurt Jevon Holland in the non-objective way of prospect evaluation, as he earned a PFF grade in coverage of 89.6 and 85.3 in his freshman and sophomore years, respectively. That is absurd, and he shouldn’t fall in this draft simply because he didn’t play due to COVID-19 concerns this year. Trevon Moehrig and Richie Grant each figure to be drafted at the top oft he second round, around where the value is to take him, though between undervalued prospects such as Darrik Forrest, Brady Breeze, Shawn Davis, and Michael Carter, there is, as per usual, value to be had in the later rounds. There are a lot of shorter players without adequate change of direction skills that may be rated too highly right now, unfortunately, but for the teams who value bigger, more versatile players, they will be glad with the investment they made at an important position.
It is interesting how different the draft can look with a more objective process. Fields as the top quarterback, in addition to some of the later first-round values, per my model, certainly are different from consensus.
For the most part, the top of the draft aligns all around, and with the undervalued players, there are reasons to see why biases may be getting in the way of a more fair evaluation. At the end of the day, though, there is a ton of variance with the draft, meaning that development is of greater importance. Really, how teams should be judged is their overall process. Are they attacking valuable positions? Are the valuing the right indicators at specific positions? Are they attempting to trade down? By increasing the amount of lottery tickets you have and the potential pay-off of those tickets, you’re going to put yourself in a strong position to have a successful draft, and in a strange process impacted by COVID-19 like this year, teams can really improve their long-term outlook. As they say, there really isn’t a better time of the NFL offseason than the draft; how can you not be romantic about it?