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 five. You can see each of the past iterations here:
And now it’s time to look through the 2022 group. How do you feel about these rookies?
Kaiir Elam CB, (pick 23, Round 1)
Floor: Aaron Ross
Ceiling: Darius Slay
Bell curve middle: Desmond Trufant
Kaiir Elam is every bit the prototypical modern NFL cornerback. Looking at him on paper, it’s almost a little surprising that he was the 23rd pick in a weak draft year—even more so if you factor in his apparent character qualities (something that won’t be part of this exercise since I can’t quantify it). He started 27 games in his three-year college career. A 6’1” 191-lb CB with a 4.39 40-yard dash, 37.5” vertical, and 4.21 short shuttle—he comes with requisite size and athleticism.
His closest comparisons are Darius Slay and Greg Newsome, and there are a ton of impressive near-matches among the list: Stephon Gilmore, Marshon Lattimore, Carlos Rogers, Marlon Humphrey, Desmond Trufant, Byron Jones, and Drayton Florence.
There were very few busts in the list, to boot. Gareon Conley and Ras-I Dowling were pretty much the only ones of note.
There is a potential gap between Elam and the best names there—in that most of them had blazing agility times (like a sub-3.9 short shuttle) that Elam didn’t match. That we don’t have a documented three-cone drill for Elam also didn’t help.
I picked Slay as the best-case scenario. A four-time Pro Bowl player and one-time All-Pro entering his tenth season, Slay’s sticky coverage is made more potent by his ridiculous ball skills. Elam, who had five career interceptions and 20 passes defended, flashed that ability but would need further progression to hit Slay’s high mark.
The middle outcome was tough to determine, with several contemporaries entering the prime of their career, so I went with Desmond Trufant. A one-time Pro Bowl selection and longtime “hidden boss” with the Atlanta Falcons, Trufant started 97 games over seven seasons for the team. More recently, his career has been hampered by injuries.
For the worst case, ignoring the two extraordinary busts, I think Aaron Ross was the most realistic outcome. An integral part of two Super Bowl runs for the New York Giants, he dealt with injuries and may have stopped applying effort after signing a lucrative contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He finished his career after seven seasons and 52 starts.
James Cook, RB (pick 63, Round 2)
Floor: Isaiah Pead
Ceiling: Chris Johnson
Bell curve middle: Travis Minor
This projection seems extremely risky at face value, but I have to wonder if Cook’s planned usage doesn’t fit the historical role and data for running backs. That is to say, he might be an outlier for my data-driven approach.
Cook’s closest athletic comparisons did feature multiple star runners: Clinton Portis and Jamaal Charles. If you considered first-round picks, then add Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Spiller to the mix. The problem is that Cook had nowhere near the college production of any of those players. His closest match, for a ceiling, was Chris Johnson. Though Cook can’t hit Johnson’s legendary top gear, their roles in college were better aligned compared with the other high-ceiling players. This three-time Pro Bowl pick is your best-case scenario, a do-everything back with speed and vision.
Now we take several steps back to reach the middle ground. Beyond the first rounders and the outliers, most of the backs here were footnotes in NFL history. But the best of the rest was Minor. A dual-threat running back for the Seminoles, Minor was a third-round pick by the Miami Dolphins. He played eight seasons as a reserve in the NFL, playing in 118 games but only starting four.
As a worst case, I could pick from a number of players, but the best fit was Isaiah Pead. The pre-draft scouting reports read very similarly to Cook, but Pead was a complete bust with only 42 career touches. Kenny Irons, Lorenzo Booker, and (probably) Darrynton Evans and Justice Hill were other busts with a similar profile.
So if we profile Cook as a running back, it doesn’t look good. But what if his hybrid usage deserves a different lens? For fun, I opened up my analysis to wideouts with a similar athletic profile. Carlos Henderson, Devin Duvernay, and Curtis Samuel represent your range of outcomes if you buy that.
Terrel Bernard, LB (pick 89, Round 3)
Floor: Zaviar Gooden
Ceiling: Will Witherspoon
Bell curve middle: Kevin Pierre-Louis or Drue Tranquill
Bernard definitely fits a “type” of linebacker—the undersized playmaker who’d be the Will linebacker in a conventional 4-3. For the Bills, the Matt Milano comparisons you’ve surely heard are accurate.
Looking at the historical data, like with James Cook, we need to account for a fundamental shift in the NFL. Until roughly 2010, a 6’1” 225-lb defender was typically a strong safety or a nickel linebacker only. Over the last decade, teams opted for speed over size, and that type of player is more likely to succeed than the “undersized” linebackers of 2006.
There were a few high-quality starters in Bernard’s group, but not many All-Pro or Pro Bowl types. Think DeMario Davis and Eric Kendricks, not Zach Thomas. I think a realistic ceiling for Bernard would be Will Witherspoon—a versatile 12-year NFL linebacker. In his four-season peak he averaged 102 tackles, eight TFLs, four sacks, 1.5 INTs, 1.5 forced fumbles, and 11 passes defended per year.
After the skinny top-end group, there were a few rotational players or players who started for a few seasons but with less impact for their teams overall. I do want to highlight Bernard’s substantial injury history with my comparisons, and there is at least one good example of that. Take Kevin Pierre-Louis, who is entering his ninth pro season, but played for six different teams in the past six years. He has 93 game appearances but only 16 starts, and it doesn’t help that he had multiple stints on Injured Reserve in his career. He never played a full season of games in the NFL.
Thinking about players drafted more recently, there are several promising active players who fit Bernard’s profile. That includes Drue Tranquill and, yes, Matt Milano. So his career might be less risky than it seems at first glance.
There were numerous players among Bernard’s comparisons who never made an impact in the NFL, even as third-round picks. I do want to highlight that many of them were picked in the “earlier” era of the league: Jon Alston, Jordan Beck, Marquis Cooper, and Keenan Clayton, for some examples. Zaviar Gooden (drafted 2013) is a more recent example of an athletic linebacker who simply never panned out for whatever reason. I don’t think it’s particularly likely that Bernard only plays two or three years in the league, but since the sample had that sort of player, it’s only fair to mention it.
Khalil Shakir, WR (pick 148, Round 5)
Floor: Matt Hazel
Ceiling: Robert Woods
Bell curve middle: Freddie Swaim
Due to a trade, the Bills weren’t able to draft again until Round 5, and when they landed Shakir, you heard a lot of comments about him being better than his pick slot. What do the numbers say?
Shakir’s measurements are all over the map. His 6’0” 196-lb size is just below average for a receiver, his arm length is shorter than 99% of WRs, and his hand size is above average at 9.5”. He had an elite ten-yard split, a fast 40-yard dash and long broad jump, an above-average short shuttle and a lousy three-cone drill.
A four-year player and three-year starter at Boise State, Shakir finished with the school’s fourth-most career receiving yards (2,878) and tacked on 414 rushing yards and four rushing TDs. If not for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he would’ve flirted with Thomas Sperbeck’s record of 3,601 receiving yards.
Most of the players in Shakir’s territory are also-rans, but do you want a real interesting ceiling for Shakir? I give you Stefon Diggs, also a fifth-round pick, and with remarkably similar measurements. But the All-Pro may be too lofty for me to endorse, compared with the rest of the field. I actually think Robert Woods, though he was a second rounder, represents the WR2-type upside, with plus blocking and rushing traits, that you could see in Shakir’s best case.
There were many players in Shakir’s draft range who never really amounted to anything: Kenneth Moore, Jordan Payton, Triandos Luke, Isaiah Coulter, LaTerance Dunbar, and Matt Hazel. Hazel’s my worst-case scenario. A 6’1” 198-lb player with the same mixed bag of athletic results as Shakir, and a record-setting receiver during his time at Coastal Carolina, he spent five years trying to break into the league, played in nine games, caught one pass, and currently plays semi-pro football in Italy.
Going to the middle, I had to balance the players with ongoing careers to find a best fit, since no one from the previous decade applied. The best match was Seattle Seahawks receiver Freddie Swaim, now entering his third pro season. He had a promising debut as a backup in 2021, with one start and a 13/159/2 receiving slash—and that bumped further up to 25/343/4 in Seattle’s run-heavy offense as he became the WR3 in year two. Although he’ll play without Russell Wilson going forward, his arrow’s still pointing up.
Matt Araiza, P (pick 180, Round 6)
Floor: Drew Kaser
Ceiling: Thomas Morstead
Bell curve middle: Brad Nortman
I did one of these for Tyler Bass, so I’ll cover Araiza too. The vast majority of punters to come through the NFL since 2000 were undrafted, and I’d say that drafted punters were a little less likely to succeed than drafted kickers. When targeting comparisons I tried to aim for players who either took the same roundabout kicking route as Araiza (who started as a kicker before being a dual-threat for his final year of college) or who had very high punting averages, sharing the kinetic power that Araiza’s known for.
While there were a couple outright “busts”, like Matt Dodge, the sample also had many players who lasted at least a few seasons. So Araiza’s worst case is likely to be not too shabby—I lined him up with Drew Kaser, Kaser had a high punting average in his first couple seasons, but his poor holding on field goals led him to be waived for a veteran in year three. He’s still hanging around the league on practice squads six years after he was drafted.
In the middle range was former Carolina Panthers/Jaguars punter Brad Nortman, who started six seasons in the league. Nortman’s big leg led to multiple 70-yard punts and a career gross average of 45.2, but he had trouble with delicate kicks, and didn’t have many touchbacks compared to the rest of the NFL, which was why he lost his job.
There were many ten-year punters drafted in the fifth to sixth rounds, and I think my favorite comparison was New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead. His big leg helped him pin teams deep on punts and kickoffs for much of his career. That’s what you’re hoping Araiza can be for the Bills.
Christian Benford, CB (pick 185, Round 6)
Floor: Josh Gattis
Ceiling: Xavier Woods
Bell curve middle: Tye Smith
The Bills (and head coach Sean McDermott) have a preferred type. Among Benford’s close matches in size and athleticism were Josh Norman, Rachad Wildgoose, Siran Neal, Jaquan Johnson, and Micah Hyde. As a prospect, Benford projects as either a corner or safety in the NFL, so I compared him to both positions.
The top-end success for day-three picks with Benford’s profile wasn’t especially exciting, with Hyde the clear outlier in the bunch. For a more realistic ceiling, I went with Xavier Woods, who showed similar ball-hawking traits as a defensive X-factor for small-school LA Tech. He became a starter late in his rookie season, held the job for three more seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings, and parlayed that to a three-year contract with the Panthers. He hasn’t been a high-impact starter, but he’s definitely outplayed his draft position.
In the middle range is another FCS prospect, Tye Smith. Like Benford, he had a strong record of ball skills in college (2 INT/2 FF/12 PBU as a senior). He was cut after one year with his original team, latched on for three years with the Tennessee Titans, and is still playing in Minnesota. With five years in the league, he has 45 game appearances, seven starts, and 68 total tackles.
Many players in this group would never even step onto an NFL field in the regular season. Josh Gattis, a ball-hawking Wake Forest safety, had four game appearances and one tackle in his only pro season. That’s an example of your floor.
Luke Tenuta, OT (pick 209, Round 6)
Floor: Kyle Hix
Ceiling: Sam Young
Bell curve middle: Terrance Pennington
I had a lot of trouble finding comparisons for Tenuta because, well, there aren’t many 6’8” offensive linemen in the NFL’s history. And he differs a lot from last year’s picks, Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle—who measured as freaky athletes. Tenuta did not. The best player in his ballpark was Trent Brown, but I disqualified Brown, who has 30-50 extra pounds compared to Tenuta yet measured similar athletic numbers. Next up was Sam Young, whom you may remember from the early 2010-era Bills. He retired last year after ten seasons as a swing tackle, with 103 games and 28 starts in his career.
The middle range isn’t very exciting either. Terrance Pennington, who started nine games as a Bills rookie in 2006, was playing for the Atlanta Falcons the next season, and his career ended with 16 games played over two seasons.
Many others in Tenuta’s space never even saw the field, and that represents his floor. Take, for example, Kyle Hix, an undrafted tackle who started 39 games for some very good Texas Longhorns teams, and had nearly identical measurements to Tenuta, but couldn’t manage to appear in a game before his career ended.
Baylon Spector, LB (pick 231, Round 7)
Floor: Zack Follet
Ceiling: Tyjuan Hagler
Bell curve middle: Bryce Hager
There’s a very clear and straightforward template for Baylon Spector: Special teams linebacker. Out of the roughly 30 players I could compare him with, the only one who didn’t spend the majority of his snaps on special teams was former UDFA Dannell Ellerbe. Their college careers were very similar, as were their athletic test results, but since Ellerbe had a dramatically higher impact than the second-best comparison, I didn’t feel comfortable calling him the ceiling.
Having a shorter career than Ellerbe, but still emerging as a defensive role player with 50 games played and 19 starts, Tyjuan Hagler is who I’d consider as Spector’s best-case scenario. On average, look at a career like Bryce Hager’s. He played six seasons in the league, with 79 game appearances, and he was a core special teamer the whole time.
Your worst case for Spector, as always, could be that he never hits the field (or at least, never plays for the Bills). But the “hit rate” on linebackers with his profile, at least in terms of making it to the field in the kicking game, was pretty good. So I have his worst-case scenario as former Detroit LB Zack Follet. Follet only played in 17 games over two seasons, with 31 career tackles.