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NFL Draft Player Projections from ESPN’s Analytics Team

NFL Draft Player Projections from ESPN’s Analytics Team
Using its NFL player projection model, the ESPN Analytics team considers a range of factors in tackling the
unenviable task of quantifying a draft prospect’s likelihood of success in the NFL. While a successful college
player is never guaranteed success at the next level, this model – with the use of Scouts Inc. grades – identifies

combine events that serve as predictors of a player’s future success, as measured by Pro-Football-
Reference.com’s Approximate Value. The model uses 5 levels to classify success: Pro Bowl-caliber, consistent

starter, bench/special teams player, replacement-level player, and non-factor.
The model has found that qualitative assessments (Scouts Inc. grade) and measures of athleticism (combine events)
are more accurate for some positions than others. While the model often matches consensus (prospects considered
generally strong by Scouts Inc. are also broadly considered strong by our model), its specific forecasts include
some surprises (ESPN’s NFL Draft Projections were built by Brian Burke – a more detailed description of the
methodology behind the model can be found in our projections of last year’s draft).
Let’s start by taking a look at the 5-most likely Pro Bowl-caliber players, which includes one of those surprises
right from the jump.

Model’s 5 Likeliest Pro Bowl-Caliber Players
1. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
Pro Bowl-caliber chance: 79%
Athleticism Comp: Trent Williams
As previously mentioned, some positions are more predictable – and offensive tackle is high on that list. Perhaps
the best way to earn high marks from our model is to be an athletic, highly-regarded OT, which is exactly what
Wirfs is. While an offensive lineman doesn’t often have to run 40 yards at a time in an NFL game, his performance
in that combine event has proven to be a sign of the player’s athleticism, which is a factor in how well they play in
the league. So for Wirfs, who was a second-team All-American and earned a 93 grade from Scouts Inc., running a
4.85 at 320 pounds boosted his stock – it was the fastest by any 320-pound player since 2006. To a slightly lesser
degree, broad jump is an indicator for offensive lineman and Wirfs aced that event, as well.
Tristan Wirfs Ranks Among Other 2020 OT Prospects

RANK<<
Scouts Inc. Grade 93 1st
Combine 40 Time 4.85 1st
Combine broad jump 121′′ 1st
Weight 320 3rd
Pro-Bowl Caliber chance 97% 1st
>>Among 17 OT prospects
As seen above, Wirfs ranks first in two of the Combine’s three-most predictive measures of an offensive tackle’s 3-
year approximate value. Excluded from the table above is Wirfs’ performance in the vertical. The tackle posted a
vertical jump of 36.5 inches – the best by any offensive lineman at the combine since 2006. Wirfs’ vertical topped
combine efforts by DeAndre Hopkins (36 inches), A.J. Green (34.5) and Amari Cooper (33) from previous years,
and was better than the vertical leap of 26 wide receivers who worked out at the combine.
Predictive Strength of Combine Events for OT

For Player’s 3-Year Approximate Value
40-yard dash 0.63
Weight 0.61
Broad Jump 0.53
3 Cone 0.19
Shuttle 0.11
Height 0.07
Vertical 0.03
Bench reps 0.02
The comparison of Wirfs to Trent Williams makes sense considering that Trent, too, ranked among the top 3 of the
2010 OT class in 40-yard dash (2nd) and broad jump (T-3rd) and the qualitative Scouts Inc. grade (1st). Williams’

46% chance of becoming a Pro Bowler was best among the 17 OT draft prospects, and that proved to be true after
Williams made 7 straight Pro Bowls starting in his 3rd season (2012).
2. Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville
Pro Bowl-caliber chance: 75%
Athleticism Comp: Not enough data
For all the same reasons that Wirfs was No. 1 on this list, Becton is No. 2. Though slower than Wirfs at 5.05
seconds, Becton weighs substantially more, at 364 pounds. Weight, like speed, is in general a positive factor in the
model. Becton became the heaviest player to run a sub-5.2 40-yard dash at the combine since 2006. So why is
Becton behind Wirfs then if he’s much larger but still very fast for his size? Don’t forget, the combine information
is somewhat on the margins. The real driver of the model is the scouting grades, and Wirfs is higher than Becton
there.
3. Kenneth Murray, ILB, Oklahoma
Pro Bowl-caliber chance: 69%
Athleticism Comp: Stephone Anthony
Inside linebacker is another position that scouts are particularly successful at forecasting, the model believes.
Below are the combine events ranked by predictive strength for an inside linebacker’s 3-year approximate value.

Predictive Strength of Combine Events for ILB

For Player’s 3-Year Approximate Value
40-yard dash 0.86
Shuttle 0.31
Weight 0.23
Vertical 0.19
Broad jump 0.18
3 Cone 0.13
Height 0.11
Bench reps 0.10
The predictability of success at this position was evident this time last year when Devin White and Devin Bush led
this same exercise. That – along with a strong 4.52 40-time, which puts Kenneth Murray in the 91st percentile, per
MockDraftable.com – is why he the model is so confident in Murray despite being Scouts Inc.’s 25th-ranked

player. His projection just trailed White’s from a year ago by a hair. Given that he’s expected to be a late first-
rounder, the model will surely consider Murray the steal of this group.

Best Chance of Becoming Pro Bowl-Caliber Player

Inside Linebackers Since 2006
Patrick Willis 81%
Devin White 80%
Luke Kuechly 76%

Inside Linebackers Since 2006
David Harris 73%
Kenneth Murray 69%
Devin Bush 69%
Using Scouts Inc. grades plus the 3-most predictive factors in a player’s 3-year approximate value since 2006, the
only inside linebackers with: a Scouts Inc. grade of 85 or better, a 40-yard dash under 4.6 seconds, a 60-yard shuttle
time under 11.5 seconds, and a weight above 239 are Kenneth Murray and Luke Kuechly.
Kenneth Murray and Luke Kuechly Comparison
MURRAY KUECHLY
Year 2020 2012
Scouts Inc. grade 88 96
40-yard dash 4.52 4.58
60-yd shuttle 11.05 11.43
Weight 241 242
4. Isaiah Simmons, OLB, Clemson
Pro Bowl-caliber chance: 67%
Athleticism Comp: Thomas Howard
Combine events are the most predictive of NFL success for outside linebackers and defensive ends, so it’s no
surprise to see Simmons high on this list. The former Clemson defender was 99th and 98th in the 40-yard dash and
broad jump, per MockDraftable.com, on top of his 94 grade from Scouts’ Inc. Of course, muddying the waters in
projecting Simmons is his versatility. To classify him as simply an outside linebacker would not be capturing the
role he played in the Clemson offense. In fact, Simmons played more slot corner than outside linebacker last
season.

ISAIAH SIMMONS QUICK HITTERS
The only outside linebacker with a better Pro Bowl-caliber chance than Simmons’ 67% since 2006 was Von
Miller (73% in 2011).
The only linebacker with a faster 40 time than Simmons’ 4.39 since 2006 was Shaquem Griffin (4.38).

Since 2006, the only other players to perform as well – or better – than Simmons in the 40-yard dash, broad jump
and vertical jump are 16 DB and WR receivers
5. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
Pro Bowl-caliber chance: 52%
Athleticism Comp: Not enough data
Though a strong projection for any other player, Young’s number here looks a shade disappointing for a player
who is expected to be the No. 2 overall pick – though the Redskins might want to think twice about that. And
Young does receive a higher scouting grade than any other player in this draft. So what’s the deal?
There are two things going on here. The circumstances of this offseason have dictated that we have combine event
information on fewer prospects, Young included. He didn’t work out at the combine and with his pro day canceled,
we don’t have, say, 40-yard dash or broad jump for him. The result is simply more uncertainty, which flattens the
range of outcomes curve and – for an otherwise elite prospect – hurts his forecast. It’s just not going to be as
confident about Young’s elite abilities if it doesn’t have access to that sort of athletic information.
In addition, Young may be a victim of a quirk of the model: instead of players classified as “edge” they are sorted
into their more traditional “OLB” and “DE” labels. The result is that Young looks light compared to most other
players who are characterized as DEs, which hurts his numbers – probably unfairly.
Ultimately Young is an outstanding prospect who has, for example, roughly the same projection as both Bosa
brothers. We just can’t be confident that he is the most likely prospect in this class to succeed.
Methodology in Evaluating the Quarterbacks
Quarterbacks are not one of the more consistently evaluated positions and are therefore unlikely to crack the top of
this list. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be selected at the top of the draft. Though the hit rate for quarterbacks
might be lower, the value of a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback vastly outweighs the value of a Pro Bowl-caliber
anything else.

But even among the top two quarterbacks, there is a surprise: Tua Tagovailoa has a higher chance to be Pro Bowl-
caliber or at least a starter (23% and 66%, respectively) than Burrow (15% and 57%). That’s despite the fact that

Burrow has a slightly better Scouts’ Inc. grade and neither worked out at the combine. So what’s going on?
It’s about the measurables. Believe it or not, the model is concerned with Burrow’s small hands (9 inches) and arm
length relative to his height. While it may seem silly to ding the Heisman Trophy winner on his hands, these factors
have shown in the past to have some predictive value for NFL performance. And that pushes Tagovailoa ahead.
We will note that it is possible that the model is not fully accounting for Tagovailoa’s injury risk. It’s presumably
partially captured in the qualitative grade, but the full extent of the concern might not be captured by this method.
The Quarterbacks in Question
According to the latest mock drafts by ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, the same 4 quarterbacks
are likely to go in the first round, though Kiper has Herbert going 6th to the Chargers and Love going 23rd to the
Patriots, while McShay has Herbert going 9th to the Jaguars and Love going 6th to the Chargers.

First-Round Quarterbacks in 2020 Draft

According to Mel Kiper and Todd McShay

KIPER McSHAY

According to Mel Kiper and Todd McShay
Joe Burrow 1st 1st
Tua Tagovailoa 5th 5th
Justin Herbert 6th 9th
Jordan Love 23rd 6th
As mentioned above, Tua Tagovailoa has the best chance at becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, with the
remaining projected first-round quarterbacks coming in at 15% each.

The Wide Receivers in Question
In what is considered to be one of the best wide receiver classes in recent memory, 6 WR are projected to have at
least a 30% chance of becoming Pro Bowl-caliber players.

Author: Alejandro Berry, Seth Walder

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