Amid the hype and excitement of the NFL draft, it can be hard to know which teams got their "money's worth" out of their first-round selections. In an attempt to get a better sense of how these picks will develop down the road, I've turned to a model I developed that projects future player performance.
Here's how I "trained" my model:
I initially took 10 years of NFL player data and worked with 24 NFL coaches (position coaches, coordinators and head coaches) to define parameters for success (contextualized stats) at each position. Then I created five buckets: elite, above-average, average, below-average and well-below-average. I placed each pro player into one of those five buckets, then showed those groupings to the coaches, to fine-tune my assessments using the opinions of those who have worked with players on a first-hand basis.
Then I used all the data about NFL players from before they were pros (from college, the NFL Scouting Combine and invitational games) to develop profiles at each position. For example, in 2014, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald profiled like this: 33 percent above-average and 44 percent elite. He had college profile that matched great NFL success in 77 percent of the historical contextual comparisons.
I've been using and refining this model for five full years, so I am up to 15 years of pro data. I add to the database each year, but typically focus on the 10 most recent years, to make sure I am capturing the most current trends.
For the 2018 class, I have taken the current players and used their college data to project forward. So, each player gets a percentage match for each bucket. As soon as each player gets drafted, I add them to their pro roster and get an even better output of their potential.
Per my model, these are the five best values in Round 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft, weighing their projected output against where they were drafted:
1) Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Drafted No. 17 overall.
James' movement patterns and experience in every single safety and linebacker role the Chargers will ask him to play make his impact projection ... super-charged. (Get it?) Even before I knew where James would be drafted, he was the best safety projection in my model by far, and he ranked among the top five overall players. His 16 stops in the pass game ranked second in the nation last season, per Pro Football Focus. James -- who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, with 33-inch arms and a 40-inch vertical -- will further fortify a Chargers pass defense that already ranked near the top of the league last season (third in fewest passing yards and passing TDs allowed and fourth in passer rating allowed), though Los Angeles did yield the second-most rushing yards per game (131.1). James projects to be disruptive to opposing tight ends, slot receivers AND opposing rushers. PFF tracked only 15 missed tackles out of his 160 career tackle attempts.
2) Isaiah Wynn, OL, New England Patriots
Drafted No. 23 overall.
I've spent a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- of time using computer vision to really refine my offensive-line measurements. I measure the players' hips and leverage and map that to outcomes. I also evaluate the overall offensive line as a unit, to see if they get pushed backward or if they win in the trenches.
If you were watching any draft coverage at all, you've seen the argument that Wynn has to move to the interior despite having played tackle for most of his Georgia career. So I ran the model with him as a guard and again as a tackle. (You're welcome.) Here's the main point of why he profiles high in either case as a Patriot: He fits their zone scheme really well.
According to PFF, Wynn only allowed four sacks, two hits and 20 QB hurries in 1,104 pass-blocking snaps at both the guard and tackle position since 2014. I will add that, among those in the class with at least 750 career snaps, he won the battle in the trenches (defined by not getting pushed back or collapsing the pocket) at the third-best rate. And remember, he did this as a tackle in 2017.
We speculated a lot about how the Pats would use their two first-round picks, which came at Nos. 23 and 31 overall (or if they'd trade). While it might not be the sexiest pick (like a trade could have been), the value for Wynn is exceptional.
3) Mike Hughes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Drafted No. 30 overall.
The Vikings' roster was very strong and well-rounded before the draft. Adding a corner like Hughes at the very end of the first round provides both depth this year and a bridge to the future in their secondary at a very low cost.
In addition to corner Xavier Rhodes (a five-year veteran coming off his first All-Pro season), 39-year-old Terence Newman had been a big part of this extremely productive defensive backfield, helping the Vikings post the NFL's stingiest third-down defense (allowing a 25.2 percent conversion rate on the all-important down) and allow the second-fewest passing yards per game (192.4). But Newman remains unsigned for 2018 and will turn 40 in September. A corner like Hughes, who, per PFF, allowed just 34 receptions for 301 yards with less than 2 yards after contact per reception in 2017, along with a 43.8 passer rating (with four interceptions and nine pass breakups), adds depth and youth to the Vikings corners. At UCF, Hughes also showed his ability as a return specialist, adding extra return on the Vikings' inexpensive investment.
4) Taven Bryan, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Drafted No. 29 overall.
I debated this one, because my first instinct was that the Jaguars were already really rich in the positions the interior defender projects to play. But then I ran the model, which includes rotation projections and contract lengths (Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell all have high salaries and are up after either the 2020 or 2021 seasons), and then I saw that at No. 29, Bryan is a tremendous value for that very reason.
The quickness and explosiveness Bryan displayed at Florida is a strong indicator for the ability to generate pressures in the NFL. On passing downs, Bryan disrupted opposing offensive lines at the fourth-highest rate among draft-eligible interior defenders last season. On rushing downs, he was at or past the line of scrimmage at the fourth-best rate.
His exceptional value, especially near the end of Round 1, is accentuated by the fact that he will get the opportunity to rotate into one of the very best defensive units. This means the Jags project to make the best use of his explosiveness by keeping him fresh, and he gets to learn the game at the best pace for him and from some of the finest at his position.
5) Rashaan Evans, LB, Tennessee Titans
Drafted No. 22 overall.
You know what really jumped out about Evans' projection? He has the ability to rush the passer on third down and be an effective blitzer in addition to contributing in the more traditional linebacker impact areas.
His six sacks, 10 hits and 13 hurries on just under 110 passing snaps in 2017 help add context to how new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel (and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, on whom we have quite a bit of trend data) will use him. Or maybe it's better to say he has scheme versatility, which is a trait Vrabel and Pees are well-suited to develop and make excellent use of.
The Titans lost linebacker Avery Williamson via free agency, while Brian Orakpo is in the final year of his contract. Tennessee's acquisition of Evans in the bottom third of the draft, which required them to trade a fourth-round pick to the Ravens for a sixth-round pick so they could move up three slots to 22, gives them a high-upside linebacker for the future at a relatively low price.