Using historical comps to value top free agent offensive tackles, led by Trent Williams and Taylor Moton | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF

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Using historical comps to value top free agent offensive tackles, led by Trent Williams and Taylor Moton

Inglewood, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams (71) before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With only two teams remaining to compete in the Super Bowl, the offseason is in full swing for the rest of the NFL and football pundits. We at PFF are also getting into the action with the launch of our 2021 Draft Guide and Free Agency Rankings tool, which allows you to sort by position and team needs and includes contract projections from Over the Cap as well as historical grades and wins above replacement (WAR) numbers for the past three seasons. 

This article is part of a series that goes through our top-ranked free agents (excluding quarterbacks) by position group, using their past stats to match them with historical players.

We started with one of the strongest free agent wide receiver classes ever, and this article turns to free-agent offensive tackles. Once we have a sample of similar players, we can see how those similar players performed in subsequent seasons to get an idea of the current player’s range of outcomes. I’ll also include any potential bargain free agents who aren’t at the top of our rankings but look better than expected in WAR projections.

This system is similar to FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO NBA player projections, except that it is applied to football and uses PFF’s WAR metric as the proxy for player value.

Buying wins in free agency is an expensive proposition, but the value of each incremental win for a playoff-caliber team cannot be understated. This year, teams will have tough decisions about how to spend that money.

METHODOLOGY

For each of the offensive tackles below, the closest comparable players were found by measuring the similarity between them based on several features — age (within one year), weight, WAR, previous-year WAR, WAR per snap and PFF run-blocking and pass-blocking grades.

The most similar players across these metrics are grouped to calculate the expected WAR numbers for 2020 and 2021, with the weight of each comp reflecting the level of similarity. I didn’t use the same number of comps for all players, as it is more difficult to find a wide range of comparable seasons for older players.

The first plot shows the relevant WAR numbers for the receiver’s closest comps. The second plot displays past and future performance for the free agent based on the comps. And the final table shows the dollar values based on positional WAR baselines for each outcome (expected, ceiling and floor) through 2022.

I decided to restrict the forecasts to the next two years to maximize the number of comparable players we have in the dataset, reduce error for longer forecasts and reflect the fact that all but the top-tier free agent contracts in the NFL are glorified two-year deals that give teams the option to continue.

No. 5: Trent Williams

Williams is a difficult player to comp, as he presents a unique combination of age and performance. The veteran tackle turns 33 years old this coming season and just posted the second-best grade of his 11-year career. Williams’ comps include some great players, though none played as well in the age-equivalent season, according to PFF WAR. If Williams can avoid a swift decline, there is a lot of hope for continued strong play judging by the late-career outcomes for Jason Peters, Andrew Whitworth and Duane Brown.

The ceiling and expected WAR values drop in our projections, mostly because Williams’ 2020 baseline is so high. He generated 0.4 WAR last season, the best figure for a tackle since PFF started grading in 2006. The context is that many tackles had top WAR numbers in 2020, perhaps because of fewer holding calls.

Some of the value numbers here are seemingly astronomical, driven by how much of an outlier 2020 was in terms of tackle performance. The upside for Williams going forward, even in his mid-thirties, is enormous. We expect him to sign a longer deal at around $20 million per season, which falls between our expected and ceiling projections.

Outcome 2019 2020 2021 2022 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected $0.0 $47.8 $18.4 $14.1 $16.3
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $30.4 $29.3 $29.8
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $6.5 $0.0 $3.3

No. 12: Taylor Moton

Moton has been one of the most consistently productive tackles in the NFL, ranking in the top 12 in WAR over the last three seasons. Moton’s comps include some of the best at the position, such as players like Green Bay‘s David Bakhtiari. However, the comps also include some disappointments, which drag down the projections below.

Moton’s 2020 play is seen as close to his ceiling going forward, as it would be unprecedented for tackles to keep up that level of WAR for a sustained period. Moton has a higher floor than most at the position, and at 26 years old, he should be able to sign a long-term deal.

We see Moton signing for around $16 million per season, making him a compelling player with the upside to outperform that number.

Outcome 2019 2020 2021 2022 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected $20.4 $38.2 $11.9 $15.2 $13.6
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $22.8 $30.4 $26.6
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $4.3 $3.3 $3.8

No. 32: Russell Okung

Missed time due to injury has held down Okung’s production over the last two seasons, but he was a top-20 tackle for most of his career before that. Unfortunately, most of the comps for Okung, who similarly struggled going into the projection window, failed to turn things around.

The baseline projection for Okung is roughly replacement level, which seems harsh for a once-dominant player. It’s fair to bump up those numbers knowing the upside that Okung has shown in the past.

We see Okung signing a larger contract worth around $17 million per season, which looks like a significant overpay relative to his projected WAR numbers.

Outcome 2019 2020 2021 2022 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected $0.0 $2.4 $1.0 $1.0 $1.0
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $7.6 $2.2 $4.9
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $1.0 $1.0 $1.0

No. 33: Alejandro Villanueva

Villanueva's performance dropped in 2020 from what was a reasonably consistent, higher baseline the prior several years. At 32 years old, Villanueva is hitting the age when a decline signals the end more often than it signals a rebound. 

Our expectation for Villanueva is that his WAR numbers continue to fall in the coming season, though only slightly. However, there is an upside based on a couple of comps who had significant jumps in production in their mid-thirties.

We forecast Villanueva will earn a contract of around $15 million per season, and that looks rich compared to our projections.

Outcome 2019 2020 2021 2022 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected $13.6 $8.4 $6.5 $2.2 $4.3
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $22.8 $5.4 $14.1
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $1.0 $1.0 $1.0

No. 40: Daryl Williams

Williams broke out in his third season with the Carolina Panthers back in 2017, then had a long lull until coming to the Buffalo Bills last year coincided with a jump back to elite status. The question is if teams should buy into the bounce, and Williams’ comps are about equally split between maintained production and a fall to near replacement level.

Out expected WAR for Williams is lower than what he produced in 2020 though higher than in many preceding years. Williams maintains a ceiling around the level he played at in 2020, which could attract teams to buy his turnaround.

We see the market showing a great deal more skepticism on Williams than our projections, seeing a contract in the range of $10 million per season, roughly in line with his expected production.

Outcome 2019 2020 2021 2022 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected -$5.7 $23.9 $10.9 $9.8 $10.3
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $23.9 $20.6 $22.2
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $1.0 $1.0 $1.0
Tackle Lifes financial Challenges. Western Southern Financial Group.
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