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Using historical NFL player comparisons to value top 2022 free agent centers

Paradise, Nevada, USA; NFC center Ryan Jensen of the Tampa Bay Lightning (66) smiles after a play against the AFC during the second quarter during the Pro Bowl football game at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams still have Super Bowl aspirations, the rest of the league and its fans are preparing for the offseason. PFF is also getting into the action with the launch of its 2022 Draft Guide and free agency ranking tool, which allows you to sort by position or team needs and includes OverTheCap contract projections, historical grades and wins above replacement (WAR) numbers for the past three seasons.

This article is part of a series that will go through PFF's top-ranked free agents (excluding QBs) by position group, using their past stats to match them with historical players. Once we have a sample of similar players, we can see how they 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, but 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 are going to have tough decisions on how to spend that money.

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

The most similar players across these metrics are grouped together to calculate the expected WAR numbers for 2020 and 2021, and the weight of each comparison reflects the level of similarity. I didn’t use the same number of comparisons 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 each of the center’s closest comparisons, the next displays past and future performance for the free agent based on the comparisons, and the final table shows the dollar values based on positional WAR baselines for each outcome (expected, ceiling and floor) through 2023.

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

No. 12: Ryan Jensen

Centers have secured larger contracts in recent years, yet Jensen might not be in line for the biggest deal entering his age-31 season. Centers such as Alex Mack have held up well into their 30s, but other former Pro-Bowl talents have fallen off at this point in their careers.

We project Jensen to maintain strong production for another season, but the risk of rapid decline sets in thereafter. That said, Jensen’s ceiling is elite play for another few seasons.

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We project Jensen will sign for around $10 million per season for three seasons. This looks to be a slight discount to his baseline numbers and a substantial discount to his ceiling performance.

Outcome 2020 2021 2022 2023 Two-Yr Avg
Actual/Expected $12.9 $15.4 $16.5 $5.3 $10.9
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $21.8 $15.8 $18.8
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $1.0 $1.0 $1.0

No. 46: Ben Jones


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