‘Value’ is a term that’s frequently thrown around in the weeks preceding and following the NFL Draft to oft-mixed results. Though the word can be homogenized, to an extent, and applied to draft analysis through the lens of positional importance in terms of roster building, it’s a concept that’s inherently subjective; certain teams value specific skill sets, archetypes, and general positions more than others. Though each draft-eligible player typically has a ‘value’ that’s generally agreed upon by the general public, these values can vary drastically within the 32 war rooms across the NFL. You probably noticed it in the later rounds of the draft: some players that sat near the top of ESPN and/or NFL Network’s list of “best available prospects” in round four were still available in the draft’s final picks.
We won’t truly know if a player lived up to or fell short of their perceived value until they’re years removed from their draft year, and even then, the question may be difficult to answer. That said, it is fun to look at any given team’s draft class and project the ceilings and floors of each selected prospect. Through these optics, there is one specific selection from the Buffalo Bills’ 2023 draft class that appears to have been of tremendous value, a player that, if he’s able to reach his potential ceiling, will dramatically outplay the ‘value’ of the pick with which he was taken. Buffalo had a few solid value picks in this year’s draft – with dynamic pass-catcher Dalton Kincaid at pick No. 25 and potential starting guard O’Cyrus Torrence at pick No. 59 sticking out as two of its better selections – but should he pan out, Justin Shorter could down as the best value picks of general manager Brandon Beane’s tenure.
The Bills did their homework on the Florida wideout, meeting with him after his Pro Day and hosting him on a top-30 visit before ultimately selecting him in the fifth round of the draft. He’s a prospect with a bit of name value; the once five-star recruit was ranked as the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2018 high school recruiting class (24/7 Sports), above the likes of Terrace Marshall, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jaylen Waddle, and Ja’Marr Chase. High school recruiting ranking is obviously not a foolproof, fully indicative metric in terms of determining professional success (former Buffalo wideout Robert Foster was the No. 2 wideout in the 2013 class), but it is still a useful bit of information. Shorter, just a few years ago, was viewed as the most talented and promising wideout in the country, with his skill set and potential failing to be effectively developed at the next level.
Shorter initially committed to Penn State, headlining a recruiting class that ranked as the sixth-best in the nation and included players like Micah Parsons, Odafe Oweh, and Jahan Datson. He figured to be an impactful player straight away, but this plan was derailed after he dislocated his kneecap in preseason workouts. He appeared in just four games in his true freshman season, ultimately taking a medical redshirt.
Despite ultimately recovering and being singled out by Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley as a player making tremendous strides, the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff would fail to develop the former No. 1 wideout in the nation. Head coach James Franklin described him as a “cheeseburger away from 250 [pounds]” ahead of the 2019 season, and though Shorter would start the first two games of the campaign, he was promptly phased out of the offense after suffering an early-season upper-body injury. He ended the year with 12 receptions for 137 yards, entering the transfer portal before the season even concluded.
Shorter ultimately landed in Gainesville, joining a Florida Gators team then coached by Dan Mullen that was most certainly the epitome of functionality. He appeared in 32 games throughout his three seasons at Florida, reeling in 95 passes for 1,395 yards and eight touchdowns. Though his highest-volume season came in 2021, it wasn’t until the 2022 campaign – Florida’s first with head coach Billy Napier and only with Anthony Richardson under center – that Shorter became a premiere deep threat for the Gators.
While Shorter’s reception total took a dip from 2021 to 2022 (falling from 41 to 29), his yardage and average depth of reception increased, blossoming from 550 total yards and an average reception of 13.4 yards in 2021 to 577 yards for an average of 19.9 in 2022. Though Shorter had always primarily been a boundary receiver, the 2022 season was the first time in which his imposing frame was consistently taken advantage of in the deep passing game.
In 2021, 204 of Shorter’s 550 total yards came in the deep passing game (PFF), this constituting any reception of 20-plus yards. Though receptions in the deep passing game made up the largest bulk of his production (37%), it was his least-targeted area of the field. He received only 16 targets 20 or more yards down the field, this compared to 17 targets in the intermediate game (10-19 yards from the line of scrimmage) and 25 targets in the short game (0-9 yards from LOS). His average depth of target in 2021, per PFF, was 13.6 yards.
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Compare these numbers to the 2022 season, Shorter’s lone campaign with Napier and Richardson, and it’s clear that his most effective role is as a deep threat. His average depth of target increased to 17.7 yards, with passes in the deep area of the field now accounting for 33% of his target share, an increase from 25% in the preceding season. Shorter hauled in nine passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns in this area, accounting for a staggering 61% of his total production. Throw in the fact that he came down with five of seven contested catches in the deep passing game and eliminated drops from his game entirely, and it’s safe to say that Shorter’s 2022 season was his best as a collegiate athlete.
Attribute this to whatever you want – a new offense, a better-defined role, a more aggressive passer, Shorter’s own development as a player, etc. – but it’s clear that he’s a valuable player when properly utilized. That talent that made him the No. 1 wideout in the 2018 recruiting class didn’t disappear. Sure, he never lived up to the world-beater expectations that come with being a top recruit, but all of that has long been irrelevant, and certainly is so now.
Evaluating him for what he is now – the 150th overall pick in the draft that Buffalo took a flier on – it’s obvious that the ascending Shorter has every opportunity to quickly outperform his draft position.
Shorter brings an interesting build to the table in terms of intangibles, measuring in at just a hair under 6-foot-4 at the combine. He’s in the 88th percentile amongst wideouts in height and the 96th percentile in weight (229 pounds), with his 92nd percentile arm length (33.75 inches) and 86th percentile hand size (10 inches) also sticking out as striking (percentiles courtesy of Mockdraftable). His athletic percentiles, while far less impressive (50th percentile in vertical jump, 37th percentile in 40-yard-dash, and 33rd percentile in 10-yard-split), are not necessarily concerning. A 4.55-second 40-yard-dash is, by no means, slow, especially coming from a 6-foot-4, 230-pound individual (for comparison, Buffalo wideout Gabriel Davis ran a 4.54-second 40 at the combine in 2020).
Any athletic concerns are largely quelled when you watch him play. Any speed concerns are mitigated by his large stride that he uses to get downfield in a hurry, exactly what you want out of a deep threat. His ball-tracking and adjustment skills also stick out as impressive, and as Erik Turner noted on Twitter, he’s also a solid blocker, staying on the field for 641 snaps as a run blocker throughout his time at Florida. Combine this with his 260 career snaps on special teams (on kick and punt coverage), and it’s clear that Shorter is simply a willing player. He’ll do anything to help the team win until his moment ultimately comes.
WR Justin Shorter, Florida 6'4" 235 pounds, 4.55 40-yd dash
*True X ceiling
*Gets vertical and catches DBs sleeping
*Can hide him at in-line TE in RZ
*Flashes Crisp in/out breaking routes to pair with vertical game stems
*Reactive athleticism on display as he works… pic.twitter.com/JblFPqG3GC
— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) March 31, 2023
And come in Buffalo, it may. Though the Bills are suddenly quite deep at receiver and pass-catcher, in general, Beane appears confident that Shorter will crack the Week 1 roster, noting that he took Shorter over a similarly-graded defensive player at pick No. 150 due to the wideout’s clearer path to “getting a jersey.” Should Shorter be active at any point early in the regular season, it will likely be due to his special teams ability. That said, he’s still an incredibly valuable insurance policy for Gabriel Davis (whom Shorter obviously possesses a different skill set from, but their theoretical roles in this offense largely match up) with long-term potential to be much more.
Diving a bit deeper, it’s the complementary nature of Buffalo’s entire draft class that makes the selection of Shorter as intriguing as it is. Buffalo took Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid in the dwindling picks of round one, and while the pick wasn’t without controversy, it signals a clear shift in offensive philosophy. While Kincaid will likely line up in the slot for the majority of his immediate snaps, any grouping with the first-round tight end and Dawson Knox on the field simultaneously will classify as 12-personnel, a grouping that the Bills used on just 4% of their offensive plays last year, good for 31st in the league (per Sports Info Solutions). Given the potential mismatches that a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end in the slot could create, Buffalo could, in theory, see heavier boxes, which, in turn, could open up more plays downfield. As outlined above, Shorter is an effective deep threat (granted, Shorter won’t usurp Davis in this role immediately, or potentially ever, but he’s still a valuable piece to have should Davis ever be unavailable).
Whether this potential effectiveness is capitalized upon in the 2023 season remains to be seen, but regardless, the pure value of the Shorter selection, at least as of now, seems immense. We’ve seen intriguing athletes with impressive high school resumes peter out in the NFL before, and Shorter, certainly, is far from a sure bet, but given everything – his history, his skill set, his ascending nature, his potential fit – he seems to be more than worthy of a fifth-round flier.
He’s, at worst, a playable special teams player, which isn’t terrible value for a fifth-round pick in the first place. He is, at best, a go-to option in the deep passing game for a quarterback that notoriously loves the deep ball. We’re obviously just going to have to wait and see, and it’s possible that we forget the name ‘Justin Shorter’ within a few years, but it’s potentially more likely we’ll be talking about him as a great value pick that the rest of the league let slip through the cracks.
Very well written article! Love the use of statistics, metrics and rankings that provide objective information on the prospect – quite a refreshing alternative from the subjectiveness that is associated with most media outlets on their projection/comparison of a prospect.
Absolutely agree! Very well written, researched and intriguing.