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What the Chicago Bears can learn from All-Pro Defenders

The Bears are undeniably in “there’s always next year” territory, and while Bears fans will continue to support the team, rebuilding is usually a multi-year process. The folks at Halas Hall have a lot of work ahead of them. What will rebuilding their defense require?

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The Bears don't have enough impact players, especially on defense. We might be able to quibble about who deserves what kind of praise, but the once-feared Bears defense needs an infusion of talent. As we speculate about the way we, as fans, might like to see the Bears rebuild, it might be worth looking at how the best players emerge across the NFL.

Admittedly, evaluating the quality of individual players in a team sport is spotty at best. Pro Bowls are one way of tracking quality, but the fan voting component of Pro Bowls turns off some WCGers, and the ability of alternates to warn Pro Bowl distinction can make the honor seem hollow at times. By contrast, being selected an All-Pro a much rarer, much more stringent measuring stick.

In order to be included in this review, a player needs to have qualified as an All-Pro on defense during the five-year stretch from 2010 to 2014, as listed on Pro Football Reference (no distinction is made between first-team and second-team). Because that site considers different forms of All-Pros (AP, PFF, et cetera), there's sometimes a little disagreement, but it all tends to sort out in the end, and most years there is consensus.

Across five years, 139 all-pro selections have been made for defensive players. While a lot of those selections repeat names over time, including each selection as its own entry allows us to "weight" a particular player or team. For example, Chris Harris was named an All-Pro safety once in this time, but Eric Weddle was selected all five times. In other words, while Chicago coaxed a single All-Pro selection out of a sixth-rounder, San Diego managed to earn five All Pro selections with a player they got in the second round.

There are very few surprises as to how the All-Pros are distributed, either. San Francisco led the way with 14 selections (about 10% of the whole, or more than three times their share), followed by Seattle and Baltimore with 10 apiece and New England at 8. Three members of the Black-and-Blue Division come in next—Chicago, Green Bay, and Detroit all tie at six selections each, along with Buffalo and Kansas City. At the trail end of things, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and St. Louis each only had 1 selection, and Jacksonville lacked a single player earning a selection as a defensive All-Pro.

Here are three trends to reflect on as we think about what we hope will happen for the Bears:

There are defensive diamonds in the rough at all positions

More than a third of the All-Pro selections come from outside of the first round. Defensive Tackle was the position most dominated by first-rounders, with 17 of 21 selections coming from the first round, and no UDFAs making it in. By contrast, only 16 of the 31 All-Pro safety selections were called in one of the first thirty-two spots of the draft. About a third of the ILB selections came from players taken after the first two rounds, but fewer than 20% of defensive ends came from round three and later. While only nine selections came from undrafted free agents, DT is the only position that doesn't have at least one player go undrafted and then make it into the elite. In other words, it is possible to develop defensive players. On that note...

Some positions seem to need more time to develop

The selections averaged four to five years of experience at the time of inclusion, but the actual time needed for development varied from position to position. For example, almost half (45%) of all inside linebacker selections went to players in their first two years of playing professionally, and six of the twenty-three outside linebacker selections were of first-year players (though, interestingly, no second-year OLBs were chosen in the five-year span under study).

However, defensive backs were not quite so quick to make their mark. Of fifty-two DBs (21 corners and 31 safeties), only seven were in their first two years in the NFL (13%). Those who did make it in their first two years include Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Earl Thomas. Even Darrelle Revis didn't make it until his third year, and Bears great Charles Tillman was over thirty and in his ninth year in the NFL before he was selected.
The trend does not line up with draft position, either, in that ILB is one of the most likely positions to see rapid recognition, but it is also one of the least dependent on first-round talent. Moreover, defensive end has the second-highest tendency to include first-round picks, but it also has the second-highest average experience level.

At least on defense, even great players need help

This seems obvious, but looking at certain names again and again makes it even more painfully clear. Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers made it as an All-Pro all five years under review, but in that time he saw the playoffs only once. J.J. Watt's consistent dominance has not prevented him from needing outside help to see the playoffs the one time the Texans made it. Football Outsiders notes repeatedly that a team built out of role-players is more likely to be consistent than a time made out of stars and scrubs, and Ditka had his statements about "Grabowskis". A defensive star cannot carry his team to victory. He needs help.

That help can come from other defensive greats (Baltimore and San Francisco), or it can come from offensive talent (Green Bay); many times, it takes a complete team (Seattle and New England) in order to get results. Otherwise, the result can be a lot of frustration.

Of course, as Bears fans we might be used to that by now.