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How much does draft position matter for the Chicago Bears?

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After the win on Sunday, the Bears have improved on their 2014 record. However, some fans are worried that the Beloved will do just well enough to play themselves out of a decent draft pick. Others don't worry, thinking that how a team drafts is more important than when they draft. Is the draft all chance, or is there a real difference in the talent available at the different positions in the draft?

The 20th pick in the draft
The 20th pick in the draft
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So, I am not a big advocate for telling others how to be a fan. It seems to me like the phrase "no real fan would..." is code for "I don't like it when people..." One of the places this comes up is when talking about a losing team and whether or not it's better for them to keep losing and thereby improve draft position or whether it's better for a team to build a winning culture (or, my actual preference, watching the team I cheer for put up a W). Earlier in the season, I looked at whether or not—for a team that needed a quarterback—it really made a difference to get a high draft pick.

That still leaves a larger question, though. Does it really make a difference where a team drafts? Because the draft seems so hit or miss, and because there are so many variables, is it really possible to say that choosing in the top third of the draft is better than choosing in the bottom third?

With the Bears one game away from the end of their season, I thought it would be interesting to look at what really came of five years of drafting, from 2010 to 2014. Leaving aside issues of winning culture and fan enjoyment, how much of a difference does it make to move up or down a few positions in the draft? My approach here is simple. The first round is divided into 10-slot tiers (picks 1 through 10, picks 11 through 20, picks 21-30); I considered picks 31 and 32 separately. The process is then repeated for the second round. The results (with numbers taken from Pro Football Reference) are pretty clear.

AP1

PB

Starts

Picks 1-10

13

44

148

Picks 11-20

12

32

141

Picks 21-30

2

11

111

Picks 31-32

0

2

16

Picks 33-42

2

8

107

Picks 42-52

2

6

91

Picks 53-62

1

2

59

Picks 63-64

0

1

16

In the first round, the fifty players selected in the first ten positions of the draft across five years combined for 13 first-team all pro selections, forty-four pro bowl selections, and 148 seasons as their teams respective primary starters at their position.

The next fifty players taken (drafting 11 through 20) turn in pretty similar performance with 12 first-team all-pro nods, thirty-one pro bowls, and 141 starting seasons. There is some slight difference in these results, but not a lot. Given that we're only looking at a hundred players at this point, this kind of difference can be explained away handily, depending on what an individual fan might want to believe. I can argue that the slide has started to happen, but it's just as easy to argue that there's still plenty of talent to be found.

Then there's a nose dive. Picks 21-30 give us less than a third of the honors per pick that we get from the top twenty slots, and they earned 30 fewer seasons as starters than the next tier. It seems like the real first round is only 20 picks deep, or so, because when the teams that made the first round picks come around again, they get very similar results. The profile for picks 31-42 is very similar to the profile for picks 21-30. It seems like the "second round" really begins at the end of the first, at least when it comes to talent. If we look at the numbers in terms of a "per pick" basis, the draft divides itself into clear steps.

AP1

PB

Starts

Picks 1-10

0.26

0.88

2.96

Picks 11-20

0.24

0.64

2.82

Picks 21-30

0.04

0.22

2.22

Picks 31-32

0

0.2

1.6

Picks 33-42

0.04

0.16

2.14

Picks 42-52

0.04

0.12

1.82

Picks 53-62

0.02

0.04

1.18

Picks 63-64

0

0.1

1.6

Something odd happens with picks 31 and 32 in terms of starts per pick, but that makes sense in that teams that made it to the Super Bowl probably have pretty secure rosters without a lot of openings.

Say what you want about the draft being random. Believe what you want about the ability to find the next Kam Chancellor hiding out in the late rounds. Across 317 draft picks over a five-year span, it seems clear that the top talent goes in the first twenty picks per year, and after that high quality players are found in drips and drabs, with teams panning for gold and hoping they get lucky. Some front offices are better at finding hidden gems than others. The fact that the three turnovers the Bears enjoyed against Tampa Bay all came from undrafted rookies is a cause for hope, for example. However, it really does seem to matter where a team drafts. There is luck involved, of course, but an earlier draft position really does seem to tilt the odds in a team's favor.

That said, I'm going to be hoping the Bears win when they play the Lions. During this article, I have deliberately not mentioned where the Bears could be drafting in any of a dozen scenarios. For me, as a fan, cheering for a team is about hoping that your team beats the odds. This is true on Sundays and at the draft.