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Finding Blue Chip Players, Part 1

NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
Will Leonard Floyd be Pace’s First Blue Chip Draft?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If you take a quick scan of attitudes about the Bears, there’s a general agreement that something is missing. Consensus is building among fans that even more than changes in coaching or at quarterback, there is a need for high-impact playmakers. The Bears need “blue chip” players who can help to define the franchise. In fact, one argument goes that the best thing for the Bears to do from this point forward is to lose out and therefore to increase the chances of finding such a game-changer.

Is there any validity to this notion? Well, more than a year ago I looked at the idea of losing the season to win the draft at quarterback, and I ended up with the conclusion that a team really can tilt the odds just a little in favor of finding a decent quarterback by losing disastrously enough. I didn’t advocate for the idea; I simply observed the phenomenon.

However, before continuing I do want to draw attention to the following list: #24, #75, #199, #32, and #4. Those are the draft positions of the top five “career” active passers in the NFL right now, per Pro Football Reference (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers). Actually, that list skips over “active” passer and former undrafted free agent Tony Romo. The next five were taken with picks #11, #3, #90, #35, and #36. Only four of the ten were picked in the first round, because Drew Brees at #32 was actually taken at the top of the second round. It might be easier to find an above average quarterback earlier in the draft, but that doesn’t mean that the best quarterbacks come from the top.

However, the Bears have many problems, so let’s not worry about “just” quarterbacks for a moment. Let’s instead look at blue chip players as a whole. If gaining more elite talent really is the answer for the Bears, how many chances does Pace have to try to find such players? Answering that question requires a meaningful definition, and defining a blue chip player is tough. For simplicity, I decided to go with all active players who had at least three Pro Bowls or at least two First-Team All Pro selections. For all of the problems with the Pro Bowl, it is still rare that a player gets to three of them by accident. Likewise, if a single All-Pro selection is a mark of honor, then two suggest a potentially game-changing athlete. Ultimately, my criteria created a pretty exclusive list, in that once I eliminated all special teamers from the pool, I was left with only 80 players. That’s less than 5% of all roster spots available to all NFL teams right now. That seems pretty like a workable definition of “blue chip” for now.

When it comes to finding these men, it really does help to go early. Forty-five of these eighty players were drafted in the first round. In fact, 15 of those 45 players were drafted with one of the first four picks. Four went #1, three went #2, five went #3, and three went #4. By comparison, only four blue chip players, total, were found in the next group (#5 through #8). However, a nicely weird bubble appears around Pick #11, which also was home to four blue-chip players active in the NFL today (as many as the top pick in the draft). This bubble is nice because it serves as a reminder that with numbers this small (only 80 players), there’s a lot of room for noise and small variations to have a disproportionate impact. Still, besides that one bump, the rest of the first round marches on, providing fewer and fewer blue chip players as the draft continues. Only 9 blue chippers were found anywhere in the second round, and that includes Drew Brees.

Based on just this one half of the data, it seems like a team needing a truly transcendent player increases its chances the most by drafting in one of the top four slots. Within that range, though, the odds seem to fade a bit on a fairly steady basis. However, it’s worth looking at the other side of things. Picking high is, of course, no guarantee of success.

From 2006 to 2015, how many of these top picks have made the Pro Bowl even once (or more than once)? Well, six of the #1 overall picks have made the Pro Bowl, and four of those have been selected to at least three Pro Bowls. Some players, obviously, haven’t had the chance to be selected to three Pro Bowls yet, but this is at least some sort of validation of top pick from each year, even with the known flaws associated with the Pro Bowl.

The second, third, and fourth picks in the draft are pretty consistent—four or five players at each slot have made the Pro Bowl, and three players at each slot have made at least three pro bowls. After that, things take a dip again. There are ups and downs (six players picked at #12 have made the Pro Bowl at least once, which is a rather strong clustering). However, in each tier there are hits and misses. What’s nice about this result is that it creates a bit of support for the idea that the top four picks really are do increase the chances of finding a transcendent player. After that, the odds get longer.

In my next piece, I want to begin looking at how to tell the difference-makers apart from the duds, but this piece is already dragging on. For now, though, be assured that high quality players can be found across the entire range the Bears are likely to draft in.