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Fact Check: Penalties and Drafts

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Heading back into Bears football after the bye, I thought it would be a good idea to check in on a couple of ideas circulated around the boards.

First, one thing that gets brought up a lot is whether or not the officials show any degree of favoritism. The reality is that every fan-base tends to think that its team is unfairly officiated and certainly Bears fans are not unique in thinking that particular teams receive more calls than others. Perhaps some eyebrows raised at the announcement by the NFL that Cam Newton was the victim of fewer missed roughing the passer calls than eleven other quarterbacks—including Jay Cutler.

Admittedly, it’s hard to determine intent or favoritism, and a good team should be able to overcome penalties. However, the officials do make it easy for those looking to complain. NFLpenalties.com reports that from 2009 to 2016, of the more than 5,000 “automatic first down” penalties that teams benefitted from, the largest beneficiaries (in order) have been Green Bay (221), New England (208), and Indianapolis (207). The average per team over these 7.5 seasons is 164, while the Bears have only benefited from 153. Some of the variation could be skill—there is merit to the idea that a good quarterback can “draw” the pass interference flag by throwing a ball that forces the defender to act in a particular way.

At the same time, if you are inclined to see favoritism, all of the evidence is there. It’s true that net impact on the game in terms of total yardage might be minimal. After all, #1 Green Bay averages a hair over 20 bonus yards from penalties per game in this way, compared to #32 Houston who enjoys less than 12 yards in this manner. By contrast, while those eight yards might not seem huge, the fresh set of downs could easily result in one extra score per game. Perhaps the roughly half-penalty per game spread either way across the field is just random, and somebody was going to be the outlier, even if the trend is pretty consistent in most years (Green Bay is one of the top two beneficiaries for four of the last eight years).

Second, a lot of ideas about what is and what is not a good draft have been thrown around, so I wanted to look at three drafts to see how they have progressed. The 2013 draft class is now halfway through the fourth season that would have been available to its 254 members. In simple terms, that’s an NFL career. Of that entire group, only 40% have been the designated starter for a team. 75% have played in at least sixteen games. A team with “typical” draft success should see about three of its 2013 picks spend at least a single season as a designated started and six players contribute at least sixteen games. By contrast, the newer 2014 draft class has had less of a chance to establish itself. This draft has only seen 35% of its 256 members earn a designation as starter, and only 67% have played in at least 16 games.

An interesting trend emerges for both 2013 and 2014 with the Bears. While only two picks in each class earned a “primary starter” designation (29%), all but one of the players taken in either of these drafts saw at least 16 games (that’s 93%); David Fales is the outlier. So while the drafts for Chicago in 2013 and 2014 were disappointing (and below average) in terms of finding starters, a high volume of the players Emery drafted did see the field. Feel free to speculate on the discrepancy below.

The 2015 draft was different. Because of the much tighter timeframe, of the 256 draftees, only 45 have spent a year as the designated starter for their teams. Chicago, with three of Pace’s rookie draft class listed as starters at one point, is tied with the New England Patriots for second in the league for finding starters last year. Unfortunately, leading this category isn’t always a good thing, as Tampa Bay is at the front of the pack with four starters from the 2015 draft. Still, even with the persistent struggles of Kevin White to stay on the field, the 2015 class has already found more role-players, at least, than Emery managed in a given year.

So, when people talk about Emery leaving the cupboard bare, they aren’t wrong. Pace has found replacements. The real question will be whether or not those replacements will have the quality the Bears need to take the next step.

*Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from Pro Football Reference