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Finding Blue Chip Players, Part 2

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The only player on the Bears’ roster who meets the definition of “blue chip”
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This article is a continuation of my piece from last week [link]. There, I talked about whether or not draft position really impacted the ability to find true blue chip players. One question that arose quickly in the thread was whether or not blue chip players really were essential to a team. That is the issue this article is trying approach, although it has to do so with some serious limitations.

Just a quick reminder about where we started—discussing where, exactly, there is the best chance of finding “blue chip” players in the draft. Figuring this out required finding a definition of blue chip player, and that’s inherently problematic. It’s even more problematic when evaluating whether or not a team needs blue chip players to be successful.

For example, if a blue chip player is simply “one of the best players on a highly successful team,” then of course a team needs blue chip players. It needs them because the definition itself includes their presence as part of being a successful team. Even the definition used in the last article is a problem, too. It defined blue chip players as those players with at least three Pro Bowl selections or at least two All-Pro selections. This definition is highly exclusive, as it only applies to about 5% of the players in the NFL. However, it runs the risk of capturing the effect and not the cause—is a team successful because it has a number of well-regarded players, or are the players on the team well-regarded because it’s successful.

To dig into this a little more, I looked at that same list of active players who met the rather basic “blue chip” definition from before and tried to see if there was any pattern. I sorted players by the teams with which they had played. This created a problem because some players played with multiple teams, and not all of those players played with the team at the same time. Because this is a casual article and not a piece of advanced analytics, I did my best to correct for any overlap, but I can’t promise I didn’t miss anyone.

The results are pretty interesting. For example, the top three teams in terms of having blue chip players are Denver, San Francisco, and Kansas City (5 apiece). That total doesn’t include the presence of Peyton Manning for the Broncos, as he’s not active this year, but it does give credit to San Francisco for Frank Gore, for example, because Gore is active and he did meet the definition of blue chip player while playing in San Francisco. What’s interesting about this list is that while Denver and Kansas City are both going strong, San Francisco has started to fade—and it coincides pretty well with losing their top players to other teams. So far, so good, for the hypothesis.

The next tier (4 blue chippers each) is slightly more problematic to characterize, but not much: Arizona, Baltimore, Carolina, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. For the most part, those are teams that contend. More than that, they are teams that people think of as good. San Diego always seems like it should be good, but it never quite gets there.

The next group complicates everything: Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, Miami, New Orleans, New York (the Jets), Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington. There are some good teams on that list, but there are also some mediocre teams, too. Three blue chip players is about the median number of exceptional players for an NFL team. One step down includes Cincinnati, Detroit, and Tampa Bay. What’s interesting about that level is that Cincinnati (prior to this year) was able to make the playoffs on a consistent basis (they’ve certainly been more reliable than Miami). As a note, the argument could be made that Chicago belongs in this group, as it has had as many as three blue chippers on it but two of those players (Marshall and Peppers) are no longer with the team; Long is injured.

Something needs to be said about the teams with a single lonely blue chip player on each: Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, and the Giants’ Eli Manning. If anyone wants to use an amazingly small data pool to overgeneralize a broad conclusion, there’s an example waiting right there. Two running backs, a tackle, and a quarterback. Seriously, even though the truth is way more complicated than it seems from looking at a simple spreadsheet, this project has made me look at the 2004 quarterback draft class differently (at least pending more research).

A keen reader might notice that there has been no mention of Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and Oakland. That’s because they have no active players who meet the requirements. In Oakland’s case, that’s likely to change as a handful of exceptional players have the chance to accumulate adequate acknowledgement (Carr, Cooper, and Mack come to mind immediately). This is also the group the 2016 Bears belong in. The only player currently on the Bears who might deserve the label “blue chip” is the reserve/injured right guard.

As a side note, I did try to look for a pattern as to which positions were more important (for example, tackles versus guards or receivers versus linebackers). The numbers are too small to draw any real conclusions, because by the time the pool is narrowed to only a handful of guys on even the best rosters, the positions they play end up being pretty haphazard.

The safest conclusion from this brief and rushed review is that in order for a team to be keeping pace in terms of how many of its own have earned major honors, it should have three “blue chip” players on its roster. Whether that is a side effect to success or its cause is way too hard to say at this point. When it comes to high-level talent, though, the Bears are in the bottom tier. Only a quarter of the league is as “poor” in terms of established playmakers.

That needs to change.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Pro Football Reference.