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Pace needs a balanced approach in rebuilding the Chicago Bears

Fans repeatedly claim that the path to the Super Bowl is through drafting and cultivating talent. Sometimes it seems like being able to field a "home grown" team is the path to success. However, this is another belief that just doesn't seem to hold up to scrutiny.

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For many, the next draft is key to Pace's legacy as the Bears' GM. After all, to be successful in the NFL, a team needs to draft well and cultivate its own talent. Except that this isn't really true. The best teams are not home-grown. Or, rather, they are no more home-grown than other teams in the NFL.

The draft is important. However, it is not crucial to a team's success that its roster be filled with men who have worn one uniform for their NFL careers. The last ten teams to compete in the Super Bowl drafted 43% of their players directly, while 26% were initially drafted by other teams. The remaining players were undrafted free agents. On the surface, this would seem to indicate that drafting is the most important factor in building a championship team. The high point is the 2012 Baltimore Ravens (55%), while the low point comes from the 2014 Seattle Seahawks (36%).

On the other hand, consider each of the worst teams in the NFL over the last five years, in terms of record. 41% of their rosters were composed of players they drafted themselves, and 28% were players initially drafted by other teams.

There is way more variation within the range of conference champions than there is between the average range between the champs and the first team on the clock to pick a player. In fact, a quick look at the Super Bowl champions and the teams that earned the top draft pick in the NFL over the last five years shows that a team that drafts its own is not in all that different of a place than a team that gets its players by other means.

TEAM

DRAFTED

OTHER

UDFA

2014 TAM Bucs

28.6%

34.3%

37.1%

2013 SEA Seahawks

36.9%

26.2%

36.9%

2013 HOU Texans

38.2%

30.9%

30.9%

2015 DEN Broncos

41.4%

29.3%

29.3%

2011 NY Giants

41.7%

38.3%

20.0%

2011 IND Colts

44.3%

25.7%

30.0%

2015 TEN Titans

46.9%

26.6%

26.6%

2014 NE Patriots

47.0%

15.2%

37.9%

2012 KAN Chiefs

47.6%

22.2%

30.2%

2012 BAL Ravens

55.0%

18.3%

26.7%

Italics indicate the SB Champion, Bold represents the team with the worst record

Before I continue, I do want to say something about the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That 28.6% is the lowest of the fifteen teams that I looked at, and it is the lowest by far. The 36.1% of the 2014 Seattle Seahawks is the next-lowest, and it's nearly eight percentage points away.

Now, it's fair to ask at this point if simply comparing rosters is the best way to go about this evaluation. There is a big difference between the players who provide some depth and those who actually start. Therefore, it's a probably a good idea to look there, next.

Of teams to make it to the Super Bowl, 50% of their players who recorded at least one start were playing for the team that drafted them. Another 26% were undrafted free agents. By contrast, of the teams that fell to the bottom of the NFL, 51% of their players with at least one start were playing for the team that drafted them, and another 22% were undrafted free agents. There might be a slight argument here that good teams do a better job with UDFAs, but (again) there is way more variation from conference champion to conference champion than there is between the averages of the two groups.

As long as I'm mentioning oddities, however, I do want to give credit to the "Harbaugh Bowl" for having an interesting distinction beyond the ‘brothers' angle. The top two teams to appear in the Super Bowl over the last five years in terms of starting their own draft picks are the 2012 Baltimore Ravens (they are the runner-up, drafting 58% of the players they started during the regular season) and the 2012 San Francisco 49ers (who drafted an astonishing 71% of the players they started). 2014 Tampa Bay continues to stand out here, as well, with only 35% of their starters coming from players they drafted (the runners-up, amusingly enough, are the 2014 New England Patriots at 45%).

In other words, while an occasional outlier (the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the 2012 San Francisco 49ers) might make for an interesting conversation piece, NFL teams are remarkably consistent in how they come by their players. The secret of good teams is not that they grow their own talent. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks only drafted 37% of the players who played for them that year, which is fewer than four of the five most recent teams to finish last in the NFL, and the 2013 Houston Texans and 2015 Tennessee Titans both drafted more than 56% of the players who started for them, placing them ahead of all but one of the last five Super Bowl champions.

The draft is valuable, but so is free agency. So are meetings with guys who were passed on by 32 teams. After all, 26% of guys who started for one of the last five teams to win the Super Bowl were undrafted. There should be a lot of pressure on Pace facing this upcoming draft. However, for fans who worry that the best teams draft, train, and hold onto their own players, there is a bit of hope that in this way the NFL is a bit more forgiving. There are lots of ways to get to the top.