So far, Ryan Pace has shown himself to be reasonably adept at navigating free agency and at finding quality players in the draft. It is still really early to make a prediction on how things are going to turn out, but most signs seem to suggest that the Bears are headed in the right direction.
Unfortunately, while all of that is true, it is difficult to build contender-level depth quickly, at least in part because of how difficult it is to find and to develop talent in the late rounds of the draft. Tom Brady aside, sixth-round picks don't tend to do a lot. As scouting has gotten more sophisticated and as teams have gotten more aggressive in scouring for talent, the likelihood of finding a diamond in the rough has gone down even as the payoff for doing so has gone up thanks to the rookie salary cap.
From 2010 to 2014, the late rounds of the draft (basically, the fifth round and later) have seen more than 600 selections and very little production. This five-year span is a good place to focus for a couple of reasons. First, it is recent enough to reflect the modern realities of the NFL—it is harder than ever for a team to find a Terrell Davis (6th round) or Richard Dent (8th round) these days. Second, by cutting off in 2014, I'm allowing players two full seasons to make their mark. Most have not.
For example, of the 178 fifth-round picks from 2010 to 2014, only 48 (27%) have spent at least one year as the primary starter for their team at their position. It is true that 161 have played in at least one game, but just under half (82) have played in at least half of the regular-season games available to them. These men have combined for 9 Pro Bowl appearances (as a quick aside, there's plenty to dislike about the Pro Bowl, but it is a measure that many use and as an honor it at least suggests that a player is in the top quarter of starters) and 4 First-Team All-Pro selections. Of course, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor make up almost all of those honors (7 Pro Bowls and 3 All-Pros between them). In the fifth round, there seem to be some teams that really do leverage the fifth-round better than others.
For example, Washington has had six picks in the fifth-round over these five years, and none of them spent a full year as a primary starter at his position. Only half of them played in at least 50% of the games available. This could be a good sign, though, if the talent ahead of them was so pronounced that the team didn't need them to step up. It certainly doesn't say great things that the Jaguars had 4 of their 7 fifth-round picks as starters for at least one season, with three of those players playing in at least half of available games.
On the other hand, Green Bay had 3 of 8 fifth-rounders see a season as a starter and 5 of 8 play in at least half of the available games. Additionally, Seattle hit on 3 of its 8 picks, picking up a starter in the majority of the years under consideration (2010, 2011, and 2013), including the aforementioned Chancellor and Sherman. By contrast, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (with 16 picks between them) combined to find a single starter (Riley Cooper) and only three players who have played in at least half of the available games.
In the fifth round, it seems like some teams are a little more likely to find whatever it is that they are looking for. This does not seem to be affected by volume. Teams with eight picks each (the greatest number of selections) varied from not finding any starters to landing multiple Pro Bowlers. This could be reassuring, as Pace has already "hit" with Adrian Amos, who spent a year as a primary starter and played in all 16 games. If Amos continues to play at a solid level, and if Pace can repeat this level of success, then he is already beating the odds.
The sixth round is a different story, and it does not seem like volume counts for all that much here, either. Of 190 picks, only 65 (34%) played in at least half of the available games, and only 34 saw a season as the primary starter at his position (18%). No team got a starter out of more than half of its picks in the sixth round (again, for most teams this might be a good thing) and the closest thing that might be called a trend might be the way Cincinnati, Dallas, Green Bay, Houston, and (again) Jacksonville all got players who saw action in at least half of the games from at least half of their sixth-round selections.
The seventh-round is the same, only more so, with 234 picks turning up 29 players who spent at least a year as a starter (12%), and only 63 players making in appearance in at least half of all available games (27%). Chicago, Miami, and Oakland form a strange sort of club—they are the only teams that have seen the majority of their seventh-round picks in this time go on to play in at least half of all available games since being drafted. Chicago also has the distinction of having enjoyed the services of the sole seventh-round Pro Bowler taken in this time (Marc Mariani was taken in the 7th round by Tennessee, and he earned Pro Bowl honors as a returner with them in his rookie year).
Putting it all together, 602 late-round picks provided teams with 111 starters and 210 players who saw action in at least half of their available games. 24 Pro Bowl selections came from these late rounds. With his five known picks in the late rounds of 2016, Pace needs to find at least another starter and locate a role-player simply to keep up with the average success rate. This, ultimately, is not enough.
It will be nice if he can find amazing talent in the first couple of rounds. However, for a team that seems a long way away from where fans want it to be, Pace needs to beat the odds and he needs to put together drafts that find quality players from beginning to end. Average drafting is not going to be enough. The Bears need better.