Ryan Pace has his work cut out for him. A strong free agency has put the team in a position to make the most of the draft.
Last week, I asked for feedback from the community on a project I wanted to put together, looking at the way teams approach the draft in the hopes that it would give us insight on what Ryan Pace should do. Most of the feedback was encouraging, but a lot of you suggested that I was either misguided or foolish to take on this project. However, I still think it's an interesting idea for discussion, if nothing else, and I hope you agree. This article does need to come with the same caveat as before, however, in that I am not inside the draft rooms of these teams. This work is, especially in its partial form right now, more fit to prompt discussion than to reach conclusions.
To determine which players would be considered the "best available," I identified three sources from which I could get consistent draft data for three years: 2012, 2013, and 2014. The same data was not available for 2011, so I narrowed things down. One side effect of this focus is that it will allow me to compare Phil Emery's entire draft history as a GM to the work of his peers in the same time (hence the picture--sorry about that). I ended up taking rankings from Mike Mayock, NFL.com, and CBS Sports. I only looked at each source's Top 100, and any prospect who did not appear on one of those lists was assigned a rank of 101 for that value. This had the result of flattening out profiles, but it also kept prospects left off one list or another from being penalized too heavily. In all, this gave me just over 400 players ranked by three different sets of eyes.
Some players had remarkably consistent rankings, but some were up and down the boards. Just comparing Mayock to CBS Sports in any given year saw an average variation in rank across the entire field of 12 to 27 spots. I added the total ranks together and then reordered the ranks by lowest total in order to determine the composite rankings. For example, in 2012 Shea McClellin was ranked 45th, 23rd, and 14th as a prospect, which had him place 26th overall. Meanwhile, Alshon Jeffery was much more consistent in his rankings, coming in at 55th, 45th, and 51st for an overall placement of 50th. The biggest range for a player actually ranked by all three boards belonged to Damontre Moore, who was considered the 20th-best prospect by NFL.com but the 95th-best by CBS Sports. This variety of opinions—and its implications—will be addressed later.
The other half of the equation was determining what I would consider a team's needs. For this, I ended up looking at Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report. I found the same system of rating need in place at each for all three years, and I was able to separate my "needs" out from the people who had done the ranking of prospects (one unfortunate problem I found frequently was that a source would ‘engineer' a need that just happened to fit a player the analyst knew was going to be available, so I wanted to divorce my two information streams). If both sources agreed on the need, and this happened less often than one might hope, I considered that a clear need. If one source thought it was a need but another did not, I listed it as a possible need. Finally, if neither source mentioned it as a need, I did not count it as an area of need.
Of the 95 picks made in the first round over the three years under consideration, 47 of them were in areas of clear need. By contrast, 22 of those picks were not in areas of identified need at all. As all three of the early rounds unfolded each year, this pattern more or less held. While a large number of picks were made from the fairly generous and broad "areas of need" category, teams also shopped for value, and almost a third of all picks were made outside of these areas of need. For the Bears, there was little sign of Phil Emery's claim to drafting the best player available, but that leads back to the same problem I mentioned before.
As many predicted, one of the biggest problems was determining whether or not a team was "reaching" for a player. With so much variety in ranking from analyst to analyst, it is difficult to say what constitutes a team picking "the best player" in their eyes (even if everyone else disagrees) and what represents a team making a selection based on need. This will ultimately require a more nuanced discussion. This second article, however, is to report whether or not any teams showed a trend. Some did.
Several teams showed a strong bias toward picking only players in areas of need, at least as identified by the media outlets selected. Of particular note is a team with no selections outside of "clear" and "possible" need: the Chicago Bears. They are joined in this distinction by the Minnesota Vikings, although the Atlanta Falcons (with one selection outside of an area of need) are close. Likewise, the Saints only made one pick from an area that was outside of identified needs, and the Jaguars made just two. While it is tempting to claim that these teams simply had more areas of need, and therefore they were more likely to pick a player who happens to be in this area of need, the 2012 draft preceded an amazing run by the Falcons, and the Bears and Vikings also did well that year.
At the other extreme, the Arizona, Philadelphia, and Washington were the teams to make the fewest selections from the "clear need" positions in this time. With Washington, it should be pointed out that they did not make very many selections at all, as they were still paying off the trade that allowed them to select Robert Griffin III.
It was far more common for teams to move around and to select a few players from areas of publicly identified need and a few players from their own boards. In many cases (but certainly not all), the player who was selected instead of someone who played a position of need was, in fact, someone who was highly rated by the three analysts I used.
When looking over the teams with clear trends, one important consideration is who is being picked, not what position is being picked. While I don't want to rehash old debates, it should be reasonably safe to point out that Shea McClellin was not the only defensive end available to fill that "possible" area of need back in 2012.
Ultimately, though, it does seem like there is some weak evidence that teams follow different approaches when it comes to the draft, and that while nobody seems to ignore need entirely, some teams have a marked tendency to ‘chase' players more than others while other teams chase positions. Until recently, the Bears have been one of the teams that seemed to draft for position. That tendency was part of the legacy of Phil Emery, and it brought us players like Kyle Long and Alshon Jeffery. It also brought us Brandon Hardin and Shea McClellin.
In the next article, I want to tackle the issue of value.