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Should the Bears Go Best Player Available, Part 3

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As we dive deeper into the draft from 2012-2014, it becomes obvious that no matter how players are evaluated, accurate evaluation and team environment have at least as much to do with success than draft philosophy.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the last two weeks, I've been looking at three years of draft prospects in order to get a handle on the debate over which approach to the draft makes the most sense--€”drafting a player based on need or drafting a player based on their relative talent or value (i.e. the best player available). As most of us have known from the beginning, this is a sort of false dichotomy. The overwhelming majority of teams seem to use a combination, drafting a player with a lot of potential in a position that has at least some need. However, there are still outliers, and I was hoping to discover a pattern.

The basic system I used to get started combined three draft ranking lists and then composited them into a single massive list for each year. There was a lot of variation, with each year seeing an average level of variation for a given player of about 15-20 rank slots. This sort of list is fine for "back of a napkin" math, the kind of thing someone might do to see if there's even a discussion to be had, but it's not good enough for any meaningful conclusion. For an explanation of why, it's useful to look at Sylvester Williams and Kyle Long. Williams went to the Denver Broncos with the 28th pick in 2013, and the "compiled rank list" gave him a relative rank of 37th that year. However, one list (Mayock) had him as high as 22nd, while another (NFL.com) had him as low as 61st. Kyle Long was a notable reach on two boards, but a third had him ranked 29th, which is in the range of his pick as #20. As it turns out, he has actually done much better than many players drafted ahead of him, so Emery's scouts did better than the guys on the internet (this time) in evaluating talent.

However, even this limited system revealed a couple of interesting patterns. First, of all of the players considered when compared to their final draft position, only 24 of them were drafted more than 20 ranks later than their "composite value" would have suggested. That's less than 10% of the whole. On average, highly touted players ended up getting picked sooner rather than later. At the other end, 45 men were drafted at least 20 ranks ahead of their composite value. The "over-drafted" players will, I hate to say it, need to wait for the next article. It is the group of 24 players who represented a clear value that are worth considering.

Ten of the players who were drafted 20 ranks after their relative ranking were not drafted into a position of identified need. This means that they did not make either the Bleacher Report or Sports Illustrated lists of team needs, which together have the potential to identify ten different positions. The Bears do not have a single pick on this "value" list. In fact, even though the Bears did not have a greater number of identified areas of need than most other teams, they did not make a single selection against need in the three years that Emery served as GM. Future Bears or not, these ten players represent the strongest examples of a team drafting for value instead of need, and when I checked each against "grade"-based systems instead of simple rank lists I confirmed that they were all graded as higher potential than their eventual draft position.

PLAYER


POS


COLLEGE


RANK


DRAFT


TEAM


Thompson, Brandon

DT

Clemson

49

93

Bengals (2012)

Nix, Louis

NT

Notre Dame

29

83

Texans (2014)

Mason, Tre

RB

Auburn

46

75

Rams (2014)

Randle, Rueben

WR

LSU

42

63

Giants (2012)

Garoppolo, Jimmy

QB

Eastern Illinois

40

62

Patriots (2014)

Ealy, Kony

DE

Missouri

39

60

Panthers (2014)

Curry, Vinny

DE

Marshall

36

59

Eagles (2012)

Hyde, Carlos

RB

Ohio St.

33

57

49ers (2014)

Worthy, Jerel

DT

Michigan St.

31

51

Packers (2012)

Te'o, Manti

ILB

Notre Dame

16

38

Chargers (2013)

Brandon Thompson played in 39 games as a third-round draft pick, recording three sacks and thirty-four tackles. The Bengals did not miss a playoff game since drafting him, and he clearly added some depth to their defense, especially in 2013, when he played in all 16 games and started 7. It's tough to call this choice a mistake.

Nix was also drafted in the third round, but he seems to have added very little to the Texans. There were a number of modestly rated offensive linemen available when the Texans drafted him, and that was what the features I found suggested Houston should have done. Interestingly, though, quarterback was also noted as a need at that point, and Zach Mettenberger was available. While I'm not about to hold Mettenberger up as the ultimate draft prospect, it's hard to imagine he would have been less useful to the Texans than a tackle who played in four games and recorded no statistics.

Tre Mason went to a Rams team that did not have an identified need at running back, but he stepped in to record nearly 1200 yards from scrimmage in two seasons. Draft pundits swore that the Rams should have gone after O-line help, instead, and picking Mason let others, like Gabe Jackson, get away. This one seems to be a push. Similarly, Reuben Randle has been a solid player for the Giants, but it's amusing to speculate what might have happened had the Giants gone for Ronnie Hillman, instead, addressing the running back need that others had identified. Jimmy Garoppolo has done a fine job of being not-Tom Brady when the Patriots didn't want Tom Brady on the field, but at this point it is really difficult to assess how valuable he has been. The Patriots won a Super Bowl after drafting him, so failing to fill the "needs" on the team seems to have worked out fine.

Likewise, if anyone who watched the last Super Bowl can tell me that the Panthers would have been better off addressing the ‘holes' at cornerback and on the offensive line that the experts identified, instead of picking up Ealy, please let me know. I'll be busy drooling over a defensive lineman who is the first since the early 90s to record multiple sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble in the playoffs. Yes, the Panthers lost the Super Bowl, but it wasn't because they drafted Kony Ealy instead of Dexter McDougle (the next cornerback off the board).

I refuse to address the Vinny Curry decision because I cannot begin to sort out the personnel decisions made by Chip Kelly in the years after Curry was drafted.

Carlos Hyde, by contrast, has given the 49ers some real value. However, the consensus at the time was that 49ers should aim to pick up a wide receiver or a defensive back, and they followed the script in the first round by taking Jimmie Ward (incidentally, they took Ward with the 30th pick in the draft, 23 spots ahead of where his ‘value' would have been according to the composite rankings). However, in taking Hyde in the second, they picked up an okay running back and left Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry for other teams.

The Jerel Worthy draft should be enough to make Bears fans smile. The supposedly infallible, home-talent-growing Green Bay Packers traded up 8 spots to get him (sacrificing their fourth-round pick), despite the fact that they needed a defensive end more according to the experts. After playing in 16 games (and starting 4) for the Packers, he was traded to the Patriots in August 2014 for a conditional pick but was waived before the month was over. Among others, Akiem Hicks was available.

Finally, Manti Te'o has been a solid, if unexceptional, part of the San Diego offense defense. I should probably mention that the boards I looked at took into consideration the impact of the drama surrounding him at the time, but that he was passed on for two full rounds before someone thought he was worth a pick. However, for a team that needed help on both lines, it's debatable if he was a reasonable choice no matter what kind of value he offered.

The verdict, then, seems to be that while picking up players for value instead of need is workable, so long as the player really has the value the scouting department believes him to carry. Perhaps more importantly, the teams that made "steals" work out for them were teams with established rosters who could afford to take a few risks. It seems like there are two lessons learned from this analysis. The first is that very, very few teams really do simply take the highest-valued player off the board (although that should have been somewhat obvious). The second is that truly being able to simply grab a player because of the value he might represent is a luxury enjoyed by a select few teams.