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Rookie GMs: Pace Isn’t Keeping Up

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Ryan Pace took over a team with a 5-11 record in his first year as a GM. If we’re going to judge him, it’s only fair to judge him against others in the same situation.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears
One of Pace’s first draft picks
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Two frequent notes about Ryan Pace are that he came to the Bears as a “rookie” GM and that his first draft was made without the benefit of his own staff around him. Therefore, the argument goes, it is unfair to compare his first draft to “typical” drafts. I have trouble accepting the first argument, because he is either qualified to be the GM of an NFL team or he is not. The second argument might have a bit more merit, though, and is at least worth testing. However, in the interest of fairness I wanted to compare Ryan Pace to his true peers and try to find parallels on both fronts.

Hired in 2015, Ryan Pace was brought in to manage a team coming off of a 5-win season, and he inherited the 7th overall pick in the draft; he was entering his first year as a GM. The year before, in 2014, first-time GM Jason Licht was brought in to manage the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their 4-win season, and he likewise inherited the 7th overall pick in the draft. 2013 saw Arizona enter the draft with Steve Keim, who was in his first year of the draft but charged with turning around the 5-win Cardinals--who were picking 7th overall in the draft. This would seem to be a pretty “fair” peer group to compare to Ryan Pace. They are all first-time GMs with the exact same draft position in their first year, and the team records were remarkably similar.

As an outlier, while no rookie GM was managing a team drafting 7th in 2012, Phil Emery took over the Bears that year, and he took over a team with 8 wins and the 19th pick in the draft. He serves as a a nice “counterpoint” in our study, if only because Bears fans are intimately familiar with his failings.

How does Pace do? Well, comparing draft classes is always tough, but it’s really hard to make an argument in favor of Ryan’s work.

2012

The first year of Phil Emery’s work saw only two real players emerge: Shea McClellin and Alshon Jeffery. While McClellin was a clear overdraft, he did make it 5 years in the league and has a Super Bowl ring (with the Patriots), but he is already out of the league. Meanwhile, Jeffery just signed a major extension and made the Pro Bowl by his second year. Using Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” metric for the first two years of the 2012 class’s careers, Emery’s draft scored a total value of 23 and provided a total of 82 games of play and 41 starts. Those are very low numbers for this group, in part because those players came onto a team that had a better record that was presumably less in need of rookies to plug holes.

In Emery’s defense, he also had less capital to spend, because he was drafting later. In fact, his total draft value was 502.45 on the “Rich Hill Chart,” which seems to be more accurate regarding the prices paid for picks than even the famed Jimmy Johnson chart. Although it’s an incomplete picture when concerning the entire career of the players, Emery spent 21.85 points of draft capital per earned AV point across the first two years.

2013

By contrast, when Keim took over the Cardinals, he found a lot of players who made their way onto the roster. A superstitious (or even simply stitious) person might make something of the fact that the #7 overall pick (Jonathan Cooper) was unable to play his first year because of a broken leg. However, even with the first-round pick on injured reserve that first year, 8 players from that draft recorded at least one start in the first two years, and 7 of them are still playing. Only one would make the Pro Bowl (Tyrann Mathieu), but it wouldn’t be until Year 3. Still, volume alone and a nice pair of performances from Andrew Ellington gave Keim’s first class a combined AV of 43, 171 games, and 64 starts.

By contrast to Phil Emery, the earlier position in the draft meant that Keim enjoyed a total draft pick value of 716.45, which was less than it might have been because he also traded what was functionally a sixth-round pick for Carson Palmer. Keim only spent 16.67 points of draft capital per 1 point of earned AV. He was, in other words, more efficient in building through the draft (at least through the first two years of his rookie class). As a caveat, however, he was also promoted from within, meaning that the while it was his first year as a GM, it was not his first year with the organization. That might mean something, or it might not.

2014

Jason Licht went all-in on rebuilding Tampa Bay’s offense in 2014. He drafted 6 players, all on one side of the ball (two wide receivers, a tight end, a running back, and two linemen). Mike Evans obviously stands out (even if he didn’t make the Pro Bowl until his third year), but some of that’s because this draft produced a lot of “okay, sure” players. PFR credits them with an AV of 35 across the first two years, and they logged 101 games with 45 starts. This was accomplished using draft picks with a total value of 685.75; he needed 19.59 points of value for every 1 AV found--he was less efficient than Keim but not as bad as Emery.

It’s also worth pointing out that the 2014 campaign itself was so bad that it resulted in the #1 overall pick in the draft the next year. However, since that time Tampa Bay has at least seen a winning season.

2015

Ryan Pace? He had 698.6 points of draft value to spend. His gem was Adrian Amos, who collects praise from PFR’s metrics, Pro Football Focus’s evaluators, and really everyone except Bears fans. The contributions of Eddie Goldman and Jeremy Langford also stand out, because Langford was able to serve as a functional weapon in an offense that made use of a versatile (if flawed) running back. The fact that he doesn’t currently have a job in the league will need to be accounted for in a more detailed piece. Still and all, Pace’s first class earned a 32 total AV, logged 96 games of play with 64 starts, and didn’t see a Pro Bowl in their first two years. For those who enjoy comparing Pace and Emery, it’s interesting that Pace needed to spend 21.83 points of draft capital for every 1 AV, which is essentially the same efficiency shown by Emery.

On balance, that means that Pace’s first draft only “scored” better than Emery’s first draft, and it was a dead heat for last place in terms of draft efficiency, but there are a couple of huge qualifiers there. Simply counting starts and stats logged is an incomplete way to evaluate performance. Likewise, Jeffery’s Pro Bowl should count for something, but it’s hard to say how much it should matter. Some fans might want to give an injury discount both to Keim and to Pace for all of the broken leg problems. What is true is that there is nothing in this first draft class to suggest that Ryan Pace is going to do a better job of building the Bears than his peer group managed.

Licht has guided his team to one winning season out of four. Even facing a leg injury to his top draft pick, Keim beat or tied Pace on metrics (leading AV and games played, tying on games started) while also winning in the way that really matters--actually winning with two playoff appearances (in year two and in year three). Emery is no longer even a GM. If Pace is going to build a reliable contender through the draft, his stated goal, he has gotten off to what is at best a mediocre start--and that is compared to other rookie GMs who took over struggling teams.

However, the second-year draft might be different, and that will be covered in a later installment after the season is over.