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Lessons from Prior Drafts: The Bears Need More

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Chicago Bears 2011 Headshots
This man is the answer to the Bears’ woes
Photo by NFL via Getty Images

After the wild 2017 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears fan in me needed to spend a moment. Instead of a draft class that patched the holes in the team and at least opened a clear pathway to success, via an improving defense, the Bears took a different route.

The (frustrated) fan in me therefore needed to take stock and to figure out if my general perception of the NFL Draft matched reality. To do that, I looked at three drafts: 2011, 2012, and 2013. I picked these three drafts because all took place under the new CBA, but also because even the most recent (2013) happened long enough ago that the players taken have had a chance to leave their mark. My “wild guess” was that any player who was going to earn his way onto a team as a starter probably would have done so after four seasons, and in a very crude sort of way, the numbers support this guess.

Three Draft Classes

Draft Class Eventual Starters Eventual Pro Bowlers
Draft Class Eventual Starters Eventual Pro Bowlers
2011 118 28
2012 117 27
2013 120 20
Each count refers to a unique player from each class who earned the distinction at least once.

What’s interesting about these trends is not that they are consistent, but rather what they suggest about the “average” draft. With 118 players per draft class spending at least a single season as a starter, that means that an NFL team should (typically) get 3 or 4 players per draft class who earn the starter designation at least once in their careers. It’s actually 3.7 starters per team. I cannot remember a time when I felt confident the Bears would find seven starters across two drafts.

Overview

As might be expected, 89 of the 96 first-round draftees spent at least one year as a designated starter. If we’re honest, that designation by itself does little to suggest the player in question adds value to a team, because the enormous pressure around getting utility out of a first-round player is such that it seems inevitable that a first-rounder would earn the chance.

By contrast, 70 of 93 second-round picks spent at least one year as a starter, and 62 of 100 third-round picks spent at least one year as a designated starter. That’s 228 starters coming from the first three rounds (64% of the total). From that point on, players are less likely to become starters than they are to make it. The same pattern holds true for Pro Bowl honors.

Draft Outcomes By Round

Round Total Starters Pro-Bowlers
Round Total Starters Pro-Bowlers
1 96 89 36
2 93 70 15
3 100 62 9
4 109 46 6
After Round 4, the decline continues.

There is a much larger drop-off from the first round to the second round than there is from the second round to the third round, and the drop-off to the fourth round is at about the same level. One thing this reinforces to me is that whatever I might think, it is much harder to make the Pro Bowl than it seems.

It also lends support to the notion that the best chance of finding an impact player is earlier on, even if there are better odds of finding functional contributors by accumulating multiple later picks instead of one or two high selections. While nearly 38% of all first-round picks make it to the Pro Bowl, only 9% of third-rounders do. Of the 37 multiple-time pro-bowlers on the list, 25 of them were taken with one of the first 50 selections.

So Who is a Bust?

I have long felt, subjectively, that the term “bust” is thrown around a little too readily. To me, in order for “bust” to be a meaningful term, the player in question needs to be notably worse than the rest of his peers. In my head, I think that it makes sense the player should be in the bottom quarter of players of his type, or at least something close to that.

Thus, a standard insisting that a player needs to make the Pro Bowl in his first three years in order to avoid being a bust is frankly unreasonable, because that would mean that nearly two-thirds of all first-round picks are busts.

One definition that comes to mind deals with playing time. The average first-round pick across these three years played in 76.5% of available games. However, because of the way some players failed to make game after game, the truth is that more than two-thirds of all first-rounders played in at least 75% of possible games. More importantly, 80% of first-round picks received the starter designation for at least two years (not just the one year mentioned above). Combining the two, there are sixteen first-round picks (about 16%) who played in fewer than 75% of all games and who failed to earn a starter designation in at least two years.

If I’m honest, the total list seems like a reasonable representation of first-round busts from those classes: A.J. Jenkins (WR), Bjoern Werner (DE), Brandon Weeden (QB), D.J. Hayden (DB), Danny Watkins (G), David Wilson (RB), Dee Milliner (DB), Derek Sherrod (T), Dion Jordan (DE), EJ Manuel (QB), Gabe Carimi (T), Jake Locker (QB), Jonathan Baldwin (WR), Jonathan Cooper (G), and Justin Blackmon (WR). The only two I might want to add offhand would be Blaine Gabbert and Barkevious Mingo.

Second-round picks are obviously a little different. 58 of them played in at least 70% of possible games and 70 of them earn at least a single year as a starter. A total of 19 players fail at both marks. Going off of “average” for each class as a rough cut moves the mark to 61% of games for third-round picks. Using that cut-off (but keeping the requirement of a single year as a starter) sees 31 third-rounders fail on both counts. That still seems like an acceptably large group to call “busts”, even if it’s on the higher side.

Thus, as a “rough cut” for determining whether or not a player is a bust in the first three rounds, I’d suggest looking at whether or not he a) has below-average playing time for his round and if he fails to earn at least one year as a starter (with the requirement of earning two years as a starter for first-rounders). Simply making it as a starter (or playing in 60% of available games) is enough to qualify a fourth-round pick as in the top half of his class. For me, then, it seems like the term “bust” is better saved for high draft picks, or else reserved for the later-round guys who don’t make it at all. Of course, a more aggressive approach would be to say that a player who fails either of these conditions is a bust. By that standard [data]

Just based on raw numbers, I would also reject the idea that a player needs to make the pro bowl in order to avoid bust status, with one exception. The majority (60%) of Top 5 picks in the NFL draft across these three years earned at least one Pro Bowl nod. While that is far from a lock, it does suggest that a player taken in the Top 5 should at least be in the discussion for Pro Bowl honors.

Actually, the extraordinarily weak selections made at #3 in two of the three years (Trent Richardson and Dion Jordan) are enough to suggest that my very small sample size might be hurting my perspective in this case. The truth is that more than half of all selections through #7 made the Pro Bowl, and so a decent case could be made that this is a reasonable expectation for players taken high enough (hmmm...maybe that could be a later article).

Who had the best and worst runs in these drafts?

I have to admit that I was curious about how the different drafts compared in terms of who “won” and who “lost”. There is no really good way to evaluate this, but Pro Football Reference’s “Career Average Value” stat can at least serve as a another shortcut to measuring performance.

By far, the winner from a CAV standard was Seattle. The Seahawks came in with a cumulative CAV of 499 for all players drafted across these three years. To give a sense of how dominant that is in terms of performance, the average for all teams was 270 (mean) or 272 (median), and the second-best total was 356 (Cincinnati). The Top 5 were rounded out by Houston, Denver, and Buffalo—all above 300. Meanwhile, the New York Giants only saw a total CAV from all three draft classes of 138 (less than Seattle averaged on a per-year basis).

Where were the Bears? 29th in the league, at 206. They were just behind Oakland but ahead of New Orleans, Jacksonville, and New York. Seeing New Orleans gave me pause. Before I grew too worried, I needed to remind myself that Ryan Pace was the Director of Professional Scouting, not College Scouting, from 2007-2012. The Director of College Scouting for all three of these drafts was Rick Reiprish, and Reiprish was fired by the Saints and hired by the Steelers in 2015, so that part—at least—is not cause for concern at the moment.

Over these three years, Seattle found 15 starters; the Giants found 5. The Bears found 9, and that’s including players like J.T. Thomas, who never started for the Bears after being drafted in the 6th round in 2012, instead being relegated to backup duty before catching on in Jacksonville.

Previously, I’ve looked at how teams don’t really draft for need as the draft “experts” understand it (here), and nothing in these three years’ of results changes my mind about that.

Conclusions

Looking over the players drafted from 2011-2013 did little to reassure me as a Bears fan. The Giants, coming off of the Super Bowl, did have a rough run in the draft. However, they made it back to the playoffs in 2016. New Orleans and Oakland have also been to the playoffs, as well. That leaves only the Bears and the Jaguars. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills had a solid run in the draft yet they still haven’t been to the playoffs in this millennium.

This brings me back to J.T. Thomas. Thomas was not a bad player, as indicated by the fact that across 5 years he’s managed to play in 60 games for 3 teams. He’s the sort of “role-player” that a team needs to find somewhere, and there was nothing wrong with the Bears taking him in the sixth round. However, his best years came in a different uniform. There is a problem with that.

My takeaway from this exercise is not that the Bears had a bad run of luck at drafting. Instead, my takeaway is that unlike other teams (Oakland and New York) they have failed to mitigate that damage. A good draft isn’t enough (Buffalo). Instead, everything has to start working together. They need to find and to develop talent. The fan in me isn’t sure that they have the coaching staff to make that happen, but I would love to be wrong. That is especially true given that the players in this most recent draft class have plenty of development that needs to happen.