One recurring theme of the last few years has been to explain away the team’s struggles as the result of poor decisions made by Phil Emery. The claim goes that the team is in such a terrible state because Emery did such a poor job of finding talent, and because the coaching staff did an equally poor job of developing that talent.
Is this fair?
To get a sense of the scale of the challenge facing the Bears in this rebuild, I looked at the three drafts from 2012 to 2014. A quick glance suggests that the Bears were not as bad as it might appear to fans, because only 291 players drafted in that time earned a designation as a “starter” for a season, per Pro Football Reference. The Bears’ share of that, on a purely “per team” basis, should be 9 players, or 3 per year. The Emery Bears are close, with 8 players having earned the starter designation.
However, teams have to find players to start from somewhere, and the draft is one of those places. Not all starters are created equal (as a case in point, J’Marcus Webb has 4 seasons as a starter). The real issue is whether or not Emery’s selections have staying power.
11 of his 20 draft picks were still active in the NFL during the 2016 season, and that seems high. However, to get the number that high we need to count players like David Fales and Cornelius Washington. More importantly, the average for an NFL team’s draft picks at this time hovered right around 15 selections per team still active in the NFL (it’s actually 478 players in total). In fact, only four teams were worse than the Bears when it came to selecting players “back then” who are still active “now.” The Giants, the Colts, the Saints, and the Falcons all selected fewer draft picks during this time who were still active in the league in 2016.
Another way to count successes for Emery would be to look at how many players he selected who were ever starters in the NFL have stuck around to where they were active in the 2016 season. After all, Kadeem Carey and Will Sutton do not make for “successful” drafts. In this category, the Emery Bears took only six players: Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Pat O’Donnell, and Charles Leno. Fuller did not make the cut because he was inactive for all of 2015, but he could be slid into the mix on a technicality. From 2012 to 2014, only the New England Patriots and the New York Giants drafted fewer players who a) made it as starters and b) lasted in the league through last season.
Finally, by the conclusion of the 2016 season, only two players drafted by Emery were still active on other teams after leaving the Bears: Mills and McClellin. Overall, 133 drafted players (or an average of 4 per team) earned some sort of value for a second team.
No matter how we look at it, the Emery drafts were brutal in terms of filling out a roster. Emery was notably worse than average when it came to finding starters, finding players who stayed in the league, and finding players other teams felt were worth salvaging.
It will be forever impossible to sort out on in a meaningful way what part of this deficit was from the quality of the selections themselves and what part came from the coaching staff Emery assembled, but I am left with one conclusion—yes, it really was that bad.