Each draft season brings about a core debate between two polarizing tenets of how NFL teams should make their selections, especially with first-round picks. You either lean towards best player available - where a team picks the most talented player regardless of need or fit - or positional value, where making a draft pick centers around the best possible player at the most important positions such as quarterback, pass rusher, and offensive tackle. Rarely is there a spirited conversation that surrounds the age of a prospect, regardless of whether he's the most talented or fits in line with positional value.
As the Bears and Ryan Pace sit at a standstill in one of the most integral off-seasons in franchise history, they must have that discussion about building their foundation if possible, around younger players they can control and maximize their abilities for an extended period of time. Taking younger players with higher upside and the same amount of immediate impact as aging talents already nearing their mid-20's is how an NFL organization sets itself up for that "sustained success" that Pace often refers back to publicly.
This year, as the Bears have a variety of needs to varying degrees from the defensive edge (high), receiver (high), to cornerback (depending on how free agency shakes out), the crosshairs have inexplicably turned only to wide receiver. The light shines on 2017 First-Team All-Sec player Calvin Ridley from Alabama, and how Pace and the Bears should judge his value as a wideout to their current roster skeleton.
Most will agree that Ridley is the top prospective receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft. He's a polished route runner schooled in a pro style offense with the Crimson Tide (albeit in a run-heavy attack). He's physical and can be counted on to make the difficult catch, and he's savvy enough to make an immediate impact. He produced enough over three seasons as a starter at Alabama to make that assessment.
Ridley will be a fine player in the big leagues, no one's disputing that notion.
That's why if you're looking to fill the gap and find playmakers for your young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, it'd be easy to see why Ridley still and will top so many mock drafts to receiver-needy teams such as the Bears.
However, as complete of a player he is at a glance, Ridley will be 24-years-old by the conclusion of the 2018 season.
To give you an idea of how problematic it would be to invest in a highly slotted selection of Ridley because of that age, the Raiders' Amari Cooper is only six months older than Ridley, and was drafted all the way back in 2015. Would anyone say Cooper is a finished product coming into now his fourth NFL season? No. Mind you, Cooper was a fourth overall pick who was also highly touted for his polish and experience as a First-Team All-Sec member in his final season at Alabama in 2014.
Another example of the wrong foot Ridley's gotten off to, is JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Steelers. Smith-Schuster, 21, will be the same age that Ridley is right now at 23 on 2018 Draft night when his rookie contract expires. Pittsburgh is receiving high caliber production for a still-growing player, at a cheaper rate for longer, and overall possesses the chance to maintain said player for longer while he's still effective. While Ridley must be a stud immediately, no question, to at least try to match that bar.
Back in relation to Cooper, the struggles he's gone through in his NFL career from inconsistent hands, adjusting to navigating complex coverages, to confidence, are all things that young players go through in contrasting manners. Not that it's guaranteed, but Ridley will likely go through at least one of these mentioned trials to acclimate as a pro. If the Bears give him the opportunity to learn under their watch, it'll come at the expense of essentially at least two lost seasons in comparison to other receivers coming in.
Needless to say, taking a prospect in conjunction with positional value, the best players available, and age - which is often ignored - matters. When you're making a top-10 pick on a piece that will have to transform your organizational outlook, that's magnified to an utmost extreme.
If you're Pace and the Bears, it behooves you to pick a guy with your all-important first rounder that plays a core position, is generally one of the top talents available where you sit, and has the chance to make the most impact over as much time as possible. Not limited to age, Ridley doesn't check off either of the other two boxes.
In the past four years, Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman, Phillip Dorsett, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin have all been drafted in the first round.
Of that extensive group, Dorsett, Watkins, Cooks, and Benjamin are already on other teams through trades. Realistically, you could only count Beckham Jr., Evans, and Cooks as having lived up to their original draft position. Meanwhile receivers such as Treadwell, White, Perriman, and Benjamin are firmly trending towards bust territory in layman's terms. Everyone else, the judgment is up in the air, or they've settled as "solid". This adds up to most first round targets in recent memory becoming sunk costs, of which Ridley certainly won't be immune to failure at No. 8.
From that perspective, legitimate special to solid pass catchers such as Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Devin Funchess, Marqise Lee, Smith-Schuster, and Cooper Kupp have all been unearthed in the second round and on in these same drafts. Once again, showing off the value that receiver presents in later rounds as opposed to investing a high risk wasted selection in the first round.
Best player available
The shortest argument against Ridley here is that he probably won't be the best player available according to the traditional definition when the Bears are on the clock in April. If there's a possibility of Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds, Ridley's Alabama teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick, or Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson being available, all are dramatically higher rated players solely on talent than Ridley by many.
That's not even taking into account the fact that Edmunds (a defensive stud) Fitzpatrick (a star defensive back), and Nelson (a generational offensive lineman), fit the Bears' needs more suitably at more important positions as opposed to Ridley at a non-essential spot.
Fountain of youth
We come full circe as to why Ridley wouldn't be an intelligent venture from the Bears' vantage perch aside from juxtaposing him next to other current receivers.
When you select any player with a first-round pick, particularly in the top-10, you want to squeeze as much viability out of that player as possible. NFL teams have to strive for getting as much as production at the cheapest price before a guy hits his prime and begins to wear down.
The longer you have to develop someone in your schemes and culture along a typical foundational track, the better chance you have of staying relevant in the postseason picture year after year. The better look you have of not having to fill a need earlier than you have to because of an older player faltering.
And just because someone like Ridley is older, doesn't automatically mean they're ready for more of an immediate impact in the NFL. It means they're older. That's it. Everyone more or less enters the same level playing field in football on the same learning curve unless you're a generational talent. Ridley is not a generational talent.
What happens then, when Ridley struggles or doesn't progress in the ideal fashion from the outset? That could happen because he isn't ready, suffers health issues, whatever comes to mind. Sure, he may yet eventually reach his ceiling as a No. 1 receiver, but you've already a lost few years in that process of him living up to his draft status. He's already on his second contract by the time he's 28 or 29 and possibly losing a step, while most regularly aged players get that deal around 26 or 27.
The Bears should know this from first-hand experience with Leonard Floyd, who will be 26 in September after being drafted as a 23-year-old in 2016. He's Pace's primary drafted defensive foundational piece, but he's also missed 10 games in two seasons due to injury (not entirely his fault). That's thrown off Floyd's progress to say the least.
Does Floyd still have a bright future in Chicago? Most signs would point to yes, barring health concerns. He's on that trajectory. Can you definitively say right now that you trust him as a reliable player living up to his original No. 9 overall selection? No. Not by a long shot.
Or think Kyle Long, who will be 30 by next December after being drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 2013 Draft. Long was 23 when Chicago invested in him as a guard and that's mostly paid off not taking into account injury issues in the past couple seasons. A three-time Pro Bowler and 2014 Second-Team All-Pro, Long has mostly transcended past these age concerns even while not ideally receiving his second contract at 27. He's proven to be an exception to the rule.
Two lessons from both sides of the age coin that haven't necessarily failed, but instead put the Bears in different intriguing positions at outside linebacker and guard in the present.
If you're the Bears and you're going to take an older player such as Ridley with a precious first-round pick, you better be positive that he is as special as you believe him to be through every meticulous evaluation. This goes for any similarly aged player at any position. He better be the type that elevates your franchise from his first step inside of Halas Hall.
With other positional value and best player available principles in mind, that's a dangerously precarious age gamble to consider.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.