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The Bears’ 2016 Draft Class: Midterms

As has become a tradition, it’s time to second-guess Ryan Pace’s draft prowess at the midpoint.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

While it might not be the middle of the season, it is the middle of the semester at a number of colleges right now, so it only makes sense to use the week coming off the bye to grade the 2016 Bears draft class. Players drafted in 2016 have now played a little over two full seasons, and with the length of contracts under the new CBA, they are basically at the midterm point. More than that, with NFL careers averaging under three years, these are players who are actually prime for assessment.

Just to be thorough, I will be grading this draft in two ways. First, I will be giving a holistic grade for the entire class compared to its peer classes. Then, I will grade the individual selections.

The Class as a Whole

First, it’s worth getting some basic metrics out of the way in order to frame this class. Conventional wisdom holds that a team should find two to three starters per draft class, plus a role-player or two to bring the total up to five actual contributors. For the 2016 class, that holds up, because 67 players have been designated as primary starters for at least two years--perfectly consistent with two starters per team for the class. Then, when we consider that 173 players have appeared in at least 16 games, and that seems like five total contributors per team.

The Bears should have done better than that, though, at least a little, because they had a better draft position than average. In fact, the Bears drafted in the 11th position in 2016, but they did not have any compensatory picks. Add in trades and moves and such, and Ryan Pace held 3.5% of the total draft capital in 2016, per the Johnson chart. That’s how much buying power he had relative to the rest of the league (for those who don’t love math, that’s more than 1/32 of the available draft capital but it is not a major bump).

Meanwhile, Pro Football Reference’s Career Average Value metric rates the Bears as having found 4.4% of all of the available CAV in the 2016 draft. How significant of a bump is that 0.9%? Put it this way--if Cody Whitehair had been a bust and the Bears had netted functionally no value from him, then Pace would have found his actual ‘fair’ share in the 2016 draft. This was a good class relative to the crowd.

The Starters: Only 47 of the players drafted in 2016 have started at least 24 games, but that includes Cody Whitehair (36), Jordan Howard (33), and Leonard Floyd (26). Given my own impressions of some of the injury problems this class has faced, I was surprised to see how ‘available’ Pace’s 2016 picks really have been. While it’s a crude metric, at best, it’s interesting that teams have really only averaged 1½ players starting at least 1½ seasons’ worth of games since the draft, and the Bears have doubled that. This isn’t simply starting for a bad team, either, because Howard and Floyd have clearly been impact players.

I realize that some people might be skeptical of designating Floyd as an impact player, but only 22 of the players drafted have managed at least five sacks, including Leonard Floyd (fifth, at 11.5). Two of those ahead of him were off the board by the time Floyd was drafted. He might not have been the best available player--more on that later--but he has been a solid contributor who makes an impact.

Meanwhile, eight of these players have rushed for at least five touchdowns, including Jordan Howard (second at 16). 15 players drafted in 2016 have earned Pro Bowl honors, at least as an alternate (including Jordan Howard). Howard is also second in rushing yards and (a bit surprising) sixteenth in receiving yards. That places him ahead of the Vikings’ first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell, among others (admittedly that says more about Treadwell in this case).

It’s harder to measure an interior o-lineman’s impact. Whitehair has had some troubles with snaps, and the overall performance of the Bears’ offensive line has dropped steadily (they were Top 10 in run-blocking and pass-protection, per Football Outsiders, in 2016; they have been below the median in both categories ever since). On the other hand, Whitehair has individually graded out well.

The Contributors: Nick Kwiatkoski, Jonathan Bullard, and the value pack of defensive backs (DeAndre Houston-Carson, Deon Bush, and Deiondre’ Hall) wrap up the actual value found by Pace in 2016. Braverman was a seventh-rounder who did seventh-rounder things, and while it’s tough to make a case that Houston-Carson or Hall have really had an impact (Bush has at least started in 6 games and appeared in 28), it’s equally hard to dismiss the contributions of Kwiatkoski or Bullard.

So, from a purely ‘metric’ perspective, Pace found three starters and three contributors, beating the average level of contribution found in the draft by about one starter. It’s actually a little better than this, because Houston-Carson also makes the 16-game cutoff for games played used to determine the average above.

This is a good class, really hindered only by the fact that there is only a single Pro Bowl nod and no All-Pros. It’s above average by any reasonable measure, but it’s hard to say that it is in the top 10% when looking at the Titans (two 1st-Team All Pros), the Rams (a Pro Bowl QB and WR), or the Jaguars (an All-Pro corner in Ramsey and a true play-making pass-rusher in Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakouie).

Verdict: B+ or A-

Now, what about the players?

Individual Grades

Each selection will be graded in three categories: First, did the team select a player who represented a need, a value position, or who in some other way represented a good investment of draft capital? Second, did the team select a player who, by all indication, should have been taken in that spot? Third, did it work out on-field?

Leonard Floyd. Outside linebacker was definitely a position of need, and moving up a spot or two to get a good one is a reasonable move (even if it’s one I’m not personally fond of). Floyd was projected to have a lot of potential, so it’s tough to argue that he was somehow over-drafted. The real question comes down to how it has worked out on the field.

Floyd takes a lot of heat, and I guess it makes sense if fans look at his body of work compared to an idealized selection like a Von Miller or a Khalil Mack. However, as was mentioned above, even purely as a pass-rusher, Floyd is one of the five players coming out of the 2016 draft with double-digit sacks at the moment. The only two ahead of Floyd in sacks that were drafted after him are Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. To date, Judon has 12.5 sacks, 33 quarterback hits, and 24 tackles for a loss. As a complete player, he also has 90 combined tackles, 7 pass deflections and two forced fumbles, but no scores of any kind. Ngakoue, on the other hand, has been a terror. He has 22 sacks, 43 quarterback hits, and 19 tackles for a loss. As a complete player, he has 58 tackles, 2 pass deflections with an interception, an amazing 10 forced fumbles, a touchdown; Ngakoue was projected by many as an outside linebacker--eve if he was given a mid-round grade.

Floyd, meanwhile, has 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 15 tackles for a loss. He needs to make up some ground in the complete player category, but he actually slots in between Judon and Ngakoue with 75 tackles, 6 pass deflections, a forced fumble, and a touchdown. While there are things Floyd does that do not show up on a stat sheet, the same is also true of Judon and Ngakoue.

What does this mean? It means that drafting an outside linebacker was a solid move (this is an A), and that based on the information that was likely available to him, Pace made a strong choice in picking him, even if that meant trading up (A-). However, while Floyd has played well, he was not a steal by any stretch of the imagination. He was not the top player available, but that’s an unreasonably high burden for a draft pick to pass. I’m calling this part a B, because it’s obvious that Floyd has been a starter more than a star, but he has not been anything less than a solid starter.

Verdict: B

Cody Whitehair: Interior offensive line is usually a decent value in the later rounds, so taking Whitehair as the first lineman off the boards in the second round might have been a little high, but it’s worth pointing out that Whitehair actually carried a first-round grade according to some scouts and that investing in the line before there’s a need (instead of after a need develops) is pretty sound. Pace also got the payer he wanted while trading down. That makes this a solid B for the concept of value and another B for how much sense it made to take him there. Meanwhile, Whitehair has played in as many games as any interior lineman taken in 2016, save Joe Thuney--who beats him by 1 (New England hasn’t had their bye yet in 2018). He has played well enough, despite his problems, to be considered a positive addition as a starter.

Verdict: B

Jonathan Bullard: Looking back, it’s hard to remember that Bullard was thought of as a player who might slip into the second round, but who had the potential to be a steal if he did. Pace took him in the third round, and in doing so he added depth to the defensive line in the middle of the draft. That’s a solid play, and Bullard certainly seemed like a good risk to take. These are both B+ moves, at least if they work out. On the field, it’s been less reassuring, because he is just a contributor and a depth player so far. While 21 of 35 third-round players from his draft class have spent at least a season as as starter, his five games started places him 25th overall. He has appeared in a lot of games, but only as a rotational piece. He’s been about average or a little less, at least once we remember that we gave Pace credit for the value of taking him. Call this a C or C- for the on-field delivery.

Verdict: B-/C+

The Fourth-rounders: Kwiatkoski, Hall, and Bush all filled positions of need at a place in the draft that value is often found. Those are solid, B-level moves at least. As for whether or not they were moves that made sense based on who else was available, a lot of the evaluation comes down to the options Pace had in front of him. Higbee and Killebrew were off the board before Pace drafted, but the massive elephant in the room is Dak Prescott. However, Pace wasn’t alone in missing on Prescott. Likewise, while the Bears passed on Tyreek Hill any number of times, so did other teams, and it’s arguable that Hill would not have been Hill in the Fox/Loggains offense. However, the amazing thing is that with those quibbles aside, Pace did very well.

Verdict: B/B-

Jordan Howard: Late rounds is a great place to get a running back, and it’s an even better place to get a back with a third-round grade who fell for some reason. There’s really not a lot of point in recapping anything else, except to say that even if he never plays outside of his first contract for Chicago, converting a fifth-round pick in to over 3000 yards from scrimmage across less than 2½ seasons (with 17 touchdowns thrown in) is an A+ move.

Verdict: A+

Houston-Carson and Braverman: Anyone who expects a lot out of sixth- and seventh-rounders has unrealistic views of the draft. Getting something here is worthy of praise, but getting a bit player and a guy who shows promise without delivering is basically the nature of the last few rounds of the draft. I firmly believe that the last two rounds of the draft amount to opportunities for extra credit. Pace doesn’t earn anything here, but he also doesn’t lose anything.

Total Grade: Without weighting the picks in any way, that works out to an 86% or so for the 2016 draft class. That’s a solid B trending toward a B+. That’s a little lower than I gave the whole draft class, but part of that is because this draft class works better as a whole than it does as a collection of individual players. 2016 is really notable because it lacks outright misses, and for a team that needed to be rebuilt, that’s a lot better than a single star and a lot of busts.