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Bears’ first round picks have played in the fewest games in the NFL since 2015

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When first-round picks don’t play, teams lose one of the only advantages they gain from prior struggles. Some teams have missed out more than others across the last few years.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2015, when Ryan Pace took over, the Chicago Bears have struggled. A 14-34 record is far from good, and not everything can be John Fox’s fault. Nor can everything be blamed on prior general manager Phil Emery. Struggling teams have certainly rebounded faster. In that same time, for example, the Atlanta Falcons (6 wins in 2014 to the Bears’ 5 wins) have made the playoffs twice—including making a run to the Super Bowl—to go 29-19. Obviously, any number of factors separate these teams.

These two teams had very different situations, obviously. For example, the Falcons were set at quarterback; the Bears were shackled to the potential of future reality star Jay Cutler. However, there were similarities. Both teams also cycled their head coaches, for example. Bears fans also might dwell on one other fact, of course, and that is how the 2015 draft went.

In 2015, the Bears drafted Kevin White, who has played in exactly 5 professional football games. Only one spot later, the Falcons drafted Vic Beasley, who has racked up 46 games and 24.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, and an interception. That difference is symbolic of a bigger problem facing the Bears, and it’s one that reasonable fans might admit is at least a little out of Ryan Pace’s control—first rounders riding the bench (or the medical cart) instead of seeing the field. Kevin White’s injuries have not only held back his own development, they represent the Bears seeing a massive investment go unrewarded.

Still, that’s only fair. Lots of teams suffer injuries to players, right?

However true that is, it’s rough to see a first-round pick miss playing time. It’s rougher to see it happen back-to-back, because while Kevin White has certainly failed to take the field, despite being the #7 pick overall (he has played in only 5 games out of a potential 48), Leonard Floyd has also suffered a pair of unrelated injuries to miss ten games on his own (playing in 22 games out of 32 possible). Add in the four games that Mitchell Trubisky spent on the bench (either getting up to NFL speed or being held out by conservative coach John Fox—take your pick), and Ryan Pace has had his first round draft picks play in only 39 of 96 available games.

Brutal.

Comparing Misfortunes

How brutal? Well, twenty-one NFL teams have had exactly one first-round pick from 2015 to 2017 (essentially giving them parallel situations to the Chicago Bears), and the average (mean) is 75 “games appearances” across the last three seasons; the median is the 81 game appearances enjoyed by the Chargers. The Bears saw half of that amount of playing time. Here is how those 21 teams stack up:

First Rounder Playing Time

Team Available Games Game Appearances % Appeared
Team Available Games Game Appearances % Appeared
Chicago 96 39 40.60%
Cincinnati 96 51 53.10%
Arizona 96 51 53.10%
Denver 96 59 61.50%
Houston 96 65 67.70%
Washington 96 69 71.90%
Baltimore 96 70 72.90%
Indianapolis 96 71 74.00%
[Raiders] 96 75 78.10%
Jacksonville 96 77 80.20%
[Chargers] 96 81 84.40%
Carolina 96 82 85.40%
Tampa Bay 96 84 87.50%
Detroit 96 85 88.50%
Pittsburgh 96 85 88.50%
[Giants] 96 86 89.60%
Miami 96 88 91.70%
Philadelphia 96 88 91.70%
Dallas 96 89 92.70%
Atlanta 96 92 95.80%
[Jets] 96 92 95.80%
Average 96 75.19 78.32%

Clearly, simply having first-round picks play is not a cure-all. The New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons have had very different recent histories. Still, it’s also true that the Dallas Cowboys (2 winning seasons) and the Philadelphia Eagles (I hear they did okay last year) have had pretty good showings of late, at least compared to the Bears. The Miami Dolphins even enjoyed a brief surge, albeit one that was tripped up by injuries to a former first-round pick.

It is also true, however, that not getting playing time out of first-round picks seems to be a bad sign. While the Bears are in a special cellar of their own, fans of the Bengals, Cardinals, and Broncos also have reason to worry about what might have been (all three of those teams last saw the playoffs in 2015).

Missing Talent

The interesting thing about first-round picks missing playing time is that from the perspective of a team’s performance, the reason for the missing time does not necessarily matter. For example, Paxton Lynch has only played in 5 of 32 possible games. Giving him extra playing time is not likely to have turned around the Broncos’ fortunes for the last couple of seasons, but the fact that the 26th pick in the 2016 draft has not played indicates something discouraging for the franchise.

Put simply, either he should have been on the field more, or his presence on the field would not have helped Denver win more games. Neither is encouraging from a first-round pick. Likewise, the myriad reasons John Ross appeared in only three games for the Bengals are worth exploring to fans of Cincinnati. However, if he was not worth playing during the games when he was a healthy scratch, it’s worth asking if he was worth the 9th pick in the draft.

Ultimately, draft picks are one of the strongest “leveling” tools in a league built around the concept of parity. Teams that play poorly get the best chance at finding talent to improve their fortunes, and teams that play well have to wait. Even though study after study has found that the draft is far from certain, most teams get some measure of talent from their first-round draft picks (even if those picks later end up being upstaged by players taken later). Failing to get even modest value out of early picks keeps the field tilted against the teams that are hurt by poor selections, poor health, or poor luck.

The Bears have suffered from, at least, two of the prior three. If they are going to turn things around, it will be (at least in part) because their first-round investments finally start making things happen on the field.