Phil Emery served as the Bears’ general manager for only three years, and his time is mostly remembered, justifiably, as a disaster. However, he actually drafted better than most fans might appreciate.
Consider this—of the nearly 800 players drafted in the NFL during the time that Emery was a GM, a bit less than a third of them were active through 2018 (252/763). By comparison, 7 of Emery’s 20 draft picks were still active through 2018. That’s just a bit more than a third, but it functionally suggests that Emery was about average for the league. Already, Emery is doing better than most of his critics might suggest, and it actually gets better for the man’s advocates (if any such creatures exist).
Only 91 of the 763 drafted players have been selected to Pro Bowls in some capacity. That’s about 12% of the total. Meanwhile, four of Emery’s picks were selected for the Pro Bowl; that’s 20%. The 2012, 2013, and 2014 drafts combined for 188 Pro Bowl selections. That’s good for 0.24 Pro Bowl selections per player taken. Phil Emery’s players combined for 6 Pro Bowl selections, good for 0.30 Pro Bowl selections per player taken. No matter how I work the numbers, Emery consistently found top-end talent more often than might be expected, and that’s impressive since his worst draft position was #14.
Likewise, Emery’s selections have had staying power, too. A bit more than a third of players taken during this time (258) have played in at least 64 games, or the equivalent of four full seasons. Meanwhile, 8 of Emery’s selections (40%) have made that same mark. Given that Emery himself did not last four seasons, this suggests that his players have stayed because of their talent, not because of favoritism. In short, Emery was a bit better than the average for the league when evaluated in terms of his ability to find top-end talent and players with the potential to stay in the league.
That seems wrong, but it holds true when the individual drafts are considered, as well.
2012 was bad. Shea McClellin, taken with the 19th pick overall, is tied for the 79th most valuable player in that draft per Pro Football Reference’s CAV metric. That seems generous, but it also suggests that he “should have” been a third-rounder, and that seems fair. However, that same draft also saw Alshon Jeffery get selected in the second round. Jeffery is 16th in CAV out of that draft, and he’s second in that draft class for overall receiving yards, first in receiving touchdowns, and (despite his various troubles staying on the field) in the top thirty when it comes to starts coming out of that class. Whatever his struggles might be, Jeffery was a solid pick, and Emery found him in his first year.
However, Jeffery is both the beginning and the end of Emery’s early successes. This seems to validate the idea that a GM’s first year can often be a source of frustration for the fans of a franchise.
2013 was impressive, though. Emery drafted three players in the top 64 when it comes to CAV, even though he was in the 20th draft position. This is the draft that saw the Bears take Kyle Long (13th in CAV) and Jordan Mills (17th in CAV) in the same draft, suggesting that Emery knew a thing or two about offensive linemen, if nothing else. While it’s fair to say that Jordan Mills had his limitations, it’s also fair to point out that he’s a fifth-round pick who has played for six full seasons in the NFL, making it as a designated starter for five of those seasons.
So who is the third? Jonathan Bostic with 46 starts comes in at 61st in terms of CAV, and while Bostic has had trouble sticking with a team, the fact is that only 34 players in his draft class have more seasons as a designated starter than Bostic. By the measure of finding players who could stick in the NFL as starters, Emery’s work in 2013 was ahead of the curve.
2014 was even more interesting. Bears fans should appreciate All-Pro Kyle Fuller’s selection in that draft at 14th overall, even if he is only 30th when it comes to CAV. If you want a more direct measure of football impact than Pro Football Reference’s franken-stat, just note that Kyle Fuller leads his draft class in interceptions, and even with his missing season (which hurts his rank in a lot of regards), he is still 60th in games played out of that draft class.
However, the true steal was Charles Leno. Taken with the 246th pick in the draft, Leno is a Grabowski in the best sense of the term. He did make the Pro Bowl recently, but more importantly he has played in 70 games and started 62 of them. He is technically one spot ahead of Fuller in CAV, and locking down a left tackle position with steady (if unspectacular) play for years suggests that he was a solid pick. In fact, whether you judge by Pro Bowls, starts, or CAV, Leno is the fourth-best tackle taken in 2014, despite being the eleventh selected.
An honorable mention should also go to Pat O’Donnell. Taken in the 6th round, he has demonstrated that sometimes it’s better to take a steady contributor on special teams, like a punter, than to take a player unlikely to make a roster. O’Donnell has more game appearances than any other 6th-rounder in his class, and he has at least been steady.
Phil Emery had significant limitations as a general manager. He deserved to be let go. However, he actually beat the averages when it came to the draft, and the Bears still count on three of his players to be starters (Long, Leno, and Fuller) while gaining solid contributions from another player (O’Donnell). Three more players (Jeffery, Mills, and Bostic) were still making substantive contributions to their teams.
Was Emery a good GM? Probably not. Did he make some surprisingly good draft picks? Upon further review, it really seems like he did. His selection of head coaches, on the other hand...