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Fact Check: How Good is Ryan Pace at Drafting?

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Despite the fact that the record shows otherwise, some people continue to believe that Ryan Pace performs well at drafting players.

Tennessee Titans v Chicago Bears
One man is a three-time Pro Bowler. The other two are Ryan Pace and the quarterback he drafted.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

So, to be clear, this is not an article about whether or not Ryan Pace should be fired. It is simply an assessment of reality. Think of it this way—there is a depression in my yard that is caused by the fact that a tree was improperly removed before we bought the property. The stump and roots rotted out, and now I have a small crater where there should be even ground. Does this mean I’m going to move? No. It does mean I have to watch where I step when I mow the yard, however.

There is a persistent misconception that Ryan Pace is actually good at the part of his job known as “drafting football players.” However, there is very little evidence to support this myth once the results of his job performance are put in context. Addressing this myth, and providing the context necessary to dispel it, is the purpose of this article.

First, there are the basic claims made in Pace’s favor. These include the fact that from 2015-2018 he has drafted five players who made it to the Pro Bowl (Eddie Jackson, Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair, Tarik Cohen, and Mitchell Trubisky) and 13 players who have earned status as a starter for at least a year. That means that he is doing slightly better than 1 Pro Bowler and 3 starters per year.

Across this same time period, league-wide, 417 players have been drafted who made it at least one year as a starter. That averages out to 13 players per team. 87 players have earned at least one Pro Bowl distinction, for an average of 3 per team. So, Pace might have found an extra pair of Pro Bowlers. To be fair, another way of doing the math is to point out that the drafted players have 125 total Pro Bowl selections, and that Pace’s share of this would be roughly 4 players; however, Eddie Jackson has been selected twice, and so that again puts Pace ahead by two selections.

Let’s leave aside the “quality” of those Pro Bowl nods for the moment, because three of them are earned as part of alternate status and one is as a special teams player. Instead, let’s simply remember that this is how well Pace drafted when he had elite draft position for all four years. Given that “draft position” is how the league attempts to enforce parity, that draft position is a way more important asterisk than the fact that this sort of math counts Mitchell Trubisky as a Pro Bowler and Hroniss Grasu as a starter.

We need better methods of evaluation.

Career Approximate Value

One way of evaluating players is using Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Value metric. It’s not fantastic, but it does a decent job of considering a player’s appearances, games played in rotation and as a starter, and accolades earned. Likewise, because Ryan Pace himself (as well as GMs in general) continue to hew to the Johnson Trade Value chart, it’s a good way of evaluating exactly how much buying power Ryan Pace has been working with.

In 2015, Ryan Pace spent 2379 points of draft value, or roughly 3.9% the total value of all of the “draft points” available. That’s more than an even share of 1/32 (3.1%), because he had a favorable draft position and because he had worked some trades beforehand. However, he was a little reckless with his spending power. His first shopping trip thus far has earned only 74 points of CAV, or 2.6% of the 2835 CAV that draft has earned to date. That means that everything being equal, Ryan Pace under-achieved by almost exactly ⅓ of what he should have been able to earn. That degree of inefficiency is remarkable.

It gets better in 2016, and the one year he started outside of the top ten is his best performance. In his sophomore draft, Pace found 109 CAV by spending 2130 points of draft value. In other words, he spent 3.5% of the total draft value in order to come up with 4.1% of the value in the draft. He got ahead for the first and only time in his tenure with the Bears, and it’s basically because of Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard. Still, it counts.

Unfortunately, 2017 sees things fall back into a familiar pattern. Pace found 3.9% of the total value (78 points of CAV out of a total of of 1983). That seems awesome until you realize that he actually spent a whopping 5.3% of the buying power in the draft. That’s not as brutal as 2015, but 2015 was actually just that bad.

2018 saw Ryan Pace discover a meager 50 points of value in the draft, when that same draft to date has produced 1355 points of value (he found 3.7% of the available CAV). This was another year of drafting in a Top Ten position, though, and he had 4% of the available buying power. 2019 is worth waiting on, but it’s also worth pointing out that his entire draft class has only managed 8 starts to date, and that 17 players drafted after David Montgomery already have that beaten.

So, across four years, Pace uncovered roughly 3.5% of the value in the draft with 4.2% of the buying power. That’s not efficient. In only one of these four years did he actually “get ahead,” and in two of the years he woefully underachieved.

To be honest, CAV is not a perfect metric, and small variations might not seem like they matter. Still, it is worth noting that it is a consistent trend. Pace has typically had more than 600 extra points of purchasing power above the “average” GM. That’s the equivalent of a late first-round pick (#31 to be precise) every year he has drafted. With that extra buying power he has not found extra starters, but he has found two extra Pro Bowl alternates.

How about looking at his own standard?

Finding Playmakers

Players from the 2015 draft have earned a total of 33 Pro Bowl nods, and players Pace drafted at that time represent 0 of those. This is despite the fact that he aggressively trades up to make sure he gets “his guy” and so that the true impact players don’t get away from him.

That got me to thinking, in an apples-to-apples comparison, how many times did Pace actually draft one of the best options at the position he drafted? Not overall—it’s not fair to ding Pace for not drafting the best tight end available when that position is so well covered on the team, for example…

...sorry, cheap shot…

...moving on, I simply wanted to go through the twenty-seven picks that Pace made and give each of them a score. A “hit” indicates that Pace found one of the top two players available at that position when he drafted. A “push” indicates that there is legitimate room to argue whether or not Pace’s player was one of the best available. Finally, a “miss” indicates that Pace made a selection and passed on at least two players at the same position who pretty clearly turned out to be better.

2015 starts off with a miss (Kevin White) and a win (Eddie Goldman). Goldman was a solid choice, and the truth of the matter is that a number of defensive linemen were drafted after him who turned out to be true difference-makers. However, most of these are edge rushers like Danielle Hunter (taken 88th). Pace arguably missed on Grady Jarrett, who is a Pro Bowler. However, that still leaves Goldman as the second-best choice.

Anyone who needs me to explain why Hroniss Grasu is a miss should probably just go sit down for awhile and think about whether or not they understand the concept of “hit” and “miss,” and Ryan Pace took Jeremy Langford (1183 career yards from scrimmage) ahead of Pro Bowler Jay Ajayi (2965 career yards), Javorius Allen (2108 yards), and—this is funny—Mike Davis (1319 yards). Adrian Amos is a hit for reasons as obvious as the ones that made Grasu a miss, and there are four tackles drafted after Tayo Fabuluje who actually played in the NFL, so that’s another miss. The 2015 scorecard thus reads two hits and four misses.

The next year starts with a push. It’s hard to credit Floyd as the best edge rusher drafted when Yannick Ngakoue was available, but after that it gets really hard to argue what position Floyd really plays. Do we compare him to Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith? That seems wrong, even though he is frequently used in coverage situations. How about Matt Judon or Jordan Jenkins? The reality is that Floyd’s role is ill-defined but he’s pretty good at whatever it is.

Cody Whitehair is the only Pro Bowler taken on the interior O-line at or after his draft position, and he’s one of only two four-year starters. That’s a hit. Jonathan Bullard, on the other hand, is a rotational piece at best. Pick a stat, besides “jerseys owned with the name Bullard on them,” and there are five to ten guys taken after him who have outperformed him.

Nick Kwiatkoski was taken before Blake Martinez, which is a pity, but the argument can be made that Kwit has outplayed Elandon Roberts, certainly, so we’ll call this a push. Deon Bush has been outplayed by multiple defensive backs taken after him (miss), but sadly none of them are Deandre Houston-Carson (miss). Deiondre’ Hall knows the feeling (miss).

Jordan Howard has been, by far, the most successful running back taken at or after his draft position. That’s a hit. Meanwhile, Daniel Braverman is a wide receiver taken at #230 who has actually played in football games, and that makes him the second-most successful wide receiver available at the time he was drafted (Charone Peake, who has actually caught footballs in actual games beats him out for the #1 spot, despite being taken 11 spots later).

So, that’s three hits (Whitehair, Howard, and Braverman), two pushes (Floyd and Kwit), and four misses (Bullard and Defensive Back Value Pack).

2017 makes me want to go sit down for a bit and contemplate Hroniss Grasu, but I’ll get through it. Trubisky is not one of the best two quarterbacks available when he was taken, and Adam Shaheen is certainly not edging out George Kittle or Jonnu Smith. Eddie Jackson is absolutely a hit, though. Tarik Cohen? At running back (14 touchdowns and 2561 yards from scrimmage), he is behind both Chris Carson (19 TDs and 3077 yards from scrimmage) and Aaron Jones (32 touchdowns and 2962 yards from scrimmage). However, his return value is something, and he earned a Pro Bowl nod there, so we can call this a push. Pace needs the help on his record for this draft with Jordan Morgan hanging out at the end.

So, that’s a hit, a push, and three misses.

The final year under study? Pace hit it out of the park with Darius Leonard. I mean Tremaine Edmunds. No, wait, he drafted Roquan Smith. That’s a miss.

James Daniels played really well for a year, and he’s not demonstrably worse than any of the interior linemen taken after him, so unless he develops DMS this is going to remain a hit. Pace traded up to get Anthony Miller, who is more than 500 yards behind Michael Gallup (taken 30 spots later). Miller is one Pro Bowl behind DJ Chark (10 spots later). Marquez Valdes-Scantling has comparable yardage and games despite being taken three rounds later. Tre’Quan Smith has more touchdowns than any of the above, but that will come with having Drew Brees as his quarterback. Still, the second round is basically a hit (Daniels) and a push (Miller) at best.

When Joel Iyiegbuniwe records his tenth tackle it’s worth talking about him as something other than a miss, and so is Kylie Fitts no matter what position you put him at. In between those two is Bilal Nichols, who leads the defensive linemen available when he was taken in sacks and starts (hit). Javon Wims has been outplayed by Auden Tate, Richie James, Marcell Ateman, and Trey Quin even though all of those other players were available at #224 (miss).

That’s two hits (Daniels and Nichols), a push (Miller), and four misses.

That means that across four years, Ryan Pace has managed eight hits, four pushes, and fifteen misses. All of this, of course, leaves aside the question of the players at positions of need he has passed on—for example, he has taken only one offensive tackle but four interior linemen, or the fact that he still doesn’t have a clear win at wide receiver no matter how many times he swings at it.

Only eight of the twenty-seven times he squeezed the trigger did he actually find one of the best two players available at the position he was drafting.

Conclusions

Is it possible to make excuses for each of these cases? Certainly. However, Pace has had exceptional draft position. With that draft position, he has not found more starters than would be expected on average, and while he has managed a couple of extra Pro Bowl nods, the rate at which he has done so—and the rate at which he has secured impact players in general—does not match the draft capital he has had to invest.

Likewise, he doesn’t find star talent. He finds guys who are pretty good.

Don’t tell me there’s not a crater in my yard. I’m not saying I need to move, but I am saying that it’s insulting to my intelligence to pretend that there’s not a big pit there. Pace is not that good at drafting. He is (at best) mediocre, and a good argument can be made he’s actually bad at it.

Note: This article could not have been written without the incomparable Pro Football Reference.