By most reasonable measures, the 2021 NFL Draft seems to have been a success for the Chicago Bears. None of it really matters until they win games on a football field, of course, but Chicago came away from the draft with two prospects widely considered to be Top 25 picks, and along the way they seemed to have overcome what feels like a decades-long aversion to investing heavily in the offensive line and the quarterback at the same time.
This is where it’s customary to offer qualifiers. Fields is simply a potential franchise quarterback. It’s possible that Jenkins will turn into a 10-year tackle. These are legitimate qualifiers. However, to be a little pedantic, while finding a potential star quarterback and reinventing the line might not be sufficient cause to have the Bears turn around the franchise, they were essential conditions that needed to be met. If Chicago wins a playoff game for the first time in what feels like forever, this draft will be a major contributing factor.
If there is any complaint to be made about the draft itself, it is that Ryan Pace essentially put most of his resources into exactly two prospects—Fields and Jenkins. If they don’t work out, it’s obviously a failed draft. Even if they do work out, though, there’s another problem, and it’s a problem that is completely the result of prior moves made by Ryan Pace. First, though, it’s time to be realistic about expectations.
If Fields and Jenkins both work out as starters, even if they aren’t perennial Pro Bowlers, this is probably still an okay draft. Is okay good enough? Is great good enough? That depends on what the rest of the team looks like.
As a thought exercise, let’s assume Fields and Jenkins become reliable starters. Where do other starts at other positions come from? Where do the other “games played” come from? Who else takes the other snaps in other roles? They might have to come from free agents, which would both decrease the number of compensatory picks a team is eligible for and tighten the team’s cap situation to sign and to retain quality players. Besides a very valid point this raises with how the compensatory pick system almost ends up creating a built-in haves/have-nots dichotomy, failing to find role-players in a draft increases the stakes for every other aspect of the team-building process. Without a certain number of draft successes, free agents have to work out, undrafted free agents have to step up, and veterans have to avoid injury.
Teams build through the draft. In fact, from the start of 2012 (the first draft under the new CBA) through 2018 (the last draft that leaves us at least three seasons to evaluate outcomes), there were 1525 players taken in the draft. Nearly 1200 of those players stayed active in the NFL for at least three years. Roughly a third of all drafted players (554) have gone on to have at least two years in the NFL as the primary starters at their positions, and just under a thousand draftees have appeared in at least 30 games (966). Ignoring all irregularities from a good or bad draft position, from trades, and from anything else, in any given year one team’s share of the haul from a draft should be five players (5.27) who make it at least three years, with at least four players (4.31) appearing in at least 30 games as role-players or better. Two of three of these players should be starters (2.47), while they should probably feature at least one guy who makes the Pro Bowl (but maybe as an alternate— 0.76).
This would mean that in order to keep pace with the league, from 2019-2021, the Chicago Bears need to come away with 15-16 names on a roster or better, 12 role-players or better, 7-8 true starters or better, and at least two pro bowlers.
Projecting 2019: For simplicity’s sake, count Khalil Mack as a starter selected in the 2019 draft. There are contract issues and cap complaints, but he certainly fulfills the roster spot. Riley Ridley, Duke Shelley, and David Montgomery (total 4) are the only possible names on a roster. Riley Ridley is not on a path to have appeared in at least 30 games, so at that means that Duke Shelley needs to work out for Chicago to reach 3 role-players or better. Besides Mack, Montgomery is the only starter. Mack obviously fulfills the Pro Bowler requirement, though.
For those of you keeping score, that means Chicago needs another 11-12 names, 9 role-players, 5-6 starters, and another Pro Bowler.
Projecting 2020: Lachavious Simmons has yet to record a snap and Arlington Hambright is barely much better. If Mooney, Vildor, Gipson, Johnson, and Kmet all work out, then the Bears added five names on a roster. They are likely to get four players (everyone but Gipson) to the 30-game mark. Kmet and Johnson are almost certain to be starters, but either Vildor or Mooney would have to turn into a starter for 2020 to be an improvement over 2019. Let’s hold that thought. Nobody from this draft is looking like a Pro Bowler so far. The most regular starter, Johnson, was so poor in coverage that he allowed a passer rating of 107.5 against him—essentially, he turned any quarterback into the midway point between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, last year.
Checking the boxscore, that means Chicago needs another 5-6 names, 5 role-players, 3-4 starters, and another Pro Bowler.
The 2021 Gamble: Let’s imagine for the moment that 2021 is exactly what most people believe it to be—a complete success at two of the four most important positions in football. Pretend that Fields ends up playing like a Top 12 quarterback level and that Jenkins ends up as a Pro Bowl tackle.
Where does that leave Chicago’s roster construction? The Bears need another 3 role-players and 1 or 2 more starters from the rest of this draft, at a minimum.
That is a lot of pressure to put on Larry Borom, Khalil Herbert, Dazz Newsome, Thomas Graham, and Khyiris Tonga. If we assume that Mooney or Newsome is going to be a role-player at wide-receiver and that Graham or Vildor is going to be a starter at cornerback, then the Bears still might be short a starter, and they are definitely short a role-player. If Borom steps up then they are breaking even. That is now asking for virtually every pick to work out. The reality is that one of those things won’t happen—or, worse, one of those things will happen because holes in the roster force it to happen, and a subpar player is forced to play because the team doesn’t have any other choice.
Is it terrible if the Bears are down one player or two? Probably not. Still, in a game of inches, these things add up.