I’ll start this off by confessing two things.
#1, I’m not sure I actually want the Bears to prioritize drafting Will Anderson. Depending on the trade offers we get, it’s possible we could get so much surplus value that trading down is the obvious move.
#2, I’m no good at scouting draft prospects, and I don’t watch college football. So I don’t really have a strong opinion on Will Anderson the player. If Will Anderson is too light to be an effective 4-3 DE, then maybe he’s not a good fit and we’d prefer Jalen Carter or the trade down.
My argument for potentially taking Will Anderson starts with two premises:
- Defensive end is one of the critical positions in the NFL, and having a star there is one of the best things you can have.
Let’s say those are both true. If so, I think history suggests that the Bears might regret not picking Will Anderson.
Edge is the most top-heavy position in the draft outside of QB
Edge rusher is a position where the top players come from the premium draft pick slots more so than any position outside of QB.
You can see that more than 25% of all the All Pro seasons over the past 15 years come from edge rushers drafted in the top 5, just below QB and well above every position outside of OT.
As you go through the rest of the first round, other positions like tackle, interior DL, and corner catch up or even surpass edge rusher in terms of how many of the elite seasons come from there. But in the top 5, nothing but QB is heavier than edge rusher.
The Bears shouldn’t be hoping to have very many more top 5 picks in the near future. If we do, something has likely gone very wrong. Assuming Ryan Poles is competent, we shouldn’t be sniffing a top 5 pick outside of a scenario where we trade with a team for a future 1 and get lucky. And if something does go wrong and we’re picking top 5 with our own pick, that probably means we’re in the market for a new QB, and that’s where the pick’s going.
So, this 2023 draft (hopefully) represents an opportunity that we won’t likely see again for a long time – the ability to add an elite prospect. Historically, less elite talent escapes the top 5 at the edge rusher position than any other non-QB position.
But it need to be the right edge prospect
The above argument isn’t good enough on its own. Every draft is different, and the quality of the elite players at any given position fluctuates. You can’t just say ‘take the best edge rusher with your top 5 pick’, because some years that’s not justified.
In this draft, Will Anderson is widely considered the best player and the favorite to be the first non-QB off the board.
I’ve listed out the top edge rushers drafted in the 10 year period of 2010 to 2019. I cut it off at 2019 so that the players drafted have at least 4 years to show what they can do.
In years where the first non-QB off the board was an edge, this group of edge rushers is pretty special.
Two of these guys are going to the HOF (Garrett and Miller). Nick Bosa’s career is still too early to say about HOF, but it’s not to early to say he’s an elite edge. Joey Bosa is maybe a half-tier below elite, but he’s still a perennial Pro Bowler.
Clowney was a bit disappointing as more of an above average starter rather than a star. And Fowler’s the big disappointment, though with an asterisk given that he tore his ACL before he ever played a snap in the NFL.
All in all, that’s as good a hit rate as you can get imagine even accounting for a collection of top 3 picks.
It’s worth saying that this kind of grouping only goes so far. Will Anderson isn’t as heralded as Myles Garrett, and I doubt he’ll run a 4.42 40-yard at the combine like Von Miller. But I don’t think he’s out of place in the group as a whole. Certainly, from a standpoint of production in college, he stacks up against any of those guys.
Assuming the draft consensus is right about Will Anderson, he's in a special group, and I want to draft a guy in that group.
Different positions have different draft value profiles
The final point I’m going to make is a slightly wider one. We’ve all seen various trade down options and plans for the Bears to maybe trade down into the 9-12 range and pick a WR. In these scenarios, we’re often picking an edge rusher in round 2.
I’m super high on the WR position as a crucial one in the NFL. But I’m not sure that you want to give up a chance to pick an elite edge rusher prospect in order to take an early-mid-1st round swing at WR.
I’m going to post the 2010-2019 edge rusher table again, and then post a similar one for WRs drafted over that same 10-year span, for comparison.
Now I’m going to make two lists – My opinion of the top 10-11 edges and WRs from these 10 draft classes. In each case, I’m separating them into two tiers, with the top tier representing the true career elite and the second tier representing great players who for various reasons I’d evaluate as a little lower.
In other words, these are the best players at each position coming from drafts from 2010-2019
You can certainly quibble with some of my choices. And there are players like AJ Brown, Brian Burns, Maxx Crosby or Deebo Samuel who could play themselves onto the lists or a higher tier in a couple of years.
But I don’t think those lists are drastically wrong, and swapping a few players doesn't really change the overall data. And what I focus on is the disparity in terms of where these players are coming from in the draft.
With the edge rusher list, every guy but Danielle Hunter is from the first round. In the elite tier, 4 out of 5 are top 5 picks. If you wanted a consistently great edge rusher from 2010 to 2019, you pretty much needed to find him in the 1st round, and preferably high.
With the WR list, it’s very different. 5 of the 11 come from the first round, so clearly the first round is the highest probability place to find an elite guy. But there are also three 2nd rounders on here, as well as three guys from lower rounds.
Building a Super Bowl contender
Let’s say we want both a true WR1 and an elite edge rusher in order to build a Super Bowl contender. If we have a top draft pick but don’t necessarily expect to be picking inside the top 10 again anytime soon, what makes the most sense to target, edge or WR?
All things being equal, I want to take my shot at edge. Sure, maybe next year you can find your TJ Watt or Chandler Jones in the mid-to-late first round. But if you’re not drafting an edge in R1, I don’t think you’re realistically in the running for an elite guy.
With WR, you can absolutely find guys in the mid to late 1st round, the 2nd round, or even a lottery ticket late rounder.
To be clear, I’m not saying starve the WR position of draft capital. But I’m suggesting we might want to spread it out more over multiple picks. While with edge rusher, I think it makes sense to concentrate the draft capital into a smaller number of better picks.
As an example, if you give me 500 points worth of draft capital (according to the Harvard chart), I’m spending all of it on the #1 pick at edge. But attacking WR with 500 points worth of draft capital, let me get #26, #46 and #63. Same draft capital allocation, very different means of allocation.
It comes down to the fact that I think NFL scouts are pretty good at scouting edges and pretty bad at scouting WRs. There’s just more uncertainty in the outcomes. Great players slip down more at WR than at edge.
So when we have the ability to get any player we want, it strikes me as inefficient in a sense to pass up on the elite edge prospect in order to pick a WR in the top 10-15 range and then an edge with a high 2nd rounder, as an example.
I’d rather grab the elite edge, and then address WR over this draft with a 2nd rounder and a 4th rounder and then maybe a mid 1st or another 2nd+ in 2024.
A couple of caveats to all this
Number one, if we can get so much excess draft capital by trading down past Will Anderson range with QB-needy teams, then it probably overrides all this. At a certain point, if we can end up with the equivalent of like an extra 1st and 2nd rounder worth of draft capital by trading down, we have to do it.
Number two, I think we may start to see the league draft WRs as a whole with higher draft picks for similar prospects who would have gone lower in years past. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that WR is a more attractive option to draft, but it kind of forces you to go along with it.
So, I’m not fully in the ‘draft Will Anderson or bust’ camp.
Anderson might be the guy, though
But I think it’s important to at least consider the differences in outcomes when drafting certain positions. And the fact that it’s a rare opportunity to be sitting at the top of the draft when the best player in the draft class is an edge rusher. Those players often turn out to be special guys. And it’s hard to find special edge rushers outside the first round, and not even all that easy to find them outside the top 5.
If some team is willing to give us a ridiculous haul because they fall in love with a QB and we end up missing out on Will Anderson, then OK, that's fine.
But if no team truly falls in love with a guy to where they're willing to give up insane surplus value, I wouldn't mind a scenario where we pry the #33 out of Houston to let them move up and take their QB and then we pick Anderson at #2.