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Data Draft Thoughts: On Small Schools, Selecting Needs & Not Mortgaging Future Picks (Finally)

| April 29th, 2020

Here are some random musings about the Bears’ approach to the draft last weekend.


Mortgage Paid

This draft marked the first time since 2016 that Ryan Pace didn’t trade away a future day 1 or 2 pick.

Because of these frequent trades – and the  Khalil Mack deal – the Bears have had only two 1st round picks and 5 day 2 picks (out of 8 expected) over the last 4 drafts. That kind of continued deficit catches up to you eventually, and Pace has continually borrowed from the future to make up for it.

This year, Pace finally resisted the temptation to trade a high future pick for instant gratification. This is a good thing, because you always pay a steep interest rate on those kind of moves. The typical rule of thumb is that a pick 1 year away is worth a current pick 1 round lower, which we saw in action last weekend when Pace traded a 2021 4th round pick for a 2020 5th rounder and used it to select edge rusher Trevis Gipson. At least he only traded a future day 3 pick, which while less than ideal is still better than trading away a pick from the first 2 days of the draft. Next year the Bears will have close to their full complement of picks with which to work.


Positional Focus

Prior to the draft, I identified wide receiver, offensive line, cornerback, safety, and edge rusher as the Bears’ greatest 2020 needs, with tight end as a looming roster hole for 2021 and beyond. Given that every pick this weekend was spent on these positions, and all of them besides safety were addressed, it seems they mostly agreed with me.

I also did pre-draft work looking at where value was likely to be found in the draft, and concluded:

  • The best value at defensive back is early.
  • Tight end and interior offensive line have better value late.
  • Wide receiver has value throughout the draft.
  • Edge rusher is unlikely to provide value anywhere in the draft.

Well, Pace’s approach in regards to this wisdom was mixed. They did take a defensive back early, but also late. They took a wide receiver and waited on interior offensive line, but grabbed a tight end early and took an edge rusher. Let’s compare where their selections were drafted with where they ranked on the Athletic’s consensus big board. Note Hambright and Simmons did not appear on the 300 player big board.

As you can see, only Jaylon Johnson was taken at a lower draft slot than his consensus rank. Because of this, the Bears’ draft class ranks 28th in expected value compared to draft picks spent using the big board (this approach weights higher picks more heavily). The big board suggested there was value to be found late at wide receiver and on the interior offensive line, but the Bears’ picks didn’t reflect that, at least according to pre-draft rankings. Time will tell if the rankings end up predicting a poor class for the Bears or not.


WR/TE Fit

I’ve done work examining physical profiles of both wide receivers and tight ends who are usually targeted for this Andy Reid offensive scheme around the NFL. The Bears definitely looked to match that physical profile with their skill position picks in the draft.

  • 2nd round pick Cole Kmet hit 2/3 tight end thresholds, only coming in a little heavy to miss on the 3rd. The weight makes sense because he is expected to be more of a Y (in-line) than a U (slot) tight end, and those players need to be bigger to be able to block linebackers and defensive linemen. I’ll have more work in the future looking in detail at what we can expect to see Kmet’s role look like both for 2020 and beyond.
  • 5th round pick Darnell Mooney hit all three wide receiver thresholds, and he also provides a speed element the Bears are in desperate need of. He was one of the few late-round options who had that speed component, which is probably why Chicago reached on him (according to the Consensus big board) quite a bit.

Film Study

I’m not a film guy myself, but I know some smart people who are, so here’s a film breakdown of each pick courtesy of Windy City Gridiron’s lead draft analyst Jacob Infante. Each one is fairly simple and easy to digest, but I still learned something from all of them.


Think Young

2nd round picks Cole Kmet and Jaylon Johnson are both quite young. Each declared early for the draft after only 3 years in college, meaning each has turned 21 within the last 2 months. This matters because both players have more room to develop, and more time to spend in the NFL, than older rookies like Leonard Floyd, Anthony Miller, and Eddie Jackson, all of whom were 24 or older as rookies.

Pace has spent three other picks on early entries to the draft who were 21 in their rookie season: Eddie Goldman, James Daniels, and Roquan Smith. Goldman is entering his 6th year with the Bears and has been a reliable veteran for several seasons now, but is virtually the same age as Anthony Miller, who we still think of as growing and developing. We can say the same thing about WR Allen Robinson, who was drafted by Jacksonville as an early entrant and is now in his 7th season despite being only one year older than Miller.

Miller, Daniels, and Smith are all third year players who have played a lot and shown flashes of quality play in their first two seasons and thus are expected to enter their primes and be consistent, reliable players in 2020. The difference is that Daniels and Smith will do so at 23, while Miller will be 26. Thus their primes should last for another seven or so years, while Miller (and Eddie Jackson) might not get through their second contract.

The flip side of this is that young players can be very raw coming out of college, as we’ve seen with Daniels, Goldman, and Smith. All played a lot as rookies, and showed glimpses of playing well, but took a few years to physically and mentally adjust to the rigors of the NFL. I expect we’ll see the same from Johnson and Kmet. Kmet is also very raw technically, as he only started for one year at Notre Dame and never spent the off-season refining his skills with the football team because he was playing baseball.


Slipping Through the Cracks

A few years ago, I read a quote from an NFL GM after the draft talking about how they did a study and found that most day three picks and undrafted free agents who pan out have some reason that they slipped through the cracks, with the most common reasons being that they played at a small school, got hurt in their last year of college, or had a late position change they were still adjusting to. That idea stuck with me, and I’ve paid attention to that the last few drafts. Unfortunately, I can no longer find that quote, but I swear I read it somewhere, and I plan to do a study on it at some point this offseason to see if it pans out. (update: It was a quote from Joe Banner, formerly of the Browns and Eagles. Thanks to Twitter user ChicagoThund3r for helping me find it).

Anecdotally, it certainly seems to be the case with Ryan Pace’s history.

  • His best undrafted free agents were all from small schools: Roy Robertson-Harris went to UTEP, Bryce Callahan went to Rice, and Cam Meredith attended Illinois State.
  • Most of his day three picks who hit went to a small school (Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T; Jordan Howard, UAB; Bilal Nichols, Deleware), got hurt in their last year of college (Eddie Jackson), or switched positions (Adrian Amos, cornerback to safety).
  • The best day 3 picks from major conference schools who didn’t have a major injury or position change are fringe starters like Nick Kwiatkoski, Javon Wims, and Deon Bush.

Notice this isn’t a guarantee of success. The overwhelming majority of day three picks never amount to anything, and that is true for players from small schools too (see Daniel Braverman, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Deiondre’ Hall, Jordan Morgan, and Stephen Denmark). Still, I find it interesting that almost every single day three pick this year comes from a small school.

  • Trevis Gipson: Tulsa
  • Kindle Vildor: Georgia Southern
  • Darnell Mooney: Tulane
  • Lachavious Simmons: Tennessee State

The only exception is 7th round pick Arlington Hambright, who finished his college career at Colorado. However, he started at a junior college, then was at Oklahoma State, where he only played 6 games before getting hurt and transferring. Thus he was completely off NFL radars prior to his senior season, and the lack of a typical pre-draft process left him very under the radar despite solid play in 2019 and an impressive athletic profile.

Like with early entry draft picks, these players usually need some time before they truly pan out. Coaching at small schools is usually not as good as prospects would receive at a power 5 school, so players are typically less polished than their major conference counterparts.


Long-Term Approach

There’s no guarantee any of these draft picks pan out, but I think one consistent theme we see throughout this draft is that it was approached with more than 2020 in mind. For starters, Pace stopped trading future high picks away, leaving them an almost full draft pick cupboard for 2021. He then spent his high picks on young players and his day three picks on small school guys, all of whom should enter the NFL needing quite a bit of development.

Thus the instant impact from this draft class might be limited, though I expect we’ll see quite a bit of Jaylon Johnson, Cole Kmet, and Darnell Mooney in 2020. Draft classes are ultimately judged by where players end up though, so now the Bears are banking on their position coaches to develop these raw picks into quality NFL players.

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