March 31, 2009

Rough Draft: A Recent History of the Chicago Bears

The NFL Draft just might be my favorite time of the year. Sure, I'm normally a neurotic pessimist when it comes to my teams, but the draft is a time when anything is possible and optimism reigns. Of course, I usually end up horribly dejected by the end of Day 1. But as I scour the internet for each and every scouting report on the recent draftees, I begin to talk myself into the Bears' questionable selections. By the beginning of Day 2 I am once again bristling with hope. And the second day is even better than the first in a lot of ways,* because anything you get from those guys is gravy; while the first rounders can pretty much only disappoint -- if they perform well, they're just living up to their draft status -- the guys picked late can only end up being pleasant surprises. Day 2's a time when I can dream of a seventh-round selection like Marcus Monk becoming the next Marques Colston, before the reality of his actual skill level gets in the way.

* This is less true now that Day 1 is only the first two rounds (instead of three), which I don't like. I'd much rather they further shorten the time between picks in the first round because the three-round/four-round split distributed my research/excitement more equitably. Now I have significantly less to chew on after Day 1.

So I love the draft. And my team, the Chicago Bears, used to make it easy to love. The Bears were once one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. They drafted Hall-of-Famer Bulldog Turner with the seventh overall selection in 1940, and Turner was an AP All-Pro seven times; every other selection in the 22 rounds that year combined for one All-Pro season. Eight time All-Pro Bill George was a second-round pick. So was fellow Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The Bears selected Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the same draft, for crying out loud. Their 1983 class yielded an astonishing seven starters -- Jimbo Covert, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Dave Duerson, Tom Thayer, Richard Dent, and Mark Bortz -- on a team that won the Super Bowl just two years later. That's essentially 1/3 of a championship team's starting lineup from a single draft. Dent and Bortz enjoyed 15- and 12-year careers, respectively, after having been selected in the 8th round, which doesn't even exist anymore because the league shortened the draft to seven rounds in 1994.

From the '83 draft, however, there was nowhere to go but down, and that's exactly where the Bears went. It's been especially bad since 1987, when snot-nosed Halas family scion Mike McCaskey canned general manager Jerry Vanisi. Then the organization lost its final link to greatness when Mike Ditka was fired in 1993. Even though Ditka successor Dave Wannstedt didn't have much to do with the draft, his general air of crappiness pervaded every aspect of the franchise. So I'm going to begin my analysis with the draft of 1993, a full 10 years after the Bears best. It also serves as a subtle tribute to Bortz and Dent, as it was the last year of the eighth round pick.

After originally setting out to look at the Bears first round picks, and then later their first three selections in each successive year, I ultimately settled on their first four picks. This is because I believe that the first four picks are where a team is really looking to fill its needs -- despite the "best player available" rhetoric everyone spouts -- and they are also the source of a huge majority of a team's impact players.

Please look at the table below. (I suggest opening it in a new window/tab.) And really look at it, because the fucking thing took me forever. Anyway, all the players' names are preceded by their draft slot and followed by their position. Reading left to right, the first column (after the years) has the Bears selections. The second contains what I have deemed to be the best available combination of players at the same four positions using the picks the Bears had. Note that the positions do not have to be selected in the same order, just that the same four positions must be represented by the four picks. The third column is the best overall combination of players the Bears could have had with those picks, regardless of position, while the fourth contains other possibilities they could/should have considered. The fifth column -- headed 'I was prayin' for...' -- has the player I personally wanted that year,** while the last one contains any additional tidbits.

Right click and select open in new window/tab to see the full-sized version of this chart. Thanks to and for the data. Also, you would really feel sorry for me if you knew how much time I dedicated towards making this stupid chart. And I'm not talking about the research part either. I probably put six hours towards the physical construction of the damn thing.

** Ok, let me just say the "I was prayin' for..." column really does contain the players I actually wanted at the time. I know it seems a tad bit convenient at times, that the guy I wanted ended up being the best player they could have had. But in at least two of those cases -- Warren Sapp and Randy Moss -- the consensus was that they were exceptional football players, and they only dropped because of character (read: marijuana) issues, which you'll be shocked to hear don't bother me one iota. So yes, I honestly did want Sapp and Moss. I think a lot of fans did. Besides, I was also prayin' for Rickey Dudley and Mike Williams, so I'm not going to make anyone forget Bill Polian any time soon.

The chart brings to light a few things, one of which is that while the Bears did have some decent drafts, they've never really nailed it. A second is that they've done much better with defensive players than those on offense. (A collective gasp from my readers.) You don't say, Professor? Yes, and they've also done better with first rounders than fourth! (Although it's not quite the slam dunk you would think.) But onward and upward, let's break it own year-by-year. Please note that the grades are based more on how well the Bears maximized the talent available in the specific draft, rather than the quality of the players they actually chose; that is, getting two decent starters in a terrible draft rates higher than getting three in a great one.

1993: Curtis Conway was actually pretty effective for some time, but considering the quality of this draft -- and the trio of All-Pros taken consecutively behind him -- it was not a good pick. Not that my Cal contemporary Sean Dawkins would've been any better. Carl Sampson and Chris Gedney gave the Bears nothing, and while Todd Perry had some pretty good years, Will Shields is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, assuming they're still letting guards in. Grade: D-

1994: This class wasn't exactly great, but the entire draft was just as bad, with hardly any stars to be had. John Thierry did nothing but spawn horrible puns spun from his last name. My Thierry on John is that he sucks, for instance. Marcus Spears didn't make it to the Bears active roster until 1996, when he played nine games and then was let go. He did hang around the league for another eight years, mostly with Kansas City. Plus there's a second Marcus Spears currently in the league, and as a starting DE with eight sacks in five seasons, is carrying on the legacy of crappiness.

Jim Flanigan was clearly the stud here. He recorded 40.5 sacks in his six years as a starter for the Bears, an impressive total for a defensive tackle. He also was exceptionally durable, playing in every game during those six seasons.

Although I loved Raymont Harris' toughness and UltraBack persona, there were two high quality running backs (Dorsey Levens and Jamal Anderson) chosen after him. That and his complete inability to stay healthy make it difficult to call him a good choice. As for my pick Shante Carver, let's just say that I may have overrated the skills of Pac-10 players a tad during my Cal years. Grade: C+

1995: First off, I loved Napoleon Kaufman, yet another Pac-10 guy. He was the pre-Darren Sproles Darren Sproles. But instead of having Kaufman fall to the Bears -- not that they would've taken him -- they ended up with Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. Some thought this was a steal. It wasn't. He just didn't have enough speed to play in the NFL. As a guard.

And grabbing a punter with a second round pick? C'mon! Unless the guy can average 75 yards a kick with 14 second hang time, I'm not drafting a punter before the sixth round, even if he does have "HANGTIME" vanity plates, which Todd Sauerbrun did. Which is why I didn't in my draft re-creation, taking a guard (the position the Bears selected fifth) instead. It also doesn't help that Curtis freaking Martin was chosen after the Bears took Sauerbrun. Grade: F

1996: The Bears actually did a pretty good job here, in terms of getting long-time starters. Now 13 years in, Walt Harris and Bobby Engram are still starting in the league (when healthy) and Chris Villarrial started 148 games in his 11-year career. Even Paul Grasmanis played nine seasons. However, the Bears didn't get any stars and this draft was loaded with 'em. Not many drafts on this chard have a player even approaching the caliber of Marvin Harrison in the "Other possibilities" column. Grade: C

1997: Complete train wreck all the way around. First they wasted their 1st rounder on Rick Mirer, who had already proven he was a bust in Seattle. Granted, there weren't a whole lot of great QBs available -- Jake Plummer, who finished just shy of 30,000 career yards, is the only member of the '97 draft class to top 3,000 yard mark -- but no one forced them to spend their first rounder on the position. And Bears got nothing from other three guys, and Bob Sapp didn't even make the team.

And if you stray just a little bit from the positional choices simply by dropping the QB (and instead choosing what's probably the most important position on your defense) you could've gotten Cal two-sport star Tony Gonzalez, Corey Dillon, Jason Taylor, and Chris Dishman. Now that's a draft class. Grade: F-

1998: All the hype leading up to 1998's first round billed it as a five-player draft -- Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf (ha!), Andre Wadsworth (ditto), Randy Moss, and Charles Woodson -- and the Bears were picking fifth. Most people thought they would get Wadsworth, and I would've been happy with that. But I really was hoping Moss would fall to them. During his career at Marshall, ESPN had played a ton of his highlights and the guy was simply amazing. When the Cards took Wadsworth and Raiders Woodson, Moss was practically wearing a Bears uniform. But they ended up going with Curtis Enis.*** Making matters worse, Moss fell all the way to the Vikings at 21, meaning I would have to watch him humiliate the Bears twice a year.

*** The only upside was I spent most of his career saying "Curtis Enis hurt his penis" because I found it hilarious that his name rhymed with that phrase. At around this same time, my friend Pete would constantly crack, "Ow, that's my Dick Jauron." It was all very mature, really.

Tony Parrish and Olin Kreutz were both very good picks -- really, Lance Schulters and Matt Birk over them was a total toss-up, at least partially included for variety's sake -- but after losing out on Moss, who cares? Grade: C-

1999: Rex Tucker was the only one who gave the Bears anything. Cade McNown was terrible and apparently didn't bother to learn the playbook; Russell Davis was given up on way to early, and D'Wayne Bates was taken because scouting him at Northwestern was much cheaper than booking a flight out of state.

The Bears were originally on the board at seven. The early projections had them getting Chicago kid Donovan McNabb, and I was ecstatic -- I love me them two-sport stars. Of course, once McNabb worked out and player personnel guys saw his physical gifts in person, he shot up the board for the right to be booed by Eagles fans.

So the Bears ended up trading down from seven, passing on Daunte Culpepper in the process to take McNown. Making matters worse, the Redskins used the Bears' pick on some cornerback named Champ Bailey. Let's just say that history has not exactly been kind to that trade. Grade: Z-

2000: Finally something good happens. Much as I liked his name, I actually wasn't crazy about drafting Brian Urlacher when it happened; the highlight package ESPN showed during their draft coverage wasn't impressive, and Urlacher looked like he hit too high. Plus, unlike Deltha O'Neal, he wasn't from Cal. Obviously, Urlacher ended up being better than I could have ever dreamed. He's slowed down quite a bit recently, but before that he was the best sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker I'd ever seen. Sure, he never learned to shed blocks, but you flat-out could not run laterally on the guy.

Urlacher is the first guy to appear in red on my chart, which just means that he was the best possible player the Bears could have gotten at that spot. And Mike Brown very easily could've garnered some red ink as well, but I went with Deon Grant because of Brown's eternal injury woes. That's two top-quality starters from a draft that wasn't all that good. Grade: A

2001: And back to the pit we go. David Terrell was a receiver who couldn't catch, but boy did he look good not doing it. What's particularly egregious is that 2001 was an unbelievable draft for receivers -- Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Chad Johnson, Chris Chambers, Steve Smith, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (among others) all were picked after Terrell. In fact, the Bears were the first team to choose a receiver, and they somehow ended up with the worst one.

While Anthony Thomas had a good rookie season and briefly captured the city's imagination courtesy of his cool moniker, current GM Jerry Angelo was right: the A-Train was not a "special back." Plus, taking guys from the same school (in this case Michigan) with your first two picks just reeks of scouting laziness to me.

Mike Gandy is the starting left tackle on the current NFC champs -- and the guy James Harrison pantsed repeatedly in the Super Bowl -- but the Bears never seemed to like him much, and Karon Riley's Bears career lasted all of five games.

In assembling the "Best" teams here, I did allow myself to make a trade, moving up from 103 to 99 to select Rudi Johnson, in part because it made my "same positions" team so glaringly superior to the Bears selections that I'd thoroughly deride former player personnel director Mark Hatley if he hadn't passed nearly five years ago, presumably from this-terrible-draft-related causes. Besides, in the real NFL teams are constantly trading up for guys their targeting, so I should be able to one measly time, right? Right? Oh, fuck you.
Grade: F+

2002: In a lousy draft with very little depth, the Bears did about as well as could be expected. Marc Colombo is a starter for the Cowboys, but had 62 major injuries in his three-plus seasons in Chicago. He was like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior rolled into one; in fact, I think that's approximately how big he is too. Just an enormous human being.

The Dwight Freeney thing was a complete pipe dream, once again fueled by the experts early projections. Freeney rocketed up draft boards once people realized just how quick he is. He would've looked great in a Bears uniform, although I have to admit Alex Brown has given them excellent value as a fourth-rounder . But still, he's no Dwight Freeney. Grade: B-

2003: Like Freeney before him, Terrell Suggs was a serious object of my obsession. He had been an absolute force of nature at Arizona State with 24 sacks in his final season alone, and the Bears began the draft with the #4 pick. They ended up flipping the pick to the Jets for a pair of firsts, missing out on Suggs and perennial Pro Bowler Kevin Williams in the process. Instead they got Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman. Draft savvy, thy name is not Jerry Angelo. Haynes started four games in his career, and I probably don't have to tell you about Grossman.^

^ However, I should add that in another overt act of scouting dereliction, the Bears somehow managed to select four players -- Grossman, S Todd Johnson, and DTs Ian Scott and the splendidly-named Tron LaFavor -- from the University of Florida. I mean, there is NO WAY all of those guys could have been the best player available at their draft slot. The odds against it are astronomical.

The Bears did, however, do very well with their next two picks, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, both of whom have basically been starters from the word go. They also got some contributors in the later rounds, but whiffing on two top-25 picks in a draft that yielded as many studs as this one really hurts. Grade: C

2004: If I just randomly gave you the first two columns, the actual picks and the "Best at same positions," I'm not sure you'd be able to discern which one's which. The Bears did very well here.

Though I liked Vince Wilfork's raw power over Tommie Harris explode-through-the-gap approach, that is strictly personal preference. Harris is definitely a better fit for Lovie Smith's defense, but with his seemingly endless stream of nagging injuries, I'd still take Wilfork. There is enough time for Harris to change my mind, however, as he's still just 25. And he is close to unblockable when healthy.

Tank Johnson was a great tag-team partner for Harris, and was also extremely quick for a big man. It's too bad his off-the-field issues appear to have completely derailed his career. He might've been better than Darnell Dockett. Durability issues led me to Jerricho Cotchery and Jason David over Bernard Berrian and Nathan Vasher, but if they're all on the field, I'd probably take the Bears' pair.
Grade: A-

2005: I was totally and completely furious when the Bears passed on can't miss WR Mike Williams in favor of Cedric Benson. Not only did they not have any viable receivers, they also had just signed running back Thomas Jones to a four-year deal just a season before. Plus, I thought Benson would suck. And his infamous crying on draft day -- when he basically called out all teams personnel for daring to question his past -- was so completely appalling and off-putting that I was wholly convinced he'd be Curtis Enis, Part II. I can't even write about it anymore. (Even though Williams was somehow even worse.)

Mark Bradley wasn't a disappointment when he wasn't injured, which wasn't often. In my opinion, the Bears gave up on him too soon and never should have brought back Marty Booker at the expense of Bradley. Adewale Ogunleye's been decent, but the Bears paid him huge money to be an impact player and he hasn't delivered. And while the jury's still largely out on Orton, you couldn't trade the Bears entire 2005 foursome for any of the "same positions" guys in the next column. Which generally is not a good thing. Grade: D-

2006: This draft probably got the worst reception, but it actually was one of Angelo's better efforts. With the entire fan base clamoring for more offense -- in 2005, the Bears had finished 26th in points scored and 29th in total offense, and first in points allowed and second in total defense -- Angelo arrogantly used his first five picks (including DE Mark Anderson, who recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in limited playing time) on defensive guys.

Devin Hester was obviously a revelation on special teams, and is now, sadly, the Bears best receiver. When Hester stumbled a bit in the return game last year, Danieal Manning stepped in and was immediately a force in his own right. He also is an underrated-though-misused defender. Dvoracek has looked pretty good when healthy, which, like fellow Sooners Tommie Harris and Mark Bradley, is basically never.^^

^^ It's worth noting that both Dvoracek and Bradley had major durability issues in college, so their problems staying on the field were at least somewhat foreseeable. Of course, as we would discover in 2008, injury red flags apparently mean nothing to Jerry Angelo.

As for my desire for DeAngelo Williams, you can ask anyone in my California fantasy league about that. It's a keeper league, and I drafted DeAngelo with my first round pick his rookie year. I drafted him again this season, then spent the rest of the year contemplating suicide because I released him after three unproductive weeks to open the season. By far my most regrettable fantasy decision ever, and believe me, I've had some doozies. Makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Unfortunately, I'm no better at running my fantasy teams than Angelo, John Paxson, and Jim Hendry are at operating their real teams. You know those guys. They're the incompetent boobs I'm always complaining about. Grade: B

Finally, the Bears actually take the guy that everybody -- including me -- wants. It's only two seasons in, but the early returns on Olsen are pretty good; while splitting time with Desmond Clark, he's caught 93 passes and scored 7 TDs in the two seasons.. He looks like he can be a top-10 tight end in the league for a number of years.

The rest of this draft, though, was downright terrible. In a rarity for a second round pick, Bazuin has yet to play a game in the NFL. Neither has Michael Okwo. And while Garrett Wolfe might have a future as a third-down back, in limited time he's averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, and last year did not record a single catch. That's just an awful ROI on three top-100 picks. Grade: C-

2008: The Bears got their whole offense in Matt Forte. Though he was undoubtedly productive, his yards per carry (3.9) worry me a little, and there were a ton of good RBs in this draft. Chris Williams gets an incomplete, as he missed most of the season because to a herniated disk. What's especially troubling isn't the injury itself, but that the Bears and Angelo apparently knew about it beforehand and drafted him anyway. Yeah, I guess left tackle is a low-impact position. It's like doing Tai Chi.

I really like Marcus Harrison. With limited snaps, he looks like the impact player the Bears have been looking for (see: Dvoracek, Dusty and Johnson, Tank) next to Tommie Harris. With just a year of data to work with, we don't really know if the Bears whiffed on any potential stars. But if Williams can stay healthy and be a competent left tackle, it's looking pretty good. Grade: B+

Cumulative Draft GPA: 1.7

And that's it. While the Bears rarely did well as they could have, the same is true for every single team in the NFL. No organization ever drafts perfectly, or even comes close. It needs to be kept in perspective that even when a team gets a 6th-round find, they passed on that player five times just like everybody else. In fact, the key is not to never miss, but to hit a home run just a little more frequently than the competition. So if you can serendipitously grab a Tom Brady every so often, you just might build a championship team.

Reduced to the most basic of terms, the Bears just haven't found enough impact players via the draft. Their 1993-2008 drafts produced four players -- Kreutz, Urlacher, Briggs, and Tommie Harris -- who have earned multiple Pro Bowl berths with the team; before looking at any data, I'm going to guess that their one-every-four-years rate isn't very good.

To put it in perspective, I selected four teams that my intuition -- as well as the results on the field -- told me were at least among the top drafters. Here is each team's number of multiple Pro Bowlers, counting only players who made more than one appearance while still with the team that drafted them.

Colts: 8 (Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Tarik Glenn, Marvin Harrison, and Marshall Faulk)

Eagles: 7 (Shawn Andrews, Lito Sheppard, Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, Tra Thomas, Jeremiah Trotter, and Brian Dawkins)

Pats: 8 (Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Tom Brady, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, and Drew Bledsoe)

Steelers: 7 (Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton, Joey Porter, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Jason Gildon, and Chad Brown)

For all practical purposes, they each average one every two years, meaning they hit a home run about twice as often as the Bears. When you are doing something only half as well as your opponents, you will not be a contender for long. Speaking of which, I figured I would look at the Detroit Lions -- assuming they had to be the worst drafters -- to see exactly where the Bears fall in the spectrum. Well, shocker of shockers, the Lions have just three multiple Pro Bowlers -- Shaun Rogers, Luther Ellis, and Stephen Boyd. Then, just to see if a number that low is a fluke, I checked out the other most inept franchise of recent years: the Oakland Raiders. Oakland^^^ also has drafted only three (Charles Woodson, Darrell Russell, and Shane Lechler, who's a punter. Albeit a damn good one.) So it would seem that the Bears are much closer to the bottom than the top, which has been duly reflected in the standings.

^^^ The Raiders also drafted five-time Pro Bowler La'Roi Glover, but released him after letting him play two games his rookie season. Good times.

And yet, I still cannot wait for April 25th and Day 1 of the 2009 NFL Draft. Sure, it'll probably just be more of the Bears' usual ham-handedness, but maybe, just maybe, this will be another 1983, and they'll catch lightning in the bottle again. And that's the best part of the draft: Despite all the research, you just never know.


  1. It's not really all that surprising that your wish picks would become the better picks. Your typical fan bases his/her preference pretty much solely on what he/she sees on the field and what he/she reads. GMs feel the need to bring in a whole host of extraneous criteria/intelligence to the decision-making process (40 times, character issues, Wonderlic, etc.) that mostly dilutes what's truly important--a players ability to produce. I think they rely on this partly because it helps them distance themselves from actual fans. Given their choice position, they feel the need to a foster a perception that they have a more specialized knowledge than ordinary fans, so they react by making counterintuitive decisions that they can then chalk up to "research." There's also so much money involved now that GMs feel the need to be able to cite all this other meaningless bullshit if indeed their picks fail. "In every test we put him through Robert Gallery exceeded our expectations."

  2. Well, you won't have to worry about the Bears blowing this year's first round pick, presuming this is true: