One standard NFL bromide is that it takes 2-3 years to fully evaluate a draft.
“Fully,” yes. “Critically,” no.
It did not take 2-3 years to determine that Shea McClellin or Kyle Fuller couldn’t play like No. 1 picks, or 2-3 to see that Jordan Howard or Kyle Long could. General managers and coaches can be and have been gone before that time frame has played out on a year’s draft picks.
The Bears’ 2016 draft class is still in its formative stages. But six of the top seven picks started at least one game, albeit some because of injuries. GM Ryan Pace’s first class (2015) saw picks 2-5 start games, with No. 1 pick Kevin White out for the year with a stress fracture.
By comparison, only three of the top six picks in 2014 (Fuller, Will Sutton, Brock Vereen) made starts as rookies. Only Alshon Jeffery and Evan Rodriguez from the six-member 2012 draft class started any games their first year.
Obviously players are not fully developed in a season. But they typically have shown enough in a year for the team to know whether they need to re-draft the position or can focus elsewhere.
For example, safety Adrian Amos was something of a nugget found in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. But the Ryan Pace staff appeared very much to know what they had – and didn’t have – in a safety who started every game, intercepting zero passes and breaking up just 4 in his first year. So they drafted two safeties in the 2016 draft, including in the fourth round Deon Bush, who is now starting.
With that in mind, it is in fact not too soon to form analyses of the 2016 Bears draft, which becomes increasingly relevant given the now-tenuous situation facing the John Fox coaching regime after two dismal seasons irrespective of reasons.
Put another way, do the Bears really know what they got in this year’s draft? Or if they got anything at all?
For the most part, yes.
Looking just at the core of the class, cases in point:
No. 1: Leonard Floyd, LB
The outside linebacker was drafted to be a pass rusher. He has produced 7 sacks, one short of Brian Urlacher for third on the franchise’s rookie-record list, in playing time truncated at 12 games by injuries. Floyd’s health and durability may be discussion points, particularly with two late-season concussions and being inactive at Minnesota. But this is a defensive fixture who missed all of one game in three seasons against SEC competition.
“I believe I could’ve done more,” Floyd said. “I definitely believe I could’ve got more sacks or whatever. Just got to work hard this offseason so I can get more.”
No defense can have too many pass rushers but a pass-rushing outside linebacker is down the “needs” list because of Floyd.
“You'd prefer guys to be in there every game,” Fox said, “but I've seen enough of him to know he's got a bright, bright future.”
No. 2: Cody Whitehair, OL
As he did with Floyd, although in the other direction, Pace traded down (twice) in the second round with Whitehair as the target. What they got was perhaps their most consistent lineman of ’16 and a starter at either guard or center for years well beyond this one.
“Cody Whitehair's done a really good job stepping up and becoming a leader and playing really well at a high level,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “And he's going to get better and better and he's going to be a good player for the Bears for a long time.”
No. 3: Jonathan Bullard, DE
A disappointment if only because third-round picks are expected to contribute sooner rather than later. Also, defensive linemen can reveal earlier than many other position players whether they have the right stuff, and Bullard has been inactive for one game and a healthy scratch for another this year. Playing 273 snaps this year, Bullard has just 3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback pressures and 1 sack.
“I think Jon's got a lot of room to grow, and I think he can do it,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “It's not just you're hoping; he's got to get stronger, he's got to learn to play in the NFL trenches a little bit more and better. I think his future can still be bright, but his offseason is going to be critical for him.”
No. 4a: Nick Kwiatkoski, LB
Missing virtually all of training camp and preseason set Kwiatkoski significantly behind on the defensive learning curve. The suspension of Jerrell Freeman and season-ending injury to Danny Trevathan forced him into the starting lineup and he has led the Bears in tackles over the past five games (all starts).
“I feel like I just improved so much from the beginning of the season, from being hurt in camp until now,” Kwiatkoski said. “I feel like I made huge strides and learned a lot.”
Kwiatkoski finished eighth in tackles with 42 despite being inactive with a lingering hamstring injury the first two weeks and starting seven games.
“I think he’s coming into his own,” Fangio said, “and I hope to see marked improvement a little bit each and every game moving forward.”
No. 4b: Deon Bush, S
Performance shortcomings within the position group led to Bush being inserted into the starting lineup. He held that spot for six games, missing Minnesota with an injury, while Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey replaced each other at the other safety position. Bush has not made enough impact plays (1 pass breakup, zero INT’s).
But “I thought he was solid in his play and was where he was supposed to be all the time and did well,” Fangio assessed earlier. “He’s such a young guy… . He’s got a lot to improve on. He’s doing a good job in that process.”
No. 5: Jordan Howard, RB
No elaboration necessary. One of the best young running backs in the NFL. And coaches did not see that at first impressions.
“I’m going to be real honest when I say this: I didn’t the greatness in Jordan in OTAs and training camp,” Loggains said. “Part of it was because he was hurt. Part of it is because he’s a much better player when the shoulder pads are on and it’s live. Because he’s a big back. He’s hard to tackle. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our evaluation process, to the guys upstairs — Ryan and Josh Lucas and those guys — because they found a guy in the fifth round that’s a really good football player.”
Deiondre’ Hall (4c), DeAndre Houston-Carson (6), Daniel Braverman (7) – to be determined.