When reflecting on the 2017 NFL draft, the Shakespearean quote, “what’s past is prologue” comes to mind — a concept suggesting that previous events set the stage for what is happening in the present. During that 2017 draft, the decisions made by both the Bears and Saints helped reshape each franchise. Chicago’s bold moves shook the branches of the NFL tree, and the Saints, albeit indirectly, benefited greatly, as well. Another chess piece involved in the framing of this drafting drama was the San Francisco 49ers, as they were able to ride a wave of additional picks to revitalize a depleted, listless organization with talent and depth.
The 49ers aside, this Sunday matches two teams that garnered the most from the 2017 draft, Chicago and New Orleans. Using P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Stats), let’s examine the impact of the Bears’ draft day machinations.
The Browns, 49ers and Bears were the first three teams slotted to make selections in 2017. Once Cleveland chose DE Myles Garrett with the first pick (and not a quarterback) Bears GM Ryan Pace made his move. Despite San Francisco being a spot ahead of Chicago, Pace was determined to choose the next player. Aggressively, he swapped the Bears’ third overall pick with the 49ers second spot to select QB Mitchell Trubisky, while also sending the Bears’ 67th and 111th picks, and a 2018 3rd rounder (70th) to San Francisco.
According to Pace, “...when you have conviction on a guy you can’t sit on your hands.” Either emboldened by his selection of Trubisky, or because of the surrendered picks needed to acquire him, Pace continued making trades to widen his draft options. The Bears traded their second (36th overall) and seventh (221st overall) round picks that year to the Cardinals for their second (45th overall), fourth (119th overall) and sixth (197th) round selections, and a 2018 fourth round pick (115th overall), to boot.
In addition to those moves, Pace shipped out his 117th and 197th overall picks in a trade with the Rams to move up to the 112th spot (fourth round). When the dust settled, Chicago possessed one pick in the second round (45th overall) and two picks in the fourth round (112th and 119th overall), along with their original 5th-round selection (147th overall). The key players taken from these moves were QB Mitchell Trubisky (with the No. 2 pick), TE Adam Shaheen (45th), S Eddie Jackson (112th), and RB Tarik Cohen (119th).
Initially, because the Bears relinquished several mid-round picks to move up just one spot (arguably for a player that may have still been available), the general consensus was that Pace got fleeced by 49ers rookie GM John Lynch. Perhaps to support a colleague, Lynch stated afterward, “Kudos to the Bears, they saw a player they wanted at a really important position.”
Clearly, the 2017 draft for Pace and the Bears was about securing a franchise quarterback to build around. But in the process, Pace landed two all-pro talents in Jackson and Cohen, as each made their first Pro Bowl in 2018, with Trubisky making the trip as an alternate. No “fleecing” here!
Ironically, Pace’s 2017 draft moves created a “butterfly effect” — when a small localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere — by strengthening his former employers, the New Orleans Saints. When the 49ers traded away the 67th overall pick they received from the Bears to the Saints, New Orleans used that spot to select RB Alvin Kamara. Kamara went on to become the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017 and has already garnered two Pro Bowl selections early in his career. New Orleans had two first round selections that year, choosing CB Marshon Lattimore (11th) and OT Ryan Ramczyk (32nd). Both players have been starters since being drafted, and in 2017, Lattimore was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Another significant draft-day selection was S Marcus Williams at the 42nd spot. Williams, too, has been a starter from the very beginning of his pro career. Undoubtedly, these core four players fortified the Saints’ roster infrastructure and propelled them to division championships each of the past two seasons.
However, buried within the trade minutia between the Bears and 49ers is another move that may have saved the Saints from themselves: San Francisco traded their 34th pick and the 111th pick (formerly the Bears’ selection) to the Seahawks for Seattle’s first round choice (31st overall) and drafted LB Reuben Foster. The Saints had the very next pick at No. 32, and needed serious help on their defense, having finished dead last the previous season.
The Saints, in need of a pass rusher, were eyeing DE Takkarist McKinley, but the Falcons traded up and drafted him. Reuben Foster’s stock was dropping, due to off-the-field concerns, but his talent was too hard to ignore. So the Saints primed themselves to select him, until the 49ers moved up (armed with Chicago’s fourth round pick ) and grabbed Foster. Having both defensive interests taken ahead of them, New Orleans ‘settled’ on the next best talent off their draft board, OT Ryan Ramczyk. Well, Foster was released by the 49ers in just his second year and is currently on IR with Washington. Ramczyk, on the other hand, has been an anchor for an offensive line that pass blocks for Drew Brees and run blocks for Alvin Kamara. Thanks, Chicago! Sure, it’s great to speculate on what-ifs… If the Bears don’t make that trade with San Francisco, do they possibly take Kamara at 67th instead of Cohen at 119th? Or, could another team have shot up to the second overall pick to take Trubisky instead of Chicago, leaving the Bears ‘settle’ on QB Deshaun Watson? Could the Bears have had a backfield of Trubisky and Kamara... or Watson and Kamara?
Regardless, the Bears did a good job in 2017, which paved a path towards an even more successful 2018 campaign, as evidenced by a division title, playoff appearance and multiple postseason accolades. Yet, this season the Saints are thriving at 5-1 without Drew Brees, while Chicago hovers precariously with a 3-2 record. Why is that? Talent! The Saints (with Chicago’s unwitting aid) drafted better in 2017. There is a metric (AV — approximate value) that gives a numeric rating to players, approximating their value to their own teams. A player’s AV can be influenced by the number of starts they have, big plays they’ve made, awards they’ve won, etc.
The Saints’ players taken in the 2017 draft have significantly higher AVs than do the Bears’ selections. Taking the top 4 players’ AVs from each squad, we see:
Saints - Marshon Lattimore (14) Ryan Ramczyk (25), Marcus Williams (12), Alvin Kamara (30);
Bears - Mitch Trubisky (20), Adam Shaheen (1), Eddie Jackson (20), Tarik Cohen (16).
Despite the Bears’ immediate concerns at quarterback, the offensive line, and a banged-up defensive front, Chicago still has a dominant defense and is coming off a bye week. The
Saints are faced with injury issues beyond Drew Brees, and Alvin Kamara not playing greatly improves Chicago’s chances of winning at home. Chicago is getting back 20 AV with the return of Trubisky from injury, whereas the Saints lose 30 AV with Kamara sitting on Sunday.
So, this weekend’s game may actually be won by the most talented roster on the field after all.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.