While it is conventional (and convenient) to hold that it takes at least two full years to evaluate a draft, NFL teams can’t take that long and don’t take that long. A full evaluation of a player or players might take time, but if anyone needs two years to know whether a draft was fruitful or left glaring needs unfilled, they need to pay closer attention to rookie performances.
This is absolutely not to say that draft grades done immediately after the weekend’s selections have any meaningful value whatsoever. Personally, waiting until at least the first couple weeks of training camp, when pads and hitting happen, makes a bit more sense.
But does anyone really need two more seasons to know whether Eddie Goldman is an NFL nose tackle? Or that Adrian Amos is a safety of some significance? Really? Or Jeremy Langford at running back? Hroniss Grasu needs to take a major step up in Year 2, but Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias, third-round picks in 2009, were clearly what they were by the end of a half-season or so that year.
Was anyone not sure about Kyle Long by mid-2013, his rookie season? Or about Dan Bazuin by halfway through the 2007 training camp?
Some drafts might put players into lineups simply because there are no better options at the time (Russell Davis in 1999, Al Afalava in 2009, Jordan Mills in 2013, Brock Vereen in 2014). But typically those players are not going to be confused with Pro Bowl talents (Long, Alshon Jeffery), and the Bears did not need two or three years to conclude that.
Using an analogy from another industry altogether: Wine makers know long, long before a vintage is bottled whether the wine will be good or bad. They might not know how good, but anyone who has ever experienced a barrel tasting knows that experts can tell from a pipette of wine from a barrel what the outlook for that wine is. A wine might reach unanticipated heights ultimately, but they do not need three years to know if it is a hit or miss.
At the end of the 2012 season, it was apparent what the Bears had — or didn’t have — in Shea McClellin. The change to a 3-4 scheme and move of him to inside linebacker improved the “vintage,” but within reasonable parameters, what McClellin was showed itself that first season. Lovie Smith refused to move McClellin to middle linebacker.
By comparison, Jeffery had flashed enough at the end of that year to win a starting job outright and to make clear that the Bears had something special.
As specific points of comparison, Brian Urlacher was a bust as a “Sam” linebacker even before the 2000 season started. By the end of that rookie season, however, maybe even by mid-2000 when he had supplanted Barry Minter as middle linebacker, knowing what Urlacher and Mike Brown were did not take anything close to two years to evaluate.
Cade McNown in 1999 — same thing. The Bears wanted him to be a huge hit, but by mid-1999, his limitations were evident, confirmed in 2000.
Injuries and other factors can create exceptions to every rule. But based on the “barrel tasting” of last season, best guess here is that general manager Ryan Pace already has a pretty good take on what his 2015 draft did or did not produce.