Imagine, if you will, Troy Polamalu returning a fumble he forced himself for a touchdown; Aaron Rodgers lofting up 50-yard bombs with pinpoint accuracy; and Maurice Jones-Drew dissecting a defense with his explosive speed.
Now, imagine all of those things happening… with those players wearing Bears jerseys. Call it crazy if you’d like, but the draft records show that former GM Jerry Angelo had the power to make all of this possible. In hindsight.
“Hindsight is 20/20” is likely one of the most overused cliché’s. Not just for sports, but for life in general. Hindsight allows you to make the best possible decision in a given situation with the distinct advantage of already knowing the results.
When it comes to the NFL draft, general managers obviously don’t have hindsight on their side. Every pick becomes a tactical gamble: combine intense scouting work, hours watching film, advanced analytics, and a little bit of a gut feeling, and hope for the best.
In essence, general managers are asked to predict the future. At the end of the day, that’s why they get paid the big bucks: to accurately identify the players that will positively impact the team for years.
As Bears fans know all too well, even though general managers get paid to be fortune tellers, their crystal ball occasionally becomes… ehh… fuzzy, to say the least (the sad thing is, former GM Jerry Angelo’s draft strategy probably did actually involve a crystal ball).
The majority of drafts picks don’t pan out, and that’s to be expected. Late round picks come a dime-a-dozen, and you’re far less likely to find impact players outside of the top three rounds anyway.
But in the first three rounds, the Bears have reeled in more than their fair share of outright busts. Now, this is not to say the Bears haven’t had any good draft picks in recent history. I’m just saying that a large majority of generally useless players have been taken when future Pro Bowl caliber talent was still on the board.
So now, I’ve taken it upon myself to use a tool every GM wishes they had on draft day: hindsight. Looking back at the seven drafts between 2003 and 2009 (2010-2012 would be unfair to fully judge this soon), I’ll be pointing out how the Bears could’ve made their roster resemble an all-star team with a few swaps of picks.
*Note: I understand the Bears went into each draft with a specific draft strategy, and that some players, no matter if they were still available or not, just didn’t fit the plan. So before you say “but Joe, we didn’t need a receiver with in that round” or “we already had Jay Cutler so we didn’t need to draft a quarterback… blah blah blah…”, I get it. I’m just looking for the players that the Bears passed up that have provided the most impact to their team in the pros, regardless of what the actual draft strategy was.
Many people forget the Bears actually had the 4th pick in the draft before trading it to the Jets for their 13th and 22nd pick. Through another trade with the New England Patriots, the 13th pick became the 14th.
Had the Bears hung on to the 4th pick, a goldmine of Pro Bowlers were at their fingertips. Linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and a Defensive Player of the Year Award to his credit, was still available. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross and cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Terrance Newman were also still on the board.
The joke actually turns out to be on the Jets (when isn’t it?), who took defensive tackle Dwayne Robertson with the 4th pick. He played a marginal role for the Jets and Broncos before exiting the league in 2008.
With the two first round picks the Bears had, they took defensive end Michael Haynes and everybody’s favorite quarterback Rex Grossman. Instead of those two eventual busts, the Bears had the chance to walk away with safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Both players were at one time hailed as the best at their position.
I can already hear your sighs of agony, and I’m sorry for pointing out the massive shortcomings of Jerry Angelo. The bad news is there’s so much more that I’ve yet to explain.
The good news: that same year the Bears selected cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. I’d call that proper redemption.
With another 3rd round pick and a 4th to use, the Bears passed up twice on cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Robert Mathis. They (along with the rest of the league) also passed on quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Antonio Gates, who both signed as undrafted free agents after the draft.
2004 actually turned out to be a solid draft for the Bears, producing two eventual Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Tommie Harris and cornerback Nathan Vasher. Neither player maintained that success for too long, but when they were on top of their game, they were among the best in the NFL.
They also added two other players who were influential in the 2006 Super Bowl run in defensive tackle Tank Johnson and wide receiver Bernard Berrian.
The only swap I could possibly suggest would be quarterback Matt Schaub replacing Berrian in the 3rd round. Schaub has experienced sustained success while Berrian was more of a flash-in-the-pan.
The undrafted free agent that got away in ‘04? Wide receiver Wes Welker.
Looking back, 2005 was a pretty weak draft class overall. The 1st pick, quarterback Alex Smith, has been marginal at best. The 2nd and 3rd picks, running back Ronnie Brown and wide receiver Braylon Edwards, have seen their early successes derailed.
The Bears held the 4th pick yet again this year. They went with running back Cedric Benson, who appeared to be the backfield workhorse the Bears had been missing out on since the days of Sweetness. Unfortunately, Benson has found much greater success with the Cincinnati Bengals, and is now a Green Bay Packer.
Instead of Benson, the Bears could’ve taken linebacker Demarcus Ware, wide receiver Roddy White or… wait for it… quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Yep, Rodgers slid right past the Bears and just about every other team in the league before the Packers took him with the 24th pick. That will likely go down as the best value pick of all time.
The Bears had a shot at wide receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Frank Gore, or defensive end Justin Tuck in the 2nd round, but went with wide receiver Mark Bradley instead. That worked… Not.
They also picked quarterback Kyle Orton over defensive end Trent Cole in the 4th round. As a bit of a redemption, the Bears did snag safety Chris Harris in the 6th round, who played multiple productive stints with the Bears.
After the draft, the New England Patriots actually ended up snagging kicker Robbie Gould. After being released by the Pats and eventually the Baltimore Ravens, he landed in the lap of the Bears. His PennState buddy Cameron Wake also went undrafted to the New York Giants.
’06 proved to be another solid draft for the Bears. It produced safety Daniel Manning, special teams ace Devin Hester, and defensive end Mark Anderson, despite the Bears not having a 1st round pick at their disposal.
But there was room for improvement, and in most rounds, the better player was taken only a few picks later.
Safety Roman Harper was taken one pick after Daniel Manning. Three picks after Devin Hester, running back Maurice Jones-Drew went to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One pick before the Bears chose linebacker Jamar Williams, the Denver Broncos selected wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Fortunately, Marshall ended up coming to the Bears in real life.
Yet another undrafted free agent wide receiver slipped through the Bears fingers, this time in the form of Miles Austin.
Pro Bowlers… Pro Bowlers everywhere in the 1st round. Well, except JaMarcus Russell.
By taking tight end Greg Olsen with the 31st pick, the Bears found themselves with a dynamic, pass-catching weapon at that position.
Unfortunately, former offensive coordinator Mike Martz saw no need for him in the offense, and Olsen ended up leaving town to become a Carolina Panther. How good would Olsen look back in the orange and blue? But I digress…
After the 2nd round, the draft became a bit mundane. The Bears did snag corner back Corey Graham, who went on to become a Pro Bowler on special teams. He was the only 5th round selection from that year to make it to the Pro Bowl.
Marshall Yanda, Pro Bowl tackle for the Ravens, was still available when the Bears took Dan Bazuin in the 2nd round.
In the 4th round, the Bears had a shot at running/fullback Le’Ron McClain, but opted for offensive guard Josh Beekman instead.
With two picks in the 3rd round, the Bears took linebacker Michael Okwo and running back Garrett Wolfe while offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and safety Dashon Goldson were still on the board.
Like Brandon Marshall, Bushrod has eventually found his way to the WindyCity.
The Bears had 12 selections in the 2008 draft, the most selections of any team.
With the 14th pick, the Bears chose offensive guard Chris Williams. He’s about as close to a certified bust as you can get unless he pulls a miraculous turnaround this season.
Instead of Williams, the Bears could’ve taken cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back and former MVP Chris Johnson, cornerback Michael Jenkins, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, or running back Ray Rice.
The Bears spent their 2nd round pick on running back Matt Forte. That selection will likely go down as the Bears second best draft pick in the past decade and a half, aside from linebacker Brian Urlacher in 2000.
Though the Bears had already taken Forte at that point, they left running back Jamal Charles on the board and spent their 3rd round pick on Earl Bennett. In the 5th round, tight end Kellen Davis was taken six picks before offensive guard Carl Nicks.
The Bears didn’t have a pick until the 3rd round in 2009.
The biggest gaff occurred when the Bears chose defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert over wide receiver Mike Wallace.
The Bears selected wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias 15 picks later, which implied the team wanted to take a wide receiver anyway. Of the seven drafts I’ve analyzed, this was likely the most realistic swap that could’ve happened in real life.
After the 3rd round, the draft turned out to be a great one for the Bears given the hand they were dealt.
They walked away with future Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Henry Melton and wide receiver Johnny Knox. They also landed three future starters by selecting cornerback D.J. Moore in the 4th, safety Al Afalava in the 6th, and offensive guard Lance Louis in the 7th.
Running back Arian Foster played 2009’s edition of “The One That Got Away” and ended up as an undrafted free agent signing for the Houston Texans.
After reading this, you may be inspired to build a time machine and go back and knock some sense into former GM Jerry Angelo.
My advice: don’t! While it’s always fun to think “what could have been?”, the uncertainty of each pick is exactly what makes the draft so exciting.
If you could go back in time though, what would be the one pick you would change for the Bears?