Should The Bears Draft A Defensive Tackle Or Safety In The First Round?

Can the numbers give Phil Emery a better idea of which direction to go in the first round?

Can the numbers give Phil Emery a better idea of which direction to go in the first round?

I haven’t made a secret of the fact that when it comes to their first round pick in May, I want the Bears to take defensive tackle Aaron Donald out of Pitt. Considering how many weaknesses there are on the Bears defense, though, opinions on what the team should do certainly vary.

There’s those on my side of the fence, who believe rebuilding through the defensive line is the way to go. Then there are those who see the way safeties have made out on the free agent market, as well as the evolving nature of the NFL game, and feel that shoring up the back line with an elite player is the way to go.

But which side is right?

Obviously I like to think I am, but one should never just assume they’re right. I’ve been wrong before. That one time. So what I decided to do was actually look at some data to see which theory the numbers themselves actually support. What I did was I took a look at the way NFL defenses graded out on Pro Football Focus during the 2013 season. In particular, I looked at the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season and compared how their defenses performed in the three key defensive areas: the pass rush, pass coverage, and run defense.

I took the numbers of each playoff team and averaged out their grades and their ranks within the NFL as a whole.

What I found was interesting, if not conclusive.

Pro Football Focus Defensive Grades Of 2013 Playoff Teams
Category 2012-13
Average Pass Rush Score -0.44
Average Pass Rush Rank 16.75
Average Pass Cov. Score 3.49
Average Pass Cov. Rank 12.17
Average Run Def. Score 30.91
Average Run Def. Rank 13.08

What truly surprised me was how bad a lot of pass rushes that made the playoffs were. Only Seattle, Kansas City and San Francisco had pass rushes ranked in the top 10 of the league, and the Chiefs and Niners were 7th and 9th respectively (Seattle was No. 1 as it was in just about every defensive category last year). On the flip side of that, three of the five worst pass rushes in the NFL (San Diego, Green Bay and New England) made the playoffs. Now, obviously, the sample size of one NFL season really isn’t enough to make grand conclusions, but these numbers certainly throw some shade at the importance of a pass rush narrative, don’t they?

Well, I suppose that depends on how you want to look at it. Take a closer look at those six teams I mentioned. Yes, San Diego, Green Bay and New England made the playoffs with piss-poor pass rushes, but they also had a combined record of 29-18-1 during the regular season, and New England was responsible for 12 of those wins. The three teams ranked in the top 10, however, had a record of 36-12. So we can conclude that having a great pass rush greatly increases your odds of winning games, even if you don’t need one to sneak through the cracks into the playoffs via a weak division or conference.

Now, as interesting as that is, it doesn’t really answer the question of defensive tackle or safety. It’s nice to have a defensive tackle that can get to the quarterback, but their primary role is to stop the run. On the other side, while it’s nice to have a safety that can support the run, these days safeties are much more important in pass coverage against slot receivers and the new breed of hybrid tight end/cheetahs proliferating the game.

And when we look at the run defenses versus the pass coverages in that table, we can see things were pretty damn similar last season. But those numbers are a bit misleading as well.

Of the 12 teams I looked at, six of them ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in pass coverage: Seattle, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Carolina, Kansas City and New Orleans. Meanwhile, only four of the 12 run defenses were ranked in the top 10: Kansas City, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco.

Every single one of those teams finished the regular season with at least 11 wins.

I tried removing the worst defenses in each category to see if that had any effect on the numbers, but they didn’t. Even without San Diego and Green Bay the differences were minimal, though pass coverage still held the the slight advantage.

When it comes to the debate of Defensive Tackle Or Safety, it seems there really isn’t a right answer as to which one is more important based on the 2013 data we’ve looked at. So who should the Bears take with the No. 14 pick?

I’m starting to think it’s not the position that matters as much as the player. Draft the one that you think is the best player. I’m of the opinion that Aaron Donald is a better football player than any safety that will be available to the Bears by the time their turn comes around, so I’m sticking with him.

If you feel differently, well, you’re right too. For now. The good news is that, unlike Phil Emery, if we’re wrong, we aren’t risking our jobs in the process.

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