If anybody tells you they’re sure Mitchell Trubisky will fail to turn into a superstar with the Bears, they’re lying. On the other hand, if anybody tells you they’re sure Mitchell Trubisky is guaranteed to thrive in Chicago, they’re fibbing too. We know precious little about the player the Bears just traded up to grab with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Of course, this is true of most draft picks — but it’s drastically more so the case for the North Carolina product.
There’s a reasonable case to be argued that the Bears made a smart decision in drafting Trubisky and a similarly fair case suggesting they’re foolish to do so. By running through the pros and cons of this pick, you can decide whether you think Chicago finally has found its franchise quarterback. In the case of Trubisky, your opinion is probably as good as anybody else’s in the NFL.
Pro: Trubisky was excellent during his lone season as a starter at North Carolina
It’s hard to imagine an NFL team drafting a quarterback who wasn’t very good in college, but teams have fallen in love with prototypical athletes such as Jake Locker and Kyle Boller before and drafted them high in the first round, even if their collegiate level of performance didn’t support that level of investment.
While Trubisky spent his time in school operating out of the shotgun in a spread offense, his physical traits are backed up by impressive numbers. Trubisky completed 68 percent of his passes, in part inflated by the spread, but he averaged 8.4 yards per pass while throwing 30 touchdowns against six picks. Account for his relatively low sack totals and his numbers bounce up to 9.1 adjusted yards per attempt, which was third-best in the ACC.
Concerns that Trubisky was picking up meaningless yardage aren’t really there: North Carolina finished 16th in the country in passing S&P+ and had the ninth-best offense in America on passing downs by S&P+. He also didn’t have a ton of help on offense, given that he lost arguably his best receiver, Mack Hollins, in midseason to a broken collarbone. By any account, Trubisky played excellent football in 2016.
Con: Trubisky couldn’t beat out an undrafted free agent during his sophomore and junior years
The best argument against Trubisky as a top prospect might be Marquise Williams. After redshirting during his freshman season at Carolina in 2013, Trubisky didn’t show enough in practice or with his 78 pass attempts as a redshirt freshman in 2014 to wrest the job away from Williams, who produced much better numbers on a 6-7 North Carolina team that really wasn’t going anywhere. Trubisky threw four picks on 78 pass attempts, which didn’t help matters.
Maybe 2014 was too early. As a sophomore, though, Trubisky still couldn’t beat out Williams for the starting job in 2015, with UNC coach Larry Fedora naming Williams the starter before the campaign. Trubisky was great in limited time, throwing six touchdowns against zero picks, but most of that came after Williams was benched during a game against a FCS-level Delaware team that would eventually finish 4-7, with Trubisky throwing for 312 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. Williams had been off to a slow start, and Trubisky had excelled, but Fedora still felt that Williams was the better quarterback and went back to him for the remainder of the year.
It would be one thing if Trubisky was sitting behind a future superstar, but Williams wasn’t wildly productive in college, and he also wasn’t considered much of a pro prospect. Williams went undrafted last year before spending time on the Green Bay Packers‘ practice squad. It’s also worrisome that the UNC offense was actually better with Williams in 2015 than it was with Trubisky the following year. The 2015, Tar Heels averaged 40.7 points per game and were 17th in the country in Offensive S&P+, while this pas season’s unit averaged 32.3 points per contest while finishing 26th in Offensive S&P+. The 2015 team also didn’t send a single drafted offensive player to the NFL, so you can’t blame any sort of talent drain on the offensive decline.
It would be wrong to say that Williams is a better player than Trubisky because he beat him out in 2014 and 2015, and college coaches misevaluate players, just as pro coaches do. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got with a quarterback until you hand him the reins and get out of the way. If Trubisky was really worth taking with the second overall pick, though, wouldn’t he stand out more than he did in college? Shouldn’t he have won the starting job before 2016? Shouldn’t he have been the best quarterback in the ACC? Those are fair questions.
Con: There’s almost no precedent of a player this inexperienced turning into a franchise quarterback.
We know those questions are fair because virtually every future Pro Bowl quarterback wins his college job early in his career and starts for a few years before leaving for the NFL. Most first-round quarterbacks start 30-plus games, and even the ones who leave after a couple of seasons start 20-plus contests before hitting the pros.
Trubisky started 13 games at North Carolina before leaving school. Throw in the 125 passes he threw as Williams’ backup and he makes it to 572 pass attempts after high school. It’s not even as if we have junior college tape to work from, as was the case with Aaron Rodgers, who only started 22 games at Cal before turning into a Hall of Famer. Trubisky is as close to a one-and-done quarterback as you will find.
The closest comparison for Trubisky in that regard is Mark Sanchez, who wasn’t able to beat out John David Booty as a sophomore in 2007 before taking over in 2008 and going 12-1 with impressive numbers. The Jets traded up to grab him with the fifth overall pick and ended up finding that Sanchez was a backup-caliber signal-caller. The other quarterbacks in recent years who haven’t made it to 20 starts aren’t really great comparisons for Trubisky, as Ryan Tannehill (19 starts) was a converted wide receiver, while Michael Vick (also 19 starts) was something entirely different as a quarterback. Akili Smith (also 19 starts) burned bright during his season as the primary starter at Oregon but quickly flamed out as a pro. There’s one other passer I’ll get to shortly.
There are all kinds of problems with judging quarterbacks after a limited number of pass attempts. You don’t get much insight into their ability to avoid injuries. You don’t get to see how opposing defenses adjust to them over the course of an offseason or how they improve on the weaker elements of their game from the previous year. In every aspect of how they perform and how they account for opposing defenses, you’re stuck looking at tape over a dangerously small sample.
Think about professional quarterbacks such as Nick Foles and Josh McCown, two guys who were incredible in 2013. They combined to throw 40 touchdowns against three picks over a 541-pass sample. Over the remainder of their professional careers, Foles and McCown have thrown 95 touchdowns against 92 interceptions and performed like replaceable backup passers. If Foles and McCown were college quarterbacks in 2013 and left after their one breakout season of tape, they would have been top-three picks. We’ve seen quarterbacks such as Brian Brohm and Matt Leinart fall out of the top three by sticking in school and revealing themselves to be less effective passers on tape. With Trubisky, what we’ve seen is good, but we haven’t seen much.
Pro: It worked out OK with Cam Newton
The flip side of the we-haven’t-seen-much argument is that a quarterback who was very good in a small sample might also end up being great the rest of the time. Cam Newton started his NCAA career at Florida, transferred to Blinn College and then moved to Auburn, where he stunningly led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national championship. Newton then left for the pros after one season as a starting quarterback and just 292 pass attempts in major college football, with 336 additional passes from his time as a juco quarterback.
The football establishment was skeptical of Newton and, as you know now, the experts were wrong. A poll of anonymous general managers and personnel executives conducted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn before the 2011 NFL draft pegged Blaine Gabbert, not Newton, as the best quarterback in the 2011 class. Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett ranked ahead of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. Thirteen of the 24 voters said Newton would either be an ineffective pro or a bust.
Newton is different than Trubisky; Newton derived far more of his value as a college player from his legs as a runner and, perhaps more importantly, had both off-field concerns and a significant pedigree as a winner, earning national titles with both Blinn and Auburn. It would be wrong to say Trubisky will follow Newton’s path, but it’s fair to point out how the unknowns and question marks surrounding Newton haven’t remotely impacted his pro career.
Con: The Bears gave up a ton, and they are assuming an enormous amount of risk in trading for Trubisky
It’s certainly defensible for a team to grab Trubisky at some point in the draft, but the Bears basically valued Trubisky like he was worth the first overall selection and then some. The Bears sent the third, 67th, and 111th picks in this year’s draft and a 2018 third-rounder to move up one spot and grab Trubisky. That’s 2,747 points of draft capital on the outdated Jimmy Johnson draft chart, which is a little more than the second overall pick. But by the empirically driven chart created by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, the Bears gave up 47.2 points of draft capital to move up; that’s like giving up the first overall pick (34.6 points) and a pick between the 31st (12.7 points) and 32nd (12.5 points) overall selections.
When the Browns were considering Trubisky as the first pick, the argument was being thrown around that the price shouldn’t matter and that they should grab Trubisky if they think he is their quarterback of the future, regardless of the cost. I’m not sure that logic holds up to sound reasoning, both for the Browns and the Bears. It’s a little bit like being hungry and paying $200 for a hamburger. If a team could be 100 percent sure that Trubisky was a future superstar, of course, they would be right to draft Trubisky first. It’s also pretty clear that there’s no way the Bears can be sure about Trubisky and that the significant amount of risk surrounding him makes it more likely the Bears will end up regretting their decision.
Risk is baked into every pick, but as I mentioned in breaking down Cleveland’s options earlier this year, the league values dominant pass-rushers nearly as highly as it does quarterbacks these days. If the Bears drafted Trubisky and he turns into a star, they’ll get a player who is worth roughly $90 million over the first four years of his career for $30 million in guaranteed money. If they drafted Solomon Thomas and he excelled, meanwhile, they would end up getting a player worth closer to $70 million over his first four seasons while paying that same $30 million. Trubisky has a higher ceiling in terms of positional value and scarcity. But can anyone really argue that Thomas doesn’t offer more certainty and a higher ceiling?
Pro: Solomon Thomas (or Myles Garrett or anyone else) isn’t a lock to be a superstar, either.
I’m not going to argue that, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that everyone is a risk. Thomas projects to be a star, and I have no reason to think he’s likely to fail; but we’re often overconfident about our abilities to project future success, even for guys who do have significant college experience. I wrote about this in previewing Cleveland’s offseason back in February, while arguing that they should pick Garrett, but think about 2014, when the consensus pick was for Houston to take Jadeveon Clowney. Thanks in part to injuries, both Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald have been far more productive. In 2000, Courtney Brown was the easy first overall selection for the Browns, and yet 19 other players from that draft finished their pro careers with more sacks. Mario Williams was the top pick in 2006, but you might have preferred Elvis Dumervil or Tamba Hali with some hindsight. The same concerns would be in play for Thomas, even though he profiles as a versatile lineman in the vein of Michael Bennett or Calais Campbell.
It’s easy to make these calls with hindsight, but that’s not the point. What’s important here is that you can’t think of Trubisky as a risk and compare him to one of the defensive prospects at the top of the draft as a sure thing, because none of them are guaranteed successes, either. It’s fair to say Trubisky is riskier, of course, but the Bears might very well have been right to use an enormous amount of draft capital on a quarterback.
Neutral: Wait, didn’t the Bears just hand Mike Glennon $18.5 million?
I’m not sure whether it’s fair to peg the Bears down for their previous decision. Chicago signed Glennon to a three-year, $45-million deal, which really amounts to a one-year, $16-million deal with a $2.5 million buyout next year. I didn’t like the move at the time. And it’s interesting to see the Bears basically render Glennon’s long-term future with the team moot by making the deal.
This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened with the Eagles last year. Philadelphia re-signed Sam Bradford, added Chase Daniel for upper-level backup money in free agency, and then decided to go all-in for Carson Wentz and dealt multiple first-round picks to the Browns. The trade revealed that they were expecting to move on from Bradford by the end of 2017, and they ended up getting bailed out when the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater during training camp and dealt a first-round pick back to Philly to acquire Bradford.
It’s possible that the Bears could do the same thing with Glennon, but the Bridgewater trade — sending a first-round pick for a quarterback less than two weeks before the season begins — is basically unprecedented in recent memory. The league also valued Bradford far more than it does Glennon, who got a massive per-year deal, despite reports that the Bears weren’t really bidding against anybody else. It’s unlikely that the Bears will get a similar sort of haul in a trade for Glennon if they try to trade their starter, at least before this season.
On the other hand, Trubisky isn’t exactly a finished product. Keeping Glennon does allow the Bears to bring Trubisky along slowly, and if Glennon succeeds, the Bears will have a happy problem that can be fixed by dealing Glennon away after the 2017 season. If Trubisky disappoints, the Bears will regret spending the money they did on Glennon, but it’s a sunk cost at this point. Their investment in Glennon shouldn’t preclude Chicago from acquiring Trubisky, but it does beg the question of whether the Bears are establishing a habit of desperately speculating on guys who look like quarterbacks in the hopes that they’ll turn into one.
So much of Trubisky’s value comes from projecting his future based entirely upon his tools — notably his arm strength and ability to spin the football — despite the fact that we know teams often overvalue those specific tools and make colossal mistakes in quarterback evaluation. When Bears general manager Ryan Pace was hired, he contrasted himself from previous general manager Phil Emery by suggesting he wasn’t a Moneyball-style GM. In taking a quarterback about whom there is less information to go off of than any other similarly valued passer in recent memory, Pace has proven his point. It’s too early to say the Bears were right or wrong, but it’s already time to wonder when we’ll get to see Trubisky answer the question for them.