Fill Needs or Best Player Available?

Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo prefers to take the best player available when he's on the clock, and he stole DE Mark Anderson two drafts ago as a result. Unfortunately, that approach also left him with DE Dan Bazuin just a year later. Should Angelo be more concerned with filling needs this April?

As Crash Davis said to Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, "You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them. You're gonna have to know them. They're your friends."

And while the NFL Draft isn't necessarily about "taking it one game at a time" or "just trying to help the ballclub" per se, get ready for a heavy dose of the following from general managers across the league on the last weekend of April: "He was the best player available on our board."

Kind of boring, isn't it?

"Of course it's boring," Crash would say. "That's the point."

The Chicago Bears, to state the obvious, were a colossal disappointment. After a magical run all the way to Super Bowl XLI last season and predictably through-the-roof expectations this season, they stumbled to a 7-9 record and didn't even assemble a two-game winning streak until the playoffs were comfortably out of reach. And while they were getting discernibly worse in every phase of the game, the rest of the NFC North was getting noticeably better.

The 2007 Monsters of the Midway only needed a nip here and a tuck there – or at least that's what we thought. The 2008 team, however, requires some heavy-duty surgery if Lovie Smith and Co. want to make it back to the Big Game any time soon.

But how do they go about righting the ship, particularly in the upcoming draft, once Commissioner Roger Goodell announces those fateful words – "The Chicago Bears are on the clock" – at Radio City Music Hall?

Since the offensive line was a complete failure this past season both opening holes in the running game and protecting the quarterback, a young left tackle would make a lot of sense. Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the safety position all year long, so perhaps a ball-hawking centerfielder is the way to go. More playmakers on offense, depth in the trenches on defense, yet another quarterback of the future – there are several ways general manager Jerry Angelo could go.

The underlying question is this: Does he select players based on what his team needs, or does he simply choose the top talent available at every spot?

Tom Marino, the lead NFL analyst for, has been evaluating players for 35 years. He feels that teams need to alter their philosophy while making selections in the later rounds.

"I strongly believe that unless you are an elite club or that your particular team need has been seriously compromised in the round – you have a desperate need for a cornerback, but four have already been drafted prior to your selection – you draft for need on the first day," Marino says. "Late in the draft, Rounds 6 and 7, you can take a chance on an athlete who possesses one or more strong critical factors."

Ideally, a player qualifies in both categories, as tight end Greg Olsen did in the first round a year ago. This franchise has needed an impact player at that position since Mike Ditka was sporting his crew cut back in the 1960s, plus Olsen slipped a little bit and appeared to be the pick of the litter at No. 31. The former Hurricane was far from a Pro Bowler as a rookie, but he's the real deal and looks to have an awfully bright future.

Adam Caplan is's senior NFL reporter and can also be heard on Sirius NFL Radio. He thinks that front offices need to use a combination approach to drafting players, although they can't simply overlook a highly-rated prospect.

"Teams clearly use the approach of drafting the best player available at a need position, and I agree with that philosophy," says Caplan. "The only times that I will look at changing up that approach is if a player that I didn't expect fell to my selection, and that player was too good to pass up."

DE Mark Anderson
Al Bello/Getty Images

This is exactly what happened to the Midway Monsters in the 2006 draft.

The defensive end rotation was seemingly locked down with starters Adewale Ogunleye on the left side and Alex Brown on the right, plus Angelo had previously given backup Israel Idonije a bunch of money to keep him from Buffalo as a restricted free agent. But there was Mark Anderson, a highly-productive player at Alabama who tested well at the Combine in Indianapolis, inexplicably still on the board in the fifth round. Anderson went on to register 12 sacks as a part-timer on passing downs and finished second in the voting for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Chris Steuber,'s NFL Draft analyst, believes that a roster can be altered to fit the talent on hand. Therefore, passing on a top-flight player just because he doesn't fill an immediate need can be a big mistake.

"If there is a flat-out stud that you view as a can't-miss prospect, but you already have a crowded depth chart at that position, it doesn't matter," Steuber says. "You have to take that can't-miss player because it may come back and haunt you. You can always make adjustments and make it work. I think if you draft for need in the early rounds and don't pay attention to your pre-draft rankings of players, you're doing yourself and your organization a disservice."

You mustn't follow either system too literally. If you need a quarterback, you can't take a guy with a third-round grade in Round 1 simply because all the top-tier prospects are gone. And you can't take three consecutive linebackers just because each of them was the best player available at the time.

Fortunately for the Bears, or unfortunately based on your perspective, they have desperate needs all over the field and can stick with Angelo's usual best-player-available approach more often than not this April.

John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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