A Tale of Two Draft Picks

Pro football drafting is an inexact science.

First round busts are commonplace, and late round surprises are not unusual. Consider Tom Brady (sixth round), the late Dwight Clark (tenth) and George Kittle (fifth) and busts like Jamarcus Russell (No. 1), Ryan Leaf (No. 2), and another well-known first-rounder, Johnny Manziel.

Two transactions that didn’t attract much attention last week illustrated this basic truth, and they also illustrated how one big bowl performance can impact the NFL draft. The 49ers declined their fifth-year option on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and the Bears declined their fifth-year option on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

The careers of these two players are inextricably linked because both played in the 2016 Sun Bowl, which pitted Stanford against North Carolina. The Cardinal’s marquee player, Christian McCaffrey, sat out the game to avoid the risk of injury and prepare for the NFL draft, but Thomas and Trubisky used the game as a platform to enhance their credentials.

Thomas was named the bowl MVP, harassing Trubisky throughout the afternoon and making the game-saving sack on a two-point conversion attempt to preserve Stanford’s 25-23 win.

Although Trubisky’s performance was a mixed bag, featuring a pick six and two other turnovers, he made a number of great throws and displayed a nice combination of arm strength, accuracy and elusiveness.

Thomas originally had been projected as a third round selection, but moved up the draft boards on the basis of his Sun Bowl performance and a great combine, where he registered eye-popping numbers in several of the key measurables—a 4.69 40, 35 inch vertical jump, 30 reps in the bench press, 10.6 foot broad jump and one of the fastest times in the short shuttle—4.28 seconds. The 49ers chose him with the No. 3 overall pick.

Trubisky had been projected as a late first rounder, but after the Sun Bowl and another impressive combine, was drafted right before Thomas with the No. 2 overall pick by the Chicago Bears.

I should point out that he was picked ahead of two of the league’s best quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson, who went to Kansas City and Houston with the 10th and 12th picks. The aforementioned McCaffrey went No. 8 to Carolina and has become the best running back in the league.

Both Trubisky and Thomas are decent players, but when you’re picked No. 2 or 3 overall, expectations are very high. After three seasons, neither player has measured up.

Thomas had a solid first season, recording 41 tackles and three sacks while starting 12 games. In ’18 he started 13 games, but registered only 31 tackles and one sack. Last fall he started just three times and had 21 tackles and two sacks.

Trubisky also has had an up-and-down career in Chicago. He broke into the starting lineup in the fifth game of his rookie year and finished with only seven touchdown passes in 12 starts. He enjoyed a much better 2018 season, passing for over 3000 yards, throwing 24 TD passes, leading his team into the playoffs and being named a Pro Bowl alternate. However, he regressed in ’19, with 17 TDs and 10 interceptions as the Bears failed to reach the post-season.

So last month the Bears traded for Nick Foles, who led Philadelphia to the 2018 Super Bowl championship before suffering through an injury-plagued season in Jacksonville. Most pundits believe Trubisky is headed to the bench this season and out the door shortly thereafter.

As for Thomas, the 49ers have the best defensive line in the NFL and want to see more from him before resigning him. After trading stalwart DeForest Buckner, they drafted South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with their No. 1 pick, so Thomas will likely be a backup again in 2020.

So what does all this mean?

While Trubisky and Thomas may yet blossom into top players, their experiences reinforce the notion that, despite all the hype and excitement of draft day, there is no such thing as a sure thing, and placing too much emphasis on one post-season performance can be a very risky proposition.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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