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NFL Scouting Combine: Reading between the lines of Ron Rivera’s Redskins press conference

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, Ron Rivera spoke with the press at the 2020 Combine in Indianapolis. This time of year is widely understood to be “lying season,” as teams position themselves for any advantage they can gain in free agency and the draft. This is an attempt to gain insight, and perhaps even divine intent, from Rivera’s back and forth with reporters covering the team.

“We’re going to decide as a group, and we’ll go forward from there.”

Both Rivera and Kyle Smith have spoken about a new “collaborative” process, where Smith and Rivera will work towards common cause to address the team’s needs. Rivera started his press conference off on that note.

“We have several positions that we do feel we’ve got to add to. We’re going to look at those positions in the draft and in free agency...We feel that there’s enough out there [1] to try and meet some of those needs....We’ve also talked about making sure we’ve identified those positions, and we’ve looked at them, and we’ve had the coaches evaluate those positions for us that are on the list that Kyle and his guys provided us [2]. We’ve looked at those guys. And, we’ve done the same thing with the draft. We’ve identified the strengths in the draft [3]. A lot of them do fit our need.”

This is clearly Rivera articulating that the leadership has identified areas of need on the team and that the Redskins will be using both [1] free agency [2] AND the draft [3] to meet those needs. It also indicates that the team is likely to rely on those areas of strength in the draft (WR, TE, IOL, RB?) to meet the team’s corresponding areas of need (TE, LB, FS, OL) where there is overlap. Expect free agency to be used to plug areas of need that are weak in the draft (FS, LB?).

“The guys (WRs) I think people are really looking for are these bigger receivers that are dynamic with the ball in their hands.”

This draft is one of the deepest in WR talent in years. Here’s a list of big receivers who are dynamic with the ball in their hands: Chase Claypool, Lawrence Cager, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Collin Johnson, Michael Pittman Jr., Kendrick Rogers, and Binjimen Victor all fit that bill. We’ll see if the Redskins select from this group come April.

“I got a couple guys that will tell you I like position flexibility. I really do and I believe in it. I think position flexibility is huge. If a guy can play, and I always talk about offensive linemen. If they can go tackle/guard guard/center center/tackle you’ve got something special there [1]. And guys that do give you an option to move guys around, often you won’t have to tip your hand. Shaq (Thompson, Panthers OLB) was a great example. He was a guy that could play the nickel position for you, and cover and run with a lot of receivers, and then at the same time, go back into the box and play the SAM linebacker position [2]. That’s an invaluable player. That’s the kind of player that you look for in the draft.”

This passage by Rivera is emphatic. He likes players who give him schematic flexibility, particularly on defense, and those on OL [1] who can be moved around - likely at least in part because it’s so difficult to keep an entire line healthy throughout the year. When he originally made this statement, several players immediately came to mind. On offense, Tristan Wirfs appears capable of playing either tackle (he played RT most recently at Iowa) or either guard. Cesar Ruiz, from Michigan is another player touted as having guard/center flexibility and Day 2 talent.

On the defensive side of the ball [2], two players, in particular, stand out. Isaiah Simmons (DE/LB/FS) is the 2020 Combine’s physical incarnation of versatility. He is the ultimate defensive Swiss army knife, if that’s what Rivera and Del Rio want. Another defensive weapon characterized by position flexibility is D2 wunderkind, Kyle Dugger. He is projected to be able to play either of the safety positions, CB, or even nickel at the next level. These are the sorts of players Rivera is apparently looking for.

[Asked about current players who have “versatility”. {Deep breath}] “I think we have some guys that do have it at different positions. I think the closest guy that we have, that this guy that I find very intriguing is Cole Holcomb.”

Rivera loves Holcomb. He was gushing. Expect Holcomb to get an expanded role next year.

“We are changing our defensive philosophy. We are a 4-3 front, which basically, we’ve told the guys that have asked about that what we want is our D-line to play vertical. We want to attack vertical, we want to play the run on the way to the quarterback. That’s going to be our attitude and our philosophy with our front.”

This is great news for the Bama boys and Ion. What it means for the pass rushers, Montez Sweat, in particular, promises to be interesting. It does bode well for potential number 2 pick, Chase Young, however, who is described as an effective defender against the run, in addition to his well-documented pass rushing ability.

We’re going to replace [Norman] with guys we have on the roster. Some of these guys, these guys we think have the same type of skill set. The young guys that have to be trained. You know we got a bunch of fourth year (Moreau/Nicholson(?)) guys that just need to play football. We need to get those guys out on the field and develop them....Now is an opportunity to play a lot of young players.”

This suggests that - contrary to several recent rumors - the Redskins aren’t likely to invest significant draft or free agency resources in the defensive backfield, at least at CB. That’s a bit of a surprise, but Rivera seems committed to developing some of the existing talent on the team in this area. It probably also suggests that a high pick of Jeff Okudah, the star CB from OSU, is not in the cards, even with a trade back.

“One of the things I talked about was trying to build a sustainable, winning culture. You know, we had a little bit of that going for awhile in Carolina. We had a five good year stretch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able, through attrition we weren’t able to continue that. But, that’s the starting point.”

This was offered at the end of Rivera’s interview, and there’s a lot to unpack here, some of which requires a better understanding than I currently have of the Panthers’ history under Rivera. The “attrition” Rivera speaks of is fascinating to me, as it’s not entirely clear if it stems from a failure to sign players who moved on in free agency, poor drafting, or a combination of the two. It’s something I intend to explore in a future piece.

In any case, one would assume that whatever Rivera saw as going off the rails in Carolina after those five years is something he would want to strenuously avoid having happen here. I would wager that is one of primary reasons he wanted expanded control in DC. We’ll see what he does differently.