In late February, Ron Rivera spoke in the midst of the NFL Combine about the team’s plans for the draft. I took a crack at reading between the lines of his presser, in an effort to anticipate his plans for the draft. In the spirit of revisiting draft day predictions - which doesn’t happen nearly enough, I thought it would be interesting to see how accurately Ron, and I, projected the outcome of the Redskins’ draft.
At the Combine, Ron made his intentions pretty clear:
“The guys (WRs) I think people are really looking for are these bigger receivers that are dynamic with the ball in their hands.”
I offered the following:
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.
The Redskins did indeed “select from this group,” picking Antonio Golden-Gandy, the big receiver out of Liberty in the 4th round. Claypool and Pittman were both off the board before the Redskins picked in the third.
The “versatility” theme was perhaps the most emphatic in Rivera’s Combine presser:
“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. 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. That’s an invaluable player. That’s the kind of player that you look for in the draft.”
My take reiterated his points, but ID’ed players who were all off the board before the Redskins made their second pick of the draft:
This passage by Rivera is emphatic. He likes players who give him schematic flexibility, particularly on defense, and those on OL 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 When he originally made this statement, several players immediately came to mind.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, 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.
The Redskins draft was otherwise completely dominated by players with positional flexibility - including the three types, G/C, T/G, and SS/LB - Rivera mentioned: Antonio Gibson (WR/RB/ST); Saahdiq Charles (T/G); Keith Ismael (G/C); Khaleke Hudson (LB/S); Kamren Curl (CB/S).
Playing the Run on the Way to the QB
Ron gave us his defensive philosophy:
“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.”
I read that as good news for Chase Young, which it was:
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.
In retrospect, even by this point in the process, it seems like Rivera was in love with Young. This D-Line, Young/Sweat/Kerrigan on the outside with Allen/Payne/Ion on the inside will be the foundation of Rivera’s and Del Rio’s defense, and it could hardly be younger or with more potential.
The Defensive Backs
Ron was very clear leading up to the draft, but a lot of folks refused to believe him:
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 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.”
My read was that he was fairly clear:
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.
The Redskins only took one pure DB in the draft, Kamren Curl, in the 7th round, and haven’t even bothered to pick up one in undrafted free agency yet. They added Sean Davis and Ronald Darby as low cost free agents. Ron appears to be completely serious about letting the team’s young DBs sink or swim this year.
Building a Winning Culture
One of Ron’s most intriguing lines in the presser was the following:
“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.”
Rivera and Kyle Smith, with the trade of Trent Williams, have gotten the team into the spot where - even with a cap liability of $21.4M for Alex Smith’s salary - the Redskins have the second most cap space in the league. They’ve also added another third round pick in 2021, and set themselves up to potentially be able to generate solid comp pick capital next year.
They just picked up Jonathan Allen’s fifth year option (for 2021), and are likely to strike a long term deal with Brandon Scherff in the next couple of months. It’s only been 5 short months, but Rivera and Smith already seem well on their way to laying the foundation for their “sustainable, winning culture.” Ron’s forthrightness, transparency, and conviction are all part and parcel of that.