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Reading between the lines: Ron Rivera’s latest presser

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NFL Combine - Day 2 Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

On Tuesday, April 7th, Coach Rivera gave a virtual press conference from the confines of his new home, where he discussed a variety of topics, ranging from recent trades, to free agency, and the draft. What follows below are excerpts from his conference as well as commentary on his thoughts:

[On Quinton Dunbar]

After having met with him, and after having conversations, we felt that as the situation progressed, he was looking for something that we weren’t prepared to give, ah, and that was a new contract. He was already in a second contract. He had a year left on his contract. Um, we didn’t know him, and we felt that because of that situation and the circumstances: His agent, and his attitude just didn’t seem to change, and we felt that what we were going to do was move in another direction. So we decided to move on.

Not knowing players, not knowing how they fit, or if they’re going to fit into your system, um, that’s kind of a tough thing to re-structure somebody’s contract and give them a new deal. We felt it was time to move on.

Rivera essentially confirmed what many here have been saying since before Dunbar was traded: Dunbar was still under contract. He had been told that there weren’t going to be any extensions until the coaches could determine how players fit in the new system, and his failure to accept that meant the team was going to go its own way. Either buy in, or get out.

[On the approach to free agency]

What we were looking to do was fill needs. As you look at the things and the guys that we have. And I can show you just a simple example, is bringing in a guy like Thomas Davis. I felt there was a need for the guys to understand the culture that I want to develop here. Thomas fit that bill. Thomas was also a very productive player the last few years....[he can still play]..but more important for me personally, he’s a guy who can help share my ideas, what my belief in as culture is, and he can help get the message across.

This was an interesting one. Rivera already told us at the Combine that the team would be using free agency to “fill needs.” I think most people - including myself - thought of those “needs” as being “players” to fill weak positions on the team. Rivera, however, starting off this portion of the press conference talking about a completely different sort of “need” entirely: The “need” to have someone help him build his culture. Thomas Davis, his reliable linebacker from Carolina. That he mentioned Davis first should firmly establish how important culture is as a foundational part of Rivera’s approach.

[On John Bostic]

We felt that John Bostic would be be a guy that we would bring back. He helped lead the defense. He was the MIKE LB for the most part. We believe he has the kind of tools to help lead that group.

Rivera clearly has a significant amount of confidence in Bostic’s ability to lead the linebacking corps, which is an important sign that he thinks at least 13 of that group may be pinned down going into the 2019 season.

[On the draft. How do you set the board? What’s the research process?]

We’re actually going to get started with our positional coaches tomorrow. They’ll be reading what they now saw on the tape. Now we’ll rely on a coaches’ point of view. Their perspective on how these players play, what their skillsets are, and whether or not we believe they’ll fit into our systems. It’s not just about being a great football player, but you’ve also got to be a guy that’s going to be able to be part of a fit. And um, because a lot of times if you just go off their numbers, not off their football ability, whether or not their football ability will transfer into fitting into your system or style of play, you know you’ve got to be really smart and diligent about that.

This was music to my ears. The days of “we don’t draft for scheme fit” are officially dead and buried. We’re not just going to be looking for the most talented players, we’re going to be looking for the most talented players who fit our systems. No more drafting square pegs for round holes. Thank you, Coach Rivera (and Kyle Smith).

[On Logan Thomas]

Thomas is a guy that we see some glimpses of that type (Greg Olsen) of athletic ability. Pete Hoener, our TE coach, felt very strongly about this guy’s abilities. Mostly because he thought he was a very smart and savvy football player. He’s a tremendous athlete and he’s just learning and getting the position right now. Remember he’s a converted QB. A guy that has a skillset that’s a little unique because of his understanding of the way offenses work.

Rivera was looking for someone to fulfill Olsen’s “relief valve” role in the offense, and fell short of being able to actually sign Olsen. I like that he’s already explicitly pulling coaches into the personnel decision making. I’m also encouraged by Thomas’ promise, so it will be really exciting to see how he develops under Hoener’s guidance in the coming season.

[On drafting a TE. What’s your sense of that group?]

It is a position we like. Can we target them? Yeah, we could. But you know, we also feel that there’s some other positions in this draft that are available that would really fit some needs for us as well. So again, all options are open to us when it comes to each one of those rounds where we’re picking.....We feel we can fill a couple of really good needs with our first and third round picks.

His answer to this question roves from drafting a tight end, which doesn’t seem to draw a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from Rivera, to his continued frustration (clipped out here) with not having a second round pick. It doesn’t sound like Rivera is particularly focused on “best player available” early in the draft, however. Here he explicitly says the team will be looking to fill “needs” with its first two picks.

[On the plan for the draft]

Immediate thing you have to do, no matter where you’re picking in the first round..it does matter...when you’re in the first five spots, those have to be immediate impact guys. They’re going to be guys that you’re going to put on the field right away, and they’re going to play. That’s always been my philosophy. I’ve always believed in playing young guys when they’re ready to play.

Rivera makes a clear distinction here, between the responsibility of handling a “top 5 pick”, and the pressure on other first round picks. These top picks have to result in instant impact players: Day 1 starters.

Secondly, if you’re gonna make a trade, and you’re gonna go back, that guy you’re gonna take at that spot has to be able to make the kind of impact you need to validate missing an opportunity to take a player that’s a high impact guy. In other words, if you’re going to pass up player A, and you go back and you’re going to take player D, player D has to be equal to player A. You know what I’m saying, because again, if player A is going to play for you for 10 years, player D may not, and then, did you really get value or just get a whole bunch of picks? So you’ve got to be able to sit there and say that the next guy that I’m going to take is gonna be that high impact guy. And that’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I believe we need, is we need a guy that’s going to come in and really change our football team. To me, there’s a few guys on that board that are those kind of players.

Asked about the prospect of trading back from #2, Rivera gave a pretty illuminating and thoughtful answer. Theoretically, he would almost certainly consider a trade back, but within fairly tightly constrained limits. Rivera would only consider a tradeback if it allows the team to take equivalent players. Not slightly worse players for more picks. Equivalent players.

His final line, “to me, there’s a few guys on that board that are those kind of players” is very telling. I read that as “as long as I get one of my three top guys, we can trade back.” It’s probably not unreasonable speculation to assume those three guys are Chase Young, Isaiah Simmons, and Jeff Okudah, as they’re widely held to be the three top defensive players in the draft. If this interpretation is correct, it probably means he’s not open to trading back beyond the 5th or 6th pick, as that’s about as far back as one of those players can be assured to last.

[Do you know what you’re doing at #2. Is there a plan in place?]

Well, I’d like to believe that in the back of my mind I know what we want to do. But you’ve got to go through the process. You’ve got to go through what we’re gonna go through for the next 5 days, with our readings, with our coaches. And then what we’re going to do the next 5 days after that, with Kyle and I....Do we try to make a deal to get back into the second round somewhere along the line as well. There’s a lot to think about.

Finally, unprompted, Rivera raised the possibility getting back into the second round. At about the time Trent Williams was allowed to seek a trade, Rivera spoke about how not having a second round pick was “going to be a burden.” Rivera’s partially full draft quiver is clearly a sore spot. Whether it’s through a trade back, capital acquired in a trade for Trent, or perhaps even a trade up, I expect this is a shortcoming he’s going to give a lot of consideration to - and attempt to resolve - in advance of Day 2 of the draft.