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What do we know about the draft philosophies of Washington’s Front Office?

Carolina Panthers introduce new GM Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I recently came upon an interesting tweet that included quotes from Washington’s Executive Vice President of Football/Player Personnel, Marty Hurney, about his draft philosophy, captured in 2018.

That spurred a curiosity, particularly in the wake of my Draft Commandment series, about whether or not I might be able to track down the draft approach opinions of each of the key front office members, and be able to dive into their words, and actions, a little more deeply. I’ll start with the lower ranking staffers and work my way up to Head Coach Ron Rivera.

CAROLINA PANTHERS VS. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS Sam Riche/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Chris Polian, Director of Pro Personnel

Polian is one of three former general managers on Washington’s staff. Of the three, he’s also gone the longest without holding a GM job. He served as GM of the Colts from 2009-2011, following on the heels of his father, Bill Polian’s, tenure in the role.

What I found was interesting. In the wake of the 2011 draft, Stampede Blue, Indianapolis’ SBNation blog, appeared to be relieved that the Colts’ and their GM were finally focusing on need, now out from under stifling “best player available” (BPA) thumb of Polian’s old man.

This is an shift because, as we all have seen, this draft for the Colts is wildly popular with fans. They clearly focused on ‘need,’ not the age old ‘best player available’ song and dance that Bill Polian often gave us. Equally important is that they did not reach for need players. They clearly identified who they wanted, and in the case of Ben Ijalana, they went out and got the guy.

In this case, the victory dance around the second round selection of Ben Ijalana (T) seems to have been premature, as he started exactly 13 games over a 7-year career. But how does the rest of that draft look a decade out? Other than first round pick, Anthony Costanzo (T), it was bust city. Including Ijalana, the four players taken after Costanzo ended up, collectively, starting 23 games in their short careers.

Looking back through Colts’ drafts during that timeframe, the 2011 draft stands out as uniquely terrible, and could easily be a significant reason (in addition to finishing 2-14) for the dismissal of both Polians at the end of that season.

It’s interesting, given his father’s Hall of Fame pedigree, that the younger Polian would have chosen to buck his approach to the draft. But perhaps, like our next front office executive, he’s learned from experience.

NFL: AUG 08 Preseason - Panthers at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marty Hurney, Executive Vice President of Football/Player Personnel

As most Washington fans now know, Marty Hurney is the former two-time General Manager of the Carolina Panthers (2002–2012, 2017–2020). From 2011-2012 and 2017-2019, he served in that role alongside Ron Rivera.

In the 2018 article that initially drew my attention to the topic, Hurney has several fascinating and deeply loaded quotes. For some context, at this point, Hurney had hit several home runs in the first rounds of previous drafts (Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, Luke and Kuechly), but had a bit of a reputation of largely striking out with later round picks:

“We’ve talked a lot about when you get to the second round,” Hurney said before leaving for Indy. “We might have leaned toward need more (in the past), but if you keep that first-round philosophy (of best available player) in the second and third rounds, then you’d like your top three-round picks to come in and if they don’t start in their first year at least fill a role and contribute.

“Keeping that philosophy after the first round – that’s something I’ve been going through in my mind.”

This sort of nuance - and frankness - seems relatively rare to come by, so reading it feels a bit like being an ornithologist, capturing a glimpse of a seldom-seen bird giving up the secrets to its complex nest building ritual, oblivious to the curious observer below.

Hurney lays out two key points: 1) In the first round, his strategy has been best player available (“a ‘safe guy’ – a guy who really doesn’t have a lot of reasons why he wouldn’t be successful at this level.”); 2) After some prior hurdles in later rounds, it sounds like he’s wavering a bit. He seems to see the merit of extending BPA to the second and third rounds, but he adds a quasi-”need”-based caveat: “if they don’t start in their first year [they should] at least fill a role and contribute.”

On the one hand, every single player who makes the 53-man roster should “fill a role and contribute,” whether that’s as a special teams gunner, a reliable developmental player on the scout team in practice, or an option of last resort if the talent in front of him goes down. I don’t really think that’s exactly what Hurney means here. It feels to me like it’s more pressure than that, but I could be incorrect.

“You don’t want to sit there and say, ‘We’re going to take this approach,’ because that’s where sometimes you reach for somebody,” Hurney said. “I think you have to let the situations come to you.”

Hurney said that “watching some of the best general managers in the business” during his time away from the game helped him learn patience when it comes to resisting the urge to draft for need.

Later in the piece, Hurney preaches patience in the draft and indicates that he used his hiatus in Carolina to try to reign in the desire to draft for need. Whether he succeeded or not is still a little difficult to discern. The only obvious stars from Hurney’s last 2 drafts in Carolina are DJ Moore, and Brian Burns. All 15 players from those drafts are still in the league though, so perhaps many of them are just “filling a role and contributing” for the time being. It’s encouraging to see the evolution of Hurney’s thoughts on the matter, if nothing else.

Detroit Lions v Oakland Raiders Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Martin Mayhew, General Manager

Mayhew is Washington’s first true General Manager since Scot McCloughan was unceremoniously run out of town in 2016. He served as GM of the Detroit Lions from 2008 through 2015.

In 2012, Mayhew was in an interesting spot. He was in the middle of his stint as GM, coming off a rare 10-6 season - the Lions’ first in 15 years - and the press was asking questions like, “with such a stacked team, was now the time to start drafting for need?” After all, there were so few needs on the team now. Mayhew’s response was pretty unambiguous:

“Our (draft) philosophy, we talk about it pretty much every year, we’ll take the best player available,” said Mayhew. “What we don’t want to do is reach for needs at specific positions - bypass good players to reach for a need. In the history of the draft, I’ve seen a lot of mistakes doing that, and we don’t believe in that.”

Just like Hurney, Mayhew’s approach at that moment in time seemed to have grown out of a recognition that he had made mistakes earlier in his career drafting for need, and that his paradigm had shifted dramatically as a result.

And, Mayhew practiced what he preached. He took a DT (Nick Fairley) in the first round the year after taking Ndamukong Suh #2 overall. He took a WR in the second round, despite having Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson on the roster. Mayhew’s drafts definitely tended to be hit or miss - he had a really nice one in 2013, and a bit of a dog in 2011 - but in nearly every draft, he was able to find 2 or more starters. Predictably, his best drafts were the ones where he had the most picks, 2009 (10 picks) and 2013 (9 picks).

Ron Rivera, Head Coach

For all of the experience under him, the buck ultimately stops with Rivera. The perspectives of the other front office staff are ultimately subordinate to his, so I was particularly interested to see what I could find about his draft philosophy.

Earlier this month, Rivera held forth on the topic. He explained how the team’s activities in free agency have given them latitude in the draft:

“I think what our front office did and what we were able to do in free agency really helped us,” Rivera said during a Zoom media session on Friday. “I think we freed ourselves up because of what they did.”

“I think [front office executives] Martin [Mayhew] and Marty [Hurney] and their guys really helped put us in a position where we’ve got to really look at drafting best player available, but always keeping in mind what we feel the true need is,” Rivera said.

So Rivera appears, in this statement, to give primacy to BPA, but he does add the caveat of “keeping in mind the true need.” It’s “true need” here that throws me for a bit of a loop. What does that qualifier mean?

Looking at what Rivera and Washington did last year, it certainly appeared to be a BPA-style draft. Chase Young was absolutely considered the best player in the draft, at a position of high importance, at the #2 spot where he was selected. Antonio Gibson in third round was a bit of a surprise, at least to me, given that Guice was expected back and Love was on deck. In retrospect, the selection was very defensible on BPA grounds and Gibson turned out being one of the better RBs taken last year. Saahdiq Charles was a first/second round talent who ended up slipping to the 4th because of some character concerns and being a very plausible BPA at a position of need.

Keith Ismael, a center, was taken in the 5th, even with center locked down long term by the youthful Chase Roullier. Kam Curl slipped to the 7th, but by the end of the season he was one of the top defensive rookies in the league. James Smith-Williams was a high ceiling/low floor prospect who the team also grabbed in the 7th. Meanwhile, positions of assumed need, like tight end and free safety, were completely passed over in the draft.

For all this discussion, I’d be ecstatic if Rivera and his team draft as well again this year as they did in 2020. His guiding philosophy worked last year, both in free agency and the draft, and seems to have hit the mark in free agency again this year. Here’s hoping they stay the course this week.

Poll

What do you think about WFT’s draft priorities?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    I like them.
    (271 votes)
  • 10%
    I like to see more drafting for need.
    (72 votes)
  • 20%
    I’d like to see a stronger BPA focus.
    (142 votes)
  • 31%
    Is it draft day yet?
    (223 votes)
708 votes total Vote Now