For every comment and criticism that can be offered about Washington’s 2023 draft, one thing that must first be said is, we’ve come a long way from these days:
“I don’t do the scheme thing. When we look at players we look at talent. It’s up to the defensive coordinator and the defensive back coaches to scheme him up. We’re not in the room with the scheme. I don’t know exactly what the scheme is.”
“For us, talking from the personnel standpoint, our job is not schematic. We don’t look at a quarterback and say ‘he can play in this scheme or that scheme,’ we basically judge from talent, what we see, what a guy can do.” - Doug Williams, former Senior Vice President of Player Personnel (2019)
At around the same time, Williams also made these comments, a number of months after having selected Derrius Guice in the second round:
“I could sit here, and I won’t, name a bunch of teams that took on players that got a lot of baggage that nobody’s saying anything about. You can’t get into nitpicking what they do and what you do. You gotta look at it from your standpoint.”
“We’ve got people who are in high, high, high, high places that have done far worse, and if you look at it realistically, they’re still up there. This is small potatoes (compared to) a lot of things out there.”
Washington’s 2023 draft could hardly be more antithetical to those two perspectives. Scheme fit and character considerations appear to have been among the most prominent variables considered by Ron Rivera and the Martii this year. What follows is an evaluation of each draft pick through the lens of scheme fit.
Round 1 - Emmanuel Forbes (CB)
While Devon Witherspoon, the cornerback from Illinois, appears to have been a virtual consensus number one corner in the draft, the community agreement seems to have broken down after that selection. Many thought Oregon corner, Christian Gonzalez was CB2, but not Washington’s front office, who had a chance to grab him at 16. Instead, they took the slight, ballhawking back from Mississippi State.
Mark Bullock reviewed Forbes before the draft, and offered this assessment:
Forbes is clearly a strong zone defender with a high level of understanding of not only his role, but the bigger overall picture of the defensive structure and how offenses will look to attack it. Having that level of big picture understanding is impressive for a college corner and is a huge asset as he enters the NFL. He’ll fit with any team that plays zone coverage, but many NFL defenses are evolving into match coverages, which start off looking like zone while defenders read the releases of multiple receivers and then decide which one to attach to. This takes a lot of time to learn and perfect, but Forbes appears to have the mental capacity for it, which makes him a strong fit for what the Commanders do defensively.
Given the team’s debacular signing of William Jackson III, who seemed restricted to playing man-coverage well, the front office appears to have learned their lesson, focusing significant investment on a player who is almost ideally situated to Jack Del Rio’s predominantly zone scheme.
Round 2 - Jartavius Martin (CB/S)
When Washington double-dipped at secondary with their second pick in the draft, the most common reaction seemed to be “what?” with a corresponding look of confusion. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise given that nickel corner was probably the most glaring starting “need” for the team after Bobby McCain’s release earlier this year.
From his draft profile at the Draft Network:
Illinois defensive back Jartavius Martin projects as a safety/nickel linebacker hybrid for the NFL level. “Quan” Martin has size, physicality, and tackling skills at his disposal, making him a potential valuable subpackage defender in today’s NFL game. His tackling skills give him an added boost to be a reliable defender against the run and make him a prospect I think is capable of commanding the majority of snaps in an NFL defense.
Expectations for Martin will vary by team, but I think anyone looking to get the best version of him is wise to commit to playing him in the nickel. Whether you classify him as a corner or a safety is really inconsequential relative to the nickel role—although I do think he can move around as a shallow MOF defender beyond more than just the slot.
On the occasion of McCain’s departure, Matt wrote a very nice article on the slot/nickel position in Washington’s defense.
In 2021, NFL teams were in their nickel package around 61% of the time. That said, McCain played a full 93% of Washington’s defensive snaps over the course of the past two years. Martin, perhaps viewed in some defenses as a “sub-package” player, could end being the second most heavily utilized player in Washington’s defense in the coming years as a result of their aggressive use of secondary-heavy schemes.
Round 3 - Ricky Stromberg (C)
Much to the elation of many fans concerned about the future of Chase Roullier, Washington drafted one of the top centers in the draft in the third round. New offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy is expected to rely more heavily on a zone blocking scheme (ZBS) than his predecessor, Scott Turner, did:
The Chiefs like to use a bunch of different run concepts from a variety of looks. While they might not specialize in the zone scheme to the extent that Kyle Shanahan might, they still use it frequently.
That seems like a great match with Stromberg’s skillset. From his Bleacher Report draft profile:
Ricky Stromberg is a four-year starter who ended his career with 25 consecutive and 44 career starts predominantly at center, including 12 at the pivot last season in Arkansas’ approximately 65-35 run-pass split offense with a zone-based run scheme and gap concepts sprinkled in.
In the running game, Stromberg quickly transitions from the snap of the ball out of his stance and into first meaningful contact with outstanding physicality and pad level to work underneath his opponent, delivering jolt on contact. This is routinely seen in 2i/1T/0T alignments on tight-zone base blocks and combination blocks.
Round 4 - Braeden Daniels (OL)
Like Stromberg, Daniels is steeped in ZBS experience.
From a Draft Network interview with Daniels:
JM: We saw that from you. The film backs up the combine numbers. When I turn the tape on, I see an excellent athlete that executes his assignments with good timing. Do you see yourself playing in a zone-blocking scheme?
Braeden Daniels: I’d say yes. We ran that type of offense at Utah. It was an NFL-style offense. We ran a ton of zone-based concepts. Honestly, I feel like I can help any team in any scheme. I’m coming in to learn. I want to learn. I’m very coachable.
Like you said, I can help a team at multiple positions. I can help us run the ball against any defense in the country.
Round 5 - KJ Henry (EDGE)
The trade up for KJ Henry seemed like a reasonable move at the time. Even though I wasn’t that familiar with his play at Clemson, he seemed to be well respected in the scouting accounts. It was only once I began looking into him more closely that he struck me as a near perfect fit as an EDGE defender in Jack Del Rio’s scheme.
Why? Fans across the DMV experience anxiety spikes when issues with “gap integrity” are mentioned during the telecast. That’s a problem that goes back as long as Rivera and Del Rio have been in town:
Rivera mentioned gap integrity again when it comes to Washington stopping the run. He said yesterday that was an issue, and it's important for the players to understand that going forward.— Zach Selby (@ZachSelbyWC) November 9, 2020
It got so bad at one point during 2021, that the defense actually looked better when Chase Young and Montez Sweat were out with injury, and their back-ups actually stuck to their roles in the defense.
At Clemson, on a defense filled with first round picks like Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, Henry happily played a less splashy role - potentially hurting his ultimate draft stock - for one that benefitted the overall defense.
From his Draft Network profile:
On the field, Henry checks a lot of boxes to be a prototypical 4-3 end or power rush linebacker at the NFL level. He possesses ideal length, effective hand usage, and an understanding of how to stack blocks—leaving him as a viable run defender and a capable player in early downs. Henry appears to be a high-floor prospect who will make a team very happy in a rotational role at the next level, similar to what he’s fulfilled for Clemson amid a myriad of defensive linemen. He showcases heavy hands, a strong motor, and a firm sense of pushing through softer angles to collapse the pocket, making him a player who projects well to fronts who look to contain rush and outside contain. He isn’t a dynamic threat off the edge on passing downs but he has good diagnosis skills and has been a long-entrenched player for the Tigers as a 50-60% snap player who wins at the point of attack.
I like him best in a gap control system at the next level. That will admittedly cut down on his impact plays and opportunities as a pass rusher and that is almost certainly going to bite him when it comes to draft value and prioritization—especially in a loaded draft class in the EDGE group.
I don’t think this can be stated emphatically enough, unselfish EDGE players like Henry are what this defense needs. Not players looking to accumulate huge numbers of sacks - which are more likely to accrue to the interior defenders in this scheme.
Round 6 - Chris Rodriguez Jr (RB)
When Washington selected another bruising running back in round 6, lots of folks were left scratching their heads. Some even insisted that he was the opposite of a good fit for Bieniemy’s ZBS. Hardly anything could be further from the truth.
From a draft day analysis of Rodriguez’s selection:
The Commanders will likely run a version of the West Coast offense that uses a heavy amount of motion and a pass-first approach. Washington is going to want to get the ball into hands of its wideouts so Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson can make plays in space. Operating primarily out of the shotgun, Bieniemy will use a downhill run attack with inside zone, power, and some counter concepts.
This is a 100 percent a scheme fit for Chris Rodriguez Jr.
Playing for offensive coordinator Eddie Gran from 2019-20, Rodriguez thrived in an inside zone offense operated primarily out of the shotgun. From 2021-22, Rodriguez was put in a pro-style offense and was at his best as a tight zone runner under Liam Coen and a gap scheme rusher under Rich Scangarello.
Rodriguez is a physical downhill runner that avoids negative plays and breaks tackles with efficiency, but owns limited extra-base pop. The best pro fit for the Kentucky product will be as a short-yardage option that can also serve as a fill-in starter. Rodriguez will have to earn that role in Washington, but he’ll be playing in an offense that fits his skill set.
It’s interesting too, that in watching Rodriguez’s film, I was reminded almost immediately of Tyler Allgeier, the Falcons hard-hitting 2022 5th round selection who thrived in Atlanta last season. Turns out, the Falcons had one of the highest zone blocking percentages in the league last year.
While there can certainly be questions about whether Washington took the most talented players at their respective positions in the draft this year, I think there can be little doubt that every player they selected was chosen with an eye for how he meshes with the team’s schematic priorities, and that’s progress.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how each of these players thrives - or does not - on a team well-suited to their talents in the coming season.
How important is scheme fit in drafting well?
This poll is closed
Probably the most important element.
Less important than talent, but right up there.
Kind of important.
Let the coaches figure it out.