In three years since Ron Rivera took over as the centerpiece of a coach-centric rebuild, the Washington NFL franchise has cycled through three different names and eight starting quarterbacks. But one thing has remained constant. The season record has hovered right around 0.500. No other team has been as consistently mediocre over the past three seasons.
Why have Rivera’s teams been unable to take the next step into positive territory? There are many possibilities. The failure to find a franchise QB, poor coaching, bad game management, uncompetitive schemes and play calling and too many roster holes are probably the most discussed.
There is another possibility, which doesn’t get discussed as often, which sets the playoff contenders apart from the teams whose seasons end in Week 17: the number of elite players. There is no doubt the Commanders have some good players. Most teams in the league would be happy to trade Terry McLaurin, Jonathan Allen or Daron Payne for someone on their roster. Compared to the best teams in the league, however, those types of players are in comparatively short supply on Washington’s roster and have been for a very long time.
The prevailing view I derive from articles and commentary on Hogs Haven, and from snap draft grades by most media analysts, is that draft strategy should focus on addressing roster needs. If true, that view is in sharp contrast to how most NFL GMs say they approach to the draft. For example, this is how Packers’ GM Brian Gutenkunst describes his inner battle to resist the subconscious drive to let immediate needs influence his draft board:
Brian Gutekunst on prioritizing immediate needs in the draft vs. taking the best player available: pic.twitter.com/NqwaMD3KjM— Paul Bretl (@Paul_Bretl) April 25, 2023
This article comes from the perspective, which I think most GMs would relate to, that the main purpose of the draft is to elevate a team’s talent ceiling for the long term, rather than seeking to raise the floor in the short term. The best way to do that is to try to select the best player available with each pick, rather than narrowing the choices to the next best players that meet an immediate need.
Why would anyone embrace such a crazy, counterintuitive, viewpoint? Because….
…Elite Talent Wins Championships
To illustrate the importance of elite talent, let’s have a quick look at the rosters of the teams that have made it to the championship round of the playoffs and beyond in Rivera’s three seasons in Washington. One of the best definitions of elite talent is nomination to any of the three All-Pro teams (AP, PFWA and The Sporting News). To widen the net a little, I’ll also include AP second-team All-Pro players.
The most dominant team over the last three seasons has been the Kansas City Chiefs, with three championship appearances, two titles, and one Super Bowl win (two in four years). They have had a league high 8 players receiving one or more All-Pro nomination in that period, and a league-high 5 drafted by the team. The other two Super Bowl winners in that period are the LA Rams (5 All Pros, 2 drafted), and the Buccaneers (4 All Pros, 3 drafted).
The two other teams that have made it to the championship round twice in three years are the 49ers (7 All Pros, 5 drafted) and the Bengals (3 All Pros, 3 drafted). Last of all, the teams with a single championship round appearance are Philadelphia (6 All Pros, 3 drafted), Buffalo (8 All Pros, 3 drafted), and Green Bay (8 All Pros, 5 drafted).
At the other end of the league table, the teams with the fewest All Pro players in the past three years are Washington (2), Arizona (2), Carolina (0), Jacksonville (0) and Houston (0). Together these teams have posted two winning seasons in the past three years, out of a total of 15 team-seasons. No team with 2 or fewer All Pros has won a playoff game in that period.
There is more than one way to add high-end talent to a roster. However, the constraints imposed by the salary cap favor using the draft as the primary team building tool. Sure enough, a review of the numbers above reveals that 6 of the 7 championship contenders have drafted most of their All-Pro players, with the lone exception, Philadelphia, having drafted 3 of their 6.
Counting backward from Brandon Scherff, the third All-Pro player drafted by Washington was Champ Bailey, selected in 1999. To find 5 drafted All Pros, to compete with teams like the Chiefs, 49ers and Packers, we would have to go all the way back to CB Barry Wilburn, drafted in 1985.
If the Commanders hope to build a championship contender, they will need to find better talent through the draft. It is hard enough to hit on elite players from amongst the most highly rated players available when a team is on the clock. It becomes even more difficult if certain players are taken off the board because they don’t address an immediate need.
Therefore, in this and the following article I will grade each draft pick in the Ron Rivera era based on how well the team did at picking the best available talent from the likely pool of prospects to give them the best chance of adding high end talent to the roster. Then I will compare their picks to those of the three recent championship contenders who have done the best job of stacking their rosters with elite talent through the draft: Kansas City, San Francisco and Green Bay.
People are so used to grade inflation, that not many of us can remember the days when an A in school really set a student apart. My grading scale is based on a classical bell curve, as practiced by certain math teachers at North Bethesda, Junior High School in the late 1970’s. The reason I use this scale is that it makes it possible to differentiate a truly exceptional draft pick from a very good one, both of which get an A in usual draft grading systems.
A+ Exceptional, an outlier from the available talent pool
A Excellent, 2 standard deviations above the mean
B Good, 1 standard deviation above the mean
C+ Above average
C Meets expectations, average value of the available talent pool
C- Below average
D Needs Improvement, 1 standard deviation below the mean
E Fail, 2 standard deviations below the mean
The other thing that’s different is that my system grades how well a team did at selecting the best talent from the likely candidates available at their pick, rather than how well they did at addressing perceived team needs four months ahead of the start of the season or how well they did at finding players who fit the culture the coach is trying to establish. Since I don’t have access to the Commander’s draft board, I used the next best substitute: the other teams’ draft boards, as I’ll explain below (see Comparison Cohorts section).
I used the wAV metric, developed by Pro Football Reference, to quantify how much impact each drafted player has had in the NFL. Each of Washington’s picks was graded by calculating a Z-score, which measures how much higher or lower the player’s wAV value is than the average value of the next group of players that are likely to be near the top of NFL teams’ boards, in units of standard deviations. For example, a Z-score of 1 could mean that the draft pick’s wAV value is 1 standard deviation higher than the average wAV of the next 32 picks. And a Z-score of -2 means that the draft pick’s wAV is 2 standard deviations below the mean of the next 32 picks. The Z-scores then mapped onto letter grades as shown above.
Comparison Cohorts. It would be unreasonable to expect any team to be able to find the best player available at their pick if that player ended up being picked a few rounds later. For example, nobody could reasonably fault the Tennessee Titans for picking Ryan Tannehill 6th overall in 2012, instead of Russell Wilson, who lasted until the third round. Wilson’s superior talent wasn’t obvious to anyone picking that early, since the next 68 GMs on the clock picked someone other than the eventual 9-time Pro Bowler.
To make the grading more reasonable, I attempted to compare each of Washington’s picks to the players were most likely to be near the top of their board when they made their selection. Since I don’t have access to Washington’s draft board, I used the next best thing: the other NFL teams’ draft boards. Therefore, the wAV value for each of Washington’s draft picks was compared to mean (a.k.a average) value of the next n players selected by other teams, or Washington if they picked again soon after.
The value of n varied depending on the position of Washington’s pick. It is easier for teams to identify the best of the remaining players early in the draft and becomes progressively more difficult to differentiate prospects as it proceeds. Therefore, the pool of players who are likely to have the same scouting grade increases as the draft unfolds. To approximate that effect, the number of players used for comparisons increased as follows:
Picks 1 to 16: n = 16
Picks 17 to 64: n = 24
Picks 65+: n = 32
When I got to within 10 picks of the end of the draft, the sample of the next n picks became too small for the mean and standard deviation to be reliable. In those few situations, I used the surrounding 20 picks as a substitute. Ideally, I would have used the next 32 draft picks plus UDFAs signed to rosters, but identifying the first-signed UDFAs is pretty much impossible.
2020 Washington Draft Class
In Ron Rivera’s first draft in Washington, he was partnered with Vice President of Player Personnel, Kyle Smith. The following graph shows the wAV value for every player selected in the draft as a function of draft pick number.
There is a ton of information in this graph. The average wAV value of the drafted players, is approximated by the trend line, which falls off steeply through the first half of the first round and hits an inflection point around pick 16, after which it becomes more shallow than steep. For the statistics nerds, the data is fit to a logarithmic curve and the explained variance of the curve fit (R2) is shown in the right-hand corner.
The trend line provides an indication of the expected wAV value at each draft pick. Players who sit above it represent better than expected value and players who sit below it represent worse than expected value. The quality of the curve fit breaks down in Round 7, where it sits too high.
Up until round 7, you can determine where a player’s actual value is by drawing a horizontal line from their point in the graph to the trend line. For example, a horizontal line from Kam Curl’s data point intersects the trend line near the end of first round. If you picked Curl 30th overall in a redraft, you should be happy with your pick. Saahdiq Charles, on the other hand, would have been good value about halfway through the 6th round.
Players who sit at the top of the scatter of points in their region of the graph are the exceptional values which teams should be seeking to find with their picks. The true “best player available” is any player whose data point is higher than any player to the right of them on the graph. Now, let’s see how well Ron and Kyle Smith did at finding those players.
DE Chase Young, Pick #2, wAV 19. The Commanders used the 2nd overall pick to select the consensus “best player in the draft”, Chase Young. After winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Young’s career was interrupted by an ACL injury causing him to miss 22 of 50 games since he was drafted. His wAV value of 19 is almost exactly on the average of the next 16 players selected (wAV 18.9), but well short of some other players who were selected near the top of the first round, including QB Justin Herbert (6th pick, wAV 43) and OT Tristan Wirfs (13th pick, wAV 36).
RB Antonio Gibson, Pick #66, wAV 19. The Commanders came very close to picking the best player still available when they selected Gibson (wAV 19). Only three players selected after Gibson in the entire draft have higher wAV values, and those players were not that much better: G Damien Lewis (pick 69, wAV 20), G Jonah Jackson (pick 75, wAV 21), WR Darnell Mooney (pick 173, wAV 20).
OL Saahdiq Charles, Pick #108, wAV 4. The next pick, Saahdiq Charles has been a disappointment to this point in his career. Eighteen players selected in the next 32 picks have had more impact. Significantly better players among them included: G John Simpson (pick 109, wAV 10), DE DJ Wonnum (pick 117, wAV 11), LB Mykal Walker (pick 119, wAV 11), WR Gabriel Davis (pick 128, wAV 19), G Kevin Dotson (pick 135, wAV 12), S L’Jarius Sneed (pick 138, wAV 13).
WR Antonio Gandy-Golden, Pick #142, wAV 0. The biggest disappointment in this draft class was Antonio Gandy-Golden, who only played in 10 games, catching one of seven targets for 3 yards. To select AGG, the Football Team passed on the following players who went in the next 32 picks: G Jack Driscoll (pick 145, wAV 10), C Tyler Biadasz (pick 146, wAV 17), WR Darnell Mooney (pick 173, wAV 20). All but 5 of the next 32 players did better than Gandy Golden.
C Keith Ismael, Pick #156, wAV 2. OK, Ismael didn’t do a whole lot better than AGG, appearing in 18 games and starting five. And that is more a reflection of the dire state of the Commanders’ center lineup in 2021 than Ismael’s play on the field. There weren’t a lot of top-shelf talents in the next 32, but he is still well below average in this pick range. Better players Kyle and Ron might have considered include: CB Bryce Hall (pick 158, wAV 7), CB Kindle Vildor (pick 163, wAV 7), DT Broderick Washington Jr (pick 170, wAV 8), WR Darnell Mooney (pick 173, wAV 20).
LB Khaleke Hudson, Pick #162, wAV 4. Hudson has provided more value than any of Washington’s previous three picks, taking a majority of special teams snaps in three seasons. His wAV might take a leap this season if he gets more opportunities on defense. He is just a bit below average for players taken in this part of the draft, but a run of much better players came off the board just after him including: Vildor, Washington Jr., Mooney, WR KJ Osborn (pick 176, wAV 10), OT Hakeem Adeniji (pick 180, wAV 9), G Michael Onwenu (pick 182, wAV 18), DT Bravvion Roy (pick 184, wAV 9), WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (pick 187, wAV 16), K Tyler Bass (pick 188, wAV 9), OT Jon Runyan Jr (pick 192, wAV 18).
S Kamren Curl, Pick #216, wAV 14. Washington’s best pick in the draft, in terms of value for draft capital, was Kam Curl, who has become an integral piece of Washington’s highly ranked defense. Not many teams ever manage to find quality starters in the seventh round. Only one player selected after Curl has a higher wAV, Mr. Irrelevant LB Tae Crowder (pick 255, wAV 16).
DE James Smith-Williams, Pick #229, wAV 11. Washington’s last selection, Smith-Williams has become a high-end backup and valuable rotational player, which represents exceptional value this late in the draft. The only player picked after him with a higher wAV was Crowder.
2020 Draft Grades and Comps
How did Rivera and Kyle Smith’s 2020 draft selections stack up against the playoff contenders with stacked rosters? Pretty damn well.
First Round: The only team to do significantly better than average in the first round was the 49ers. While Washington failed to land the elite talent they were hoping for with the second overall pick, Chase Young’s impact on the field has been about average compared to the next 16 players off the board. Still, the decision to draft him over two QBs with first-round grades will haunt the franchise for a decade. It is hard to judge Green Bay’s pick, Jordan Love, because he sat behind Aaron Rodgers since being drafted. We should get a clear idea how the Packers did with Love this season.
Day 2: Washington was not alone in trading away its second-round pick. The Packers got very good value by selecting RB AJ Dillon near the end of the second round, and the Chiefs got better than average value with the next pick, taking eventual starting LB Willie Gay. Rivera and Smith became the stars of the third round by picking WR/RB Antonio Gibson. Three years later, Gibson has had the fifth-most impact of any player remaining on the board at that point in the draft.
Day 3: The Chiefs hit on a quality starting CB, L’Jarius Sneed, in the fourth round to eventually replace 2019 starter, Kendall Fuller. Snead became a full-time starter in 2021 and has improved every season in the league. Meanwhile, Washington whiffed on their two fourth-round selections, while the 49ers and Packers had none. Nobody did much in the fifth round.
Three of the four teams hit on hidden gems in the later rounds. The Packers drafted OL Jon Runyan in the sixth round. He played in 16 games as rookie, and became a high-end full-time starter at guard for the next two seasons. In the seventh round, Washington found one of the best value picks in the draft with S Kam Curl, followed by DE James Smith-Williams who was exceptional value that late in the draft. The 49ers also finished strong with WR Juan Jennings, who has worked his way up to a starting role heading into the 2023 season.
2020 Draft Scoring Summary
The 49ers won the first day of the draft, although no team appears to have landed the type of elite talent that you hope to find in the first round, yet. Aiyuk is still on an upward trajectory, however, and the jury is still out on Jordan Love.
Washington did the best job of finding the best player available on Day 2 by picking Antonio Gibson in the third round.
On Day 3, Green Bay just edged out Washington for the best value pick by selecting G Jon Runyan in the second round, but Washington found the most total value with the selections of Kam Curl and James Smith-Williams in the seventh round.
2022 Overall Winner: Washington
Overall, Riveral and Smith did the best job of finding the best available players in 2020, with three exceptional value draft picks.
Summary and Part 2 Teaser
The Ron Rivera era in Washington got off to a strong start with a draft class that added three new starters to the roster and one quality role player. The partnership of Ron Rivera and Kyle Smith did about as well any front office in Washington since Scott McCloughan’s 2015 draft class, and held their own against some of the best drafting teams in the NFL. Three of the Football Team’s draft picks represented exceptional value for their draft positions.
The one thing that Rivera and Smith failed to do in this draft was hit on any elite players. But then again, neither did any of the other teams I compared them with. The best player picked by any of the teams, so far, is WR Brandon Aiyuk, who is on an upward trajectory, but has yet to reach elite status. Rivera had the best opportunity to draft an elite talent in his time in Washington with the 2nd overall pick. One could quibble about the decision to pick edge defender Chase Young with two highly rated QBs on the board, but Young was the consensus “best player in the draft”, and it was never likely that a first year coach would pick a QB 2nd overall with Dan Snyder’s hand picked QB, Dwayne Haskins heading into his second season.
Rivera and Smith also missed on a few picks, with their worst being WR Antonio Gandy-Golden. I have chosen not to focus on bad picks, because no team hits on every pick. The measure of a draft class is how many picks a team hit on, and in 2022 Washington did better than some of the best drafting teams in the league.
In Part 2, we will see how well Rivera did after sending Kyle Smith on his way and replacing him with his former colleague from Carolina, Martin Hurney and former Redskin player turned front office executive, Martin Mayhew.
Without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, what did you rate as Rivera’s best decision at the time of the 2020 draft?
This poll is closed
Picking Chase Young 2nd overall - always take the best player in the draft
Picking Antonio Gibson in the 3rd round - added a versatile playmaker
Picking OT Saahdiq Charles in the 4th round - perfect combination of value and need
Picking S Kam Curl in the seventh round - an athletic prospect that no one had heard of
Picking DE James Smith-Williams in the 7th round - you can never have too many pass rushers