In this two-part series, I am grading Ron Rivera’s draft classes in Washington based on how well he did at finding the best players available to raise the talent level of the roster, and comparing his performance to three of the best drafting teams: Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers. In Part 1, I graded the 2020 draft, in which Rivera partnered with former VP of Player Personnel Kyle Smith to deliver better value for draft capital than some of the best front offices in the business. In Part 2, we will see if Rivera was able to find similar success working with his hand-picked replacements, after moving Smith along to Atlanta.
For a detailed explanation of the methodology and rationale, read the previous article. Briefly, 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 on a classical bell curve. This is a more stringent grading scale than typical draft grades you find on the internet. It has the advantage over more usual inflated grading scales of being able to differentiate truly exceptional value picks from very good ones.
Each pick was graded by calculating a Z-score, which measures how much higher or lower the player’s wAV value is than the average of the next 16 to 32 picks in units of standard deviations. The Z-scores mapped onto letter grades as follows:
A+ Z > 2.25, Exceptional value
A Z = 2, Excellent
B Z = 1, Good
C+ Z = 0.25 to 0.5, Above average
C Z = 0, Average
C- Z = -0.25 to -0.5, Below average
D Z = -1, Needs Improvement
E Z = -2, Fail
2021 Washington Draft Class
This was the first draft with Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney replacing Kyle Smith. As in the previous article, we’ll start by visualizing how the Football Team’s picks rated in terms of wAV values compared to the other players in the draft.
LB Jamin Davis, Pick #19, wAV 13. Davis got off to a slow start as a rookie, and improved considerably in his second season. His wAV value is just above the value expected at the 19th pick (blue line). Perhaps surprisingly, in two seasons, he has been well above average of the next 24 players off the board. Of those players, only RB Najee Harris (pick 24, wAV 16), DE Gregory Rousseau (pick 30, wAV 17), and OL Landon Dickerson (pick 37, wAV 16) have been better.
OT Sam Cosmi, Pick #51, wAV 7. Cosmi was drafted to play RT, but struggled and was moved to G part time in 2022. In his first two seasons, has been right about on average value for his draft position. Significantly better players selected in the next 24 picks include TE Pat Freirmuth (pick 55, wAV 10), LB Nick Bolton (pick 58, wAV 13), LB Pete Werner (pick 60, wAV 10), C Josh Myers (pick 62, wAV 12), OL Creed Humphrey (pick 63, wAV 22), QB Davis Mills (pick 67, wAV 14), and OL Brady Christensen (pick 70, wAV 11).
CB Benjamin St-Juste, Pick #74, wAV 5. St-Juste has played well when he has been on the field, but has missed significant time to injury, playing in only 21 of 34 games in his first two seasons. AV is a cumulative statistic, and his score suffers as result of missing games. Eleven of the next 32 players scored higher than St-Juste, with highlights including DT Osa Odighizuwa (pick 75, wAV 14), CB Paulson Adebo (pick 76, wAV 10), OL Spencer Brown (pick 93, wAV 15), and LB Baron Browning (pick 105, wAV 10). If BSJ can get on the field more in 2022, he might continue his upward trajectory. However, that could be a challenge, with Washington adding two new defensive backs in the first two rounds of the draft.
WR Dyami Brown, Pick #82, wAV 2. There was talk that Brown could be the steal of the draft when Ron and the Martys grabbed him toward the end of Day 2. To date, he has performed well below those lofty expectations, struggling to attract QBs’ attention (39 targets in 30 games), and struggling to catch the ball (43.6% catch rate) when he has. The steal in this part of the draft turned out to be WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (pick 112, wAV 21), selected by Detroit 30 picks later. Fourteen of the next 32 players did better than Dyami, including St. Brown and WR Nico Collins (pick 80, wAV 7), OL Spencer Brown (pick 93, wAV 15), OL Robert Hainsey (pick 95, wAV 7), C Quinn Meinerz (pick 98, wAV 8), LB Ernest Jones (pick 103, wAV 9), CB Brandon Stephens (pick 104), LB Baron Browning (pick 105, wAV 10) and C Drew Dalman (pick 114, wAV 8).
TE John Bates, Pick #82, wAV 3. Bates has been a solid blocking tight end but has done very little as a receiver. His performance to date has been a little below expectations for his draft position. Three of the next four players off the board have had significantly greater impact: CB Camryn Bynum (pick 83, wAV 8), RB Chuba Hubbard (pick 126, wAV 9), OL Dan Moore (pick 128, wAV 15). Other better players in the next 32 included CB Marco Wilson (pick 136, wAV 10), G Royce Newman (pick 142, wAV 12), K Evan McPherson (pick 149, wAV 7), RB Kenneth Gainwell (pick 150, wAV 9), and OL Larry Borom (pick 151, wAV 8).
S Darrick Forrest, Pick #163, wAV 5. Forrest played in 8 games, primarily on special teams, in his rookie season and then emerged as a quality starter in 2022. His wAV score is all due to his one season starting. If he continues playing like 2022 or improves, he will become an exceptional value in this part of the draft. To this point in his career, he is just a little above average in his cohort. Significantly better players in the next 32 included S Talanoa Hufanga (pick 180, wAV 15, 2022 AP1 All Pro, wAV also based on a single seasons as a starter), RB Elijah Mitchell (pick 194, wAV 9) and DL Roy Lopez (pick 195, wAV 13).
LS Camaron Cheeseman, Pick #225, wAV 2. Ron and the Martys traded a 2022 fifth-round pick to Philadelphia to go get their man at this pick, while adding pick #240 in the seventh round. As far as I can tell, this is the first time a team has ever traded up for a long snapper and will probably also be the last. The trade would have looked brilliant if they had instead targeted the next player off the board, G Trey Smith (pick 226, wAV 18), who was far and away the best player taken in the remaining 34 picks of the draft. In fact, Smith was the best player drafted after Amon-Ra St. Brown at pick #112. The pickings are rather thin this late in the draft, and the only significantly better players taken after Smith were DE Jonathon Cooper (pick 239, wAV 9) and WR Ben Skowronek (pic 249, wAV 5). Still, you have to wonder whether Cheeseman would have been available after the draft.
DE William Bradley King, Pick #240, wAV 0. With the 240th pick gained in the trade for Cheeseman, Rivera’s picked William Bradley King who has done nothing to date. No stars emerged from the final 19 picks, but even so this pick managed to be well below the average of the remaining players.
DE Shaka Toney, Pick #246, wAV 2. Not content with just one DE in the seventh round, Ron and the boys went back to the well and selected Shaka Toney, who has become a core special teams player. He has performed ever so slightly above expectations for the late seventh round.
WR Dax Milne, Pick #248, wAV 1. Milne was the second-to-last player drafted. To generate a Z-score I had to compare him to the 20 surrounding picks (19 before and 1 after). That doesn’t really accurately reflect Rivera’s decision making, but it was the best approximation of what the first 19 UDFAs on teams’ boards might look like. At any rate, Milne is a roster-fringe WR and his greatest contribution to date is not fumbling punt returns.
2021 Draft Grades and Comps
The dynamic trio of Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney didn’t quite live up to the standard set by Rivera and Smith. Meanwhile, the better teams showed us how it’s done, with one major exception.
First Round. The 49ers made one of the worst moves that any team can do in the draft. They traded up into the top five to pick a quarterback, sacrificing two first round picks and a third rounder in the process. In doing so, they became the 8th team to attempt this bonehead maneuver in the salary cap era. Not one of the eight QBs targeted in a trade in the top five has been good enough to earn a second contract with the team that drafted them. The trade target, Trey Lance, sat a year behind Jimmy Garoppolo and then was injured in his second start in 2022. He might eventually become a good player, but the pick gets a failing grade based on production to date.
Jamin Davis was among the best of the likely prospects available at 19 and Washington’s pick earns a very good B grade, blowing away the 49ers and Packers who whiffed on their first round picks.
Day 2. The Chiefs made two of the best selections on Day 2, picking day one starting LB Nick Bolton followed by C Creed Humphrey in the second round. Humphrey came third in ORoY voting in 2021 and was named AP second-team All Pro in 2022. The Packers came second, by selecting another day one starter, C Josh Myers in the second round. Myers’ score would likely be an A if he had not missed 11 games to injury in his rookie season.
Washington found solid, if unexceptional, value in OL Sam Cosmi and CB Benjamin St-Juste on Day 2 to finish in a near tie for third (a.k.a. last) place with San Francisco.
Day 3. After trailing the pack for the first two days of the draft, the 49ers sprinted to the lead on Day 3, finding better than average value with each of their four remaining picks and exceptional value with two of them. These include backup OL Jaylon Moore, second-year starting CB Deommodore Lenoir, 2022 first team All Pro S Talanoa Hufanga, and RB Elijah Mitchell, whose wAV score would be a lot higher if he hadn’t missed most of the 2022 season due to injury. These four picks together are better than most teams’ entire 2021 draft classes. The Chiefs had an uneventful Day 3 until picking G Trey Smith, the best value pick in the 2021 draft class, with the next pick after Washington drafted a long snapper. Green Bay finishes third by drafting first year starting OL Royce Newman in the fourth round. Despite having six picks on Day 3, Ron and the Marty’s only found above average value with one of them, second-year starting S Darrick Forrest.
2021 Draft Scoring Summary
It is a tight race for first place between the Chiefs and 49ers, each of whom drafted an All-Pro player and found exceptional value with another while drafting additional starters with their other picks. However the 49ers get a major demerit for committing the worst blunder in the entire draft with their first-round pick, which had serious impacts on their next two drafts.
2021 Overall Winner: Kansas City
The Chiefs did the best job of finding the best available players without needlessly squandering draft capital. The 49ers finish second, even despite the trade disaster. Washington is the only team of the four that failed to find exceptional value with any of its picks and finishes dead last.
2022 Washington Draft Class
It is not possible to get a firm handle on a draft class after just one year, because, as we’ve seen in the previous two classes, a lot of quality players will get their first starts in year two. Nevertheless, it is still possible to identify the teams that did the best job at finding immediate contributors, which should appeal to advocates of drafting for need. With the caveat that a lot could still change, let’s close this out with a look at Ron and the Martys’ 2022 draft class.
WR Jahan Dotson, Pick #16, wAV 4. Dotson had a good rookie season, considering that he lost five games to injury. However, mid-first round picks are expected to be high-impact players and his impact was nothing special compared to the next sixteen players off the board. Better value players in the next sixteen included G Zion Johnson (pick 17, wAV 8), QB Kenny Pickett (pick 20, wAV 7), LB Quay Walker (pick 22, wAV 7), OT Tyler Smith (pick 24, wAV 8), OL Tyler Linderbaum (pick 22, wAV 7), LB Devin Lloyd (pick 27, wAV 8), OL Cole Strange (pick 29, wAV 7), and DE George Karlaftis III (pick 30, wAV 7).
DT Phidarian Mathis, Pick #47, wAV 0. Mathis was injured on his third defensive snap and missed the rest of the season. This pick gets an incomplete.
RB Brian Robinson, Pick #98, wAV 3. Robinson had a solid rookie season after recovering from a gunshot wound, which made him miss the first four games. He represented significantly better than average value compared to the next 32 players off the board. The only player who scored much higher in the next 32 was RB Dameon Pierce (pick 107, wAV 6).
S Percy Butler, Pick #113, wAV 1. Butler mainly saw playing time on special teams as a rookie, and flashed potential in limited opportunities on defense. His impact as a rookie was well below average, compared to the next 32 players off the board, including DB Demarri Mathis (pick 115, wAV 4), WR Romeo Doubs (pick 132, wAV 4), OL Spencer Burford (pick 134, wAV 7), OT Cordell Volson (pick 136, wAV 9), TE Isaiah Likely (pick 139, wAV 4), TE Chigoziem Okonkwo (pick 143, wAV 4).
QB Sam Howell, Pick #144, wAV 1. This pick was clearly about the future, as Rivera didn’t allow Howell to see the field until the meaningless final game, despite not having a plausible starter at QB. Some players who got more opportunities to log production in the next 32 included LB Micah McFadden (pick 146, wAV 4), RB Tyler Allgeier (pick 151, wAV 8), CB Tariq Woolen (pick 153, wAV 10), DB DaRon Bland (pick 167, wAV 4), and OT Braxton Jones (pick 168, wAV 8).
TE Cole Turner, Pick #149, wAV 0. There is nowhere for Turner to go but up. The first-year tight end caught two of nine passes thrown his direction (22.2% catch rate) for 23 yards. Players the Commanders might have considered in the next 32 include Tyler Allgeier, Tariq Woolen, DaRon Bland, Braxton Jones or DE Kingsley Enagbare (pick 179, wAV 4).
OL Chris Paul, Pick #230, waV 0. Expectations for an offensive lineman picked in the seventh round should be low, so it would be unfair to call Paul a disappointment. We will see what he does with opportunities in training camp. Some players who might have returned greater immediate value at pick 230 include OL Thayer Munford (pick 238, wAV 3), LB Rodney Thomas II (pick 239, wAV 4), DB Jaylen Watson (pick 243, wAV 3), RB Isiah Pacheco (pick 251, wAV 7), and QB Brock Purdy (pick 262, wAV 6).
CB Christian Holmes, Pick #240, wAV 2. Holmes became a solid special teams contributor, which is all anyone should expect of a seventh-round draft pick, unless you think you can find a starting QB this late in the draft. Better players left on the board included Isiah Pacheco and Brock Purdy and that was pretty much it.
2022 Draft Grades and Comps
In their second draft together, Ron and the Marty twins picked up where they left off, finding average value with their picks, while the better drafting teams continued to find exceptional value throughout the draft.
First Round. The Chiefs and Packers both managed to find quality starters in the first round who represented well-above average value for their draft positions. The Chiefs nudge ahead for the win by finding better value in edge rusher George Karlaftis III near the end of the round. The Commanders pick, Jahan Dotson, had a good rookie season, but at pick 16 represents just average value for his draft position. The 49ers get a major demerit for throwing away their first-round pick.
Day 2. The Packers win the second day of the draft by picking WR Christian Watson, one of the two WRs available in the second round. Watson outperformed half of the WRs picked in the first round, including Dotson. The Commanders and Chiefs both found better than average value with their picks near the end of the third round. The 49ers got off to a terrible late start.
Day 3. For the second year in a row, the 49ers come back from a slow start to pull even with the leaders on the third day of the draft. Finding day one starting G Spencer Burford in the fourth round and QB Brock Purdy with the last pick of the draft could be enough to make people forget the Trey Lance trade debacle. After getting the start in Week 13, Purdy never ranked lower than 14th in total QBR through the rest of the regular season. From Weeks 14 through 17, he was a top 9 QB and was the top ranked QB in the NFL in week 14. If he continues to play like that in the future, he will become the value pick of this draft.
The Chiefs come in second on Day 3, hitting on RB Isiah Pacheco in the seventh round as well as finding CB Jaylen Watson, who had a pick six and six passes defended in his rookie season.
The Packers also finished strong, finding exceptional value in the fifth round with edge defender Kingsley Enagbare, who took over starting duties from week 10. They also got well above average value in the fourth round from WR Romeo Doubs, who started seven games before getting injured in Week 9.
Meanwhile, the Commanders found average to below average value on Day 3. Of course, their grade for Day 3 could change dramatically if QB Sam Howell becomes at least an average starter. For now he represents slightly below average value compared to the players picked immediately after him.
2022 Winners and Losers
The Green Bay Packers did the best job of drafting the best available players, adding four players to their roster who represented better than average value for their draft position, including new starters at WR, LB and Edge. The Chiefs finished a close second, with two exceptional value picks and two well above average value picks. The 49ers also had two exceptional value picks on Day 3. If Brock Purdy becomes a franchise QB, they could become the eventual winners.
For the second year in a row, Ron Rivera’s Commanders finish dead last. They were the only one of the four teams that failed to find exceptional value with any of their picks, and only found above average value with one of eight picks.
Overall Verdict on Ron Rivera’s Draft Classes
2020: Rivera got off to a great start in Washington with the 2020 draft. Working with Kyle Smith, he found excellent value in new starters Antonio Gibson and Kam Curl and drafted quality rotational defensive end, James-Smith Williams late in the seventh round. This draft haul was better than those selected by the Chiefs, 49ers and Packers, three of the teams that have done the best at drafting All-Pro talents.
2021: The following year, Rivera parted ways with Smith and brought in old familiar Marty Hurney. as well as one of the masterminds behind the 0-16 2008 Lions, Marty Mayhew. The three amigos dropped the ball, striking out in the hunt for exceptional value and only getting better than average value with two of eight picks. Meanwhile, each of the other three teams found exceptional value with at least one of their picks and above average to excellent value with a few of their other picks. With Hurney and Mayhew replacing Kyle Smith, the Football Team was completely outclassed by the competition.
2022: In Rivera’s most recent evaluable draft class, Washington once again finished in last place, with only one above average value in 8 draft picks. Each of the other teams found excellent value with at least two of their picks, and found above average values with other picks.
The overall verdict is that Rivera did a great job of finding the best talent available in his first draft when he was working with Kyle Smith. Since replacing Smith with his hand-picked front office, he has done a good job of finding average and below average players, but thus far has failed to find the elite talents the Commanders need to compete with the best teams in the league.
Of course, there is still plenty of time for the outlook on Rivera’s Washington drafts to change. Heading into the 2023 season, a lot of fans are still hanging onto hopes that Chase Young will finally take the next step to become the elite player we thought we were getting when he was drafted. From the 2021 draft class, Sam Cosmi or Darrick Forrest could continue developing into high end talents. And the book is far from written on the 2022 draft class.
On the other hand, the teams that Commanders might have to compete against if they make it to the playoffs this season all added multiple players who have already proven themselves from those same draft classes. While Rivera has been drafting good players, the better drafting teams have been adding great ones.
Which was Rivera’s best draft pick?
DE Chase Young
RB Antonio Gibson
S Kam Curl
LB Jamin Davis
CB Benjamin St.-Juste
S Darrick Forrest
WR Jahan Dotson
RB Brian Robinson
QB Sam Howell
LS Camarron Cheeseman
Which was Rivera’s worst draft pick?
DE Chase Young
OT Saahdiq Charles
WR Antonio Gandy-Golden
OT Sam Cosmi
WR Dyami Brown
OT Phidarian Mathis
LS Camarron Cheeseman
Can you ever have enough pass rushers?