Three years and a bit into the coach-centric rebuild, the Washington Commanders’ roster is largely a product of Ron Rivera’s making. Using Bill-in-Bangkok’s depth chart projection as a guide, only four of Washington’s 22 starters on offense and defense were on the team when Rivera was hired. They happen to be four of Washington’s best players: WR Terry McLaurin, DT Daron Payne, DT Jonathan Allen, DE Montez Sweat.
After three years, the profile of Rivera’s Commanders has come into focus. They are a team with a strong defense and an offense that is, shall we say, a work in progress. In 2022, the Commanders’ defense was the 6th best in the league in Expected Points Added (EPA), 7th best in points allowed, 4th best in total yards allowed, 4th best in passing yards allowed, 11th best in rushing yards allowed and 11th best in offensive yards per play. In contrast, the offense ranked 25th in EPA and 24th in points scored, averaging just 18.9 points per game. They were also 20th in total yardage, 21st in passing yardage, 27th in yards per play, 12th worst in offensive turnovers, 6th worst in interceptions and 7th worst in sacks taken.
Both the offense and defense have strong and weak position groups. On offense, the team’s Achilles heel throughout much of the past three decades has been the lack of a true franchise quarterback. This gap has persisted through three seasons of Rivera’s tenure. Wide receiver and running back have become strengths of the offense, while tight ends have been middle of the pack by league standards. Aside from QB, the major current weakness on offense is the line. Rivera inherited one of the league’s top offensive lines, featuring All-Pros Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff, and allowed it to deteriorate into one of the worst units in the league in 2020. It has remained a patchwork ever since.
The strengths on defense are the line and the secondary. The defensive line features four first-round picks, three of whom predate Rivera. In contrast to the line, the secondary has been completely rebuilt during Rivera’s tenure. Aside from Kendall Fuller, re-acquired from the Chiefs in free agency, the presumptive starters heading into camp were all drafted by Rivera. The linebacking corps has been diminishing in importance to the defense throughout Rivera’s three years in DC, with the safeties taking on more of their roles in coverage.
Roster building is a complex process, with players continually being added through trades, free agency and the draft and players departing through injury, retirement, free agency and trades. The best teams in the league generally try to rely on the draft as their primary team-building tool, as it provides the most sustainable source of better, younger and cheaper talent to replenish the pipeline.
Through Ron Rivera’s three drafts in Washington it has become clear that he prioritizes certain positions in the draft and deprioritizes others. In this article, I will attempt to determine to what extent Rivera’s choices in the draft can explain the current state of the Commanders’ roster.
Numbers of Drafted Players by Position
To start, we’ll have a look at how Rivera has distributed his draft picks across the roster in terms of total numbers of drafted players. I need to point out now that total numbers can be misleading, since all draft picks are not created equally. For example, the chance of hitting on a quality starter or elite talent with a first-round pick is much higher than with a fourth-round pick. I will take that up in the following section. But for now, let’s see what we can learn from counting total numbers of players drafted at each position.
The first thing that stands out is that Ron Rivera loves drafting defensive ends. In four drafts in Washington, he has drafted six of them, 50% more than the next most drafted positions. The next most drafted positions have been wide receiver, on offense, and safety, on defense, averaging one player taken per draft. Running back, offensive tackle and cornerback have each received three draft picks in four drafts.
The less frequently drafted positions start with tight end, center and linebacker, which have each had two draft picks, equating to an average of one player picked every other draft. And last of all, only single players have been picked at quarterback, guard, defensive tackle and long snapper. The figure for guard might be a little misleading, because two players drafted as tackles (Saahdiq Charles, Sam Cosmi) have transitioned to guard, as frequently happens in the transition from college to the NFL.
Aside from the obvious predilection for DEs, the total numbers don’t show any glaring patterns of over emphasis or neglect. You could say OG hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves, but the team has drafted plenty of OTs who moved to G in the NFL.
Draft Capital Expenditure
To really understand whether a team has overinvested in some positions or neglected others in the draft, it is helpful to use the concept of draft capital. The probability of hitting on a draft pick falls off very steeply near the beginning of the draft and then more gradually as the draft progresses. The inflection point, where the value curve transitions from steep to shallow falls around the middle of the first round for most positions, except QB, where it falls earlier. This makes early first-round picks much more valuable than picks later in the draft.
The concept of draft capital arose when teams developed trade value charts to give relative valuation of draft picks used in trades. Each pick is assigned a number of trade value points, and the value of picks decreases as the draft progresses in a manner that more or less parallels the change in probability of hitting on a player. The original trade value chart was developed by the Dallas Cowboys and named after Jimmy Johnson, although there is some debate about who actually deserves credit. The Rich Hill trade value chart is widely believed to most closely reflecting the valuations used by NFL teams.
To get a better understanding of how Rivera values different positions, I calculated his expenditure of draft capital in trade value points throughout his time in Washington using the Rich Hill chart. This approach allowed me to go beyond merely counting players and look at the total value of expenditure on different positions, including draft capital expended in trades.
For example, in 2020, Rivera traded of a fifth-round pick to Carolina to acquire his former backup QB Kyle Allen. To account for draft capital expended in this trade, I assigned the trade value points associated with the 148th pick sent to Carolina (13 points) to the QB position. While Rivera didn’t use the pick to draft a QB, he did expend draft capital on the position.
Where Washington traded up in the draft for a player, any net gain or loss of draft capital in the trade was added to the expenditure on the targeted player. Where Washington traded back to gain more picks, any net gain or loss in capital was added to the expenditure on the first player selected with an acquired pick, and the remaining players picked were valued as per the trade value chart.
Rivera’s draft capital expenditure in Washington is broken down by position in the following graph:
The picture that emergences when we take the relative value of draft picks into account is fairly different to what we saw with raw numbers of drafted players. The disproportionate expenditure on edge rushers becomes even more pronounced than before, largely as a result of the use of the second overall pick (717 points) to select Chase Young in 2020.
The emphasis on wide receivers on offense also becomes more pronounced than before. At the other end of the spectrum, the relatively low level of expenditure on OT, OG and C also becomes more apparent than before. While Rivera has drafted quite a few offensive linemen, the highest he has taken one was OT Sam Cosmi, selected 51st overall in the second round, with a trade value of 112 points. After Cosmi, the next highest drafted OL was OT Saahdiq Charles, selected 108th overall in the fourth round (31 pts). Not surprisingly, Cosmi was the only one of six OL drafted by Rivera to earn a full-time starting spot thus far.
Readers who are good with graphs might have noticed that there is more “weight” on the defensive side than the offensive side of the of the position breakdown chart. That becomes a bit more obvious if we aggregated players into position groups, as I have done in the next figure:
Through four years in Washington, Rivera’s biggest expenditures of draft capital have been on the defensive line followed by the secondary and offensive skill positions. Astute readers will have picked up that these figures are heavily influenced by where Rivera has used first (DE, LB, WR, CB) and second (OT, DT, DB) round picks. That is a fair representation, because those picks have a much better chance of yielding starters in most teams’ hands than later round picks.
The position groups that have received proportionately lower investment are LB, OL, QB and, not surprisingly, special teams.
Now, it might have occurred to readers that some position groups have more players than others, and therefore require greater levels of investment to maintain the talent pipeline. At the same time, certain positions, such as QB, are valued more than others, and might be expected to attract disproportionately larger investments.
To get a better handle on whether Rivera’s draft capital expenditure has been proportionate to the size of position groups, I equalized the draft capital expenditure by dividing by the number of starting players in each group, as follows: QB 1, Offensive Skill 5 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), OL 5, DL 4, LB 2, Secondary 5 (2 CB, 3 S). The resulting figures give the best indication of the relative valuation Rivera has given to different position groups in the draft:
The most consistent theme, no matter how you look at it, is that Ron Rivera’s highest priority for investment of draft capital has been the defensive line. He has drafted the most players and invested the most draft capital in the DL, and the disproportionate nature of this investment holds up even after adjusting for the number of starting positions to be filled.
The second-most prioritized position group might come as a surprise. Adjusting for the number of starting positions reveals that Rivera’s second highest priority for draft capital investment has been quarterback.
How is that possible, when he has only drafted one QB in the fifth round? The answer is that he has given away a total of 153 trade value points in trades for QBs Kyle Allen (13 pts) and Carson Wentz (140 pts) in addition to the 14 points expended to draft Sam Howell. The excess draft capital expended in the Wentz trade (2022 picks 42 and 73 + 2023 pick 79 exchanged for 2022 pick 47 and Wentz) has equivalent value in between the 42nd and 43rd overall picks. While the total value of draft capital expended on QBs is not that high, it is comparatively high in adjusted value, because there is only a single starting position to be filled.
Contrary to the prevailing view that Rivera has neglected LB, the third highest proportional investment has been the linebacking corps. That is because he has invested one of his four first-round selections on the position group and there are only two starters.
While offensive skill positions and the secondary have received the second and third most investment of total draft capital, they are also among the three largest position groups, with five starters apiece. Together, these two position groups account for nearly half of the total starting roster. Adjusting for numbers of starting positions reveals that they have actually received fairly moderate levels of draft investment in proportionate terms.
Finally, Rivera’s lowest priority for investment of draft capital should come as no surprise. Proportional to numbers of starting players, the offensive line has received the lowest level of investment by a wide margin. OL has received less than half the investment, in adjusted draft capital, as the second least prioritized position group (offensive skill), and approximately 1/5 the level of investment in the defensive line.
Offense or Defense?
Readers with an acute eye for graphs, or anyone who has been following Washington’s draft, will have worked out that Rivera has a strong preference for one side of the ball over the other in the draft. Just to make that really clear, I will wrap up with his overall expenditure of draft capital on offense, defense and special teams. In this case, there is no need to adjust by numbers of starters since there are equal numbers on offense and defense, and there aren’t any on special teams.
In four years in Washington, Rivera has spent nearly twice as much draft capital on the defense as he has on the offense. The neglect of the offense hasn’t been uniform. The skilled positions have received a proportional share of investment. It has primarily been the offensive line where he has underinvested.
An argument could also be made that, due to its outsized position value, quarterback has also received less draft capital than it should have. Rivera had the opportunity to draft two highly rated QBs in 2020 and prioritized DE instead. Of course, it’s possible he didn’t have a choice, since second-year QB Dwayne Haskins was the owner’s pick. Again in 2022 he chose WR Jahan Dotson instead of QB Kenny Pickett. In that case, he chose to bet on the veteran QB in whom he had already invested two Day 2 draft picks and change.
In four drafts in Washington, Ron Rivera has drafted exactly equal numbers of players on offense and defense (16 each). However, his expenditure of draft capital has heavily favored the defense overall and has been very uneven across individual position groups.
Rivera has drafted the most players and expended the most draft capital in absolute and proportional terms on the defensive line, and in particular on DEs. Getting back to the question in the title of this article, does the pattern of draft investment explain the strength of the unit? Surprisingly no, since the one first round draft pick Rivera has added to the group, Chase Young, has been the underachiever of the four starters. The other three first round starters were on the team when Rivera arrived. What Rivera has done is to fortify depth of his strongest unit.
The disproportionate draft investment has resulted in a near total rebuild of the rest of the defense, with six of the seven starting linebackers and defensive backs having been drafted by Rivera, and two of four first-round picks having been invested in the back seven. In the unlikely event that LB Khaleke Hudson beats out Cody Barton for the second starting LB position, that figure could even increase to seven of seven.
While the defense has been receiving the lion’s share of the draft investment, the offense has had to make do with only one first-round pick and relative neglect of its foundational unit, the offensive line. While Rivera has been willing to invest Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks in the offensive skill positions, he has largely left the offensive line to Day 3 of the draft. The highest Rivera has drafted an offensive lineman in Washington was OT Sam Cosmi, selected 51st overall in the second round. The next highest was C Ricky Stromberg, picked near the end of the third round. The rest of the offensive linemen he has drafted have been Day 3 selections.
While it is not clear to what extent Rivera was involved in personnel decisions in Carolina, the relative neglect of the offensive line in the draft is consistent with the draft history of his former team. No team with Ron Rivera as head coach has ever drafted an offensive lineman in the first round. Furthermore, the last time a Rivera team drafted an offensive lineman in the top 50 picks, was 2012, when the Panthers selected G Amini Silatolu 40th overall.
As a result of underinvesting in the draft, Rivera has had to build Washington’s OL primarily through free agency. The patchwork offensive line held up through his first two years, but tanked in 2022. Fingers are crossed that the offseason changes and additions will result in some improvement in 2023. But the offensive line remains in need of a sustained infusion of new talent in coming drafts.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
What should be Washington’s top priority in the 2024 draft?
This poll is closed
BPA - prioritize elite talent
Ask me in late February
How would you rate Ron Rivera’s drafts in Washington?
This poll is closed
He has had his moments, but below average overall
Not as good as a real GM