- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When Washington held the second overall pick in the NFL draft last year, the team’s decision-makers understood the franchise was under huge pressure to find a player who could have an immediate impact, both on the field and off.

They needed a difference-maker. Luckily for Washington, Chase Young was there at No. 2, and the Ohio State star checked all the boxes. 

A year later, finding the right fit at No. 19 is a whole different story.

“Pretty much everybody that you’re looking at in that spot, there’s going to be something that they have to work on that’s pretty significant,” general manager Martin Mayhew said. 

A week before the draft begins, Washington has lots of options — and for now, coaches and staff are trying to mask which one the team is leaning toward.

Coach Ron Rivera vowed Washington would “read and react” based on what happens in the first 18 picks.

But if Washington stays at No. 19, Rivera and Co. know they won’t have the luxury of a sure-fire, can’t-miss pick. They’ll gladly settle, though, for someone who can help a 7-9 squad build on a playoff season. 

The consensus is that this year’s draft features plenty of talented offensive linemen, many of whom could go in the first two rounds. The same goes for linebackers. Three to four are projected to be taken in Round 1.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Wednesday he believes Washington should lean toward an offensive lineman over a linebacker for two reasons: opportunity and costs.

“It’s a really good off-the-ball linebacker draft,” Jeremiah said in a video conference call with reporters. “So if you can take a really good offensive lineman there, you’re still going to have linebackers in the third, fourth round that can come in and help you. There’s good players out there. So that would be my reasoning looking at that offensive line. They’ve got to get better there.”

Jeremiah in his latest mock draft has Washington taking USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker — a 6-foot-4, 308-pound tackle who might be better suited at guard. He played both positions in college, but Jeremiah believes he can be an All-Pro on the interior. 

If that’s the case, Washington likely would be drafting with an eye toward the future. Brandon Scherff, who coincidentally made the switch from tackle to guard once he reached the NFL, is set to play on a second straight franchise tag — and he’ll likely hit free agency next year unless the two sides can hammer out an extension before July. Vera-Tucker could be Scherff’s eventual replacement in such an event. 

Drafting Vera-Tucker, though, doesn’t mean the rookie would have to sit the whole year. At USC, Vera-Tucker played on the left. He was a guard in 2019 before becoming a first-team All Pac 12 tackle last year. 

“He’s one of my favorite players in the whole draft,” Jeremiah said. “He can play darn well anywhere … one of the cleanest, safest picks in the whole draft.”

Rivera said no matter who Washington takes, the expectation will be for that player to contribute.

There have been additional hurdles that Washington and other NFL teams have faced this year that make it harder to get a clear evaluation of a prospect. 

The pandemic forced the NFL to cancel the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, leaving teams scrambling to get accurate medical data on players. The NFL did hold an in-person medical evaluation event, but only for 150 players — far fewer than the 300 who usually attend the combine. 

Another difficulty teams face is evaluating the players who opted out of their final college season. Rivera said he found himself having to rely on film from 2019 for those players, but that tape doesn’t provide a full picture. 

“The hard part is a lot of those guys that we’re looking at this year — you want to look at this year — you don’t know if they’ve taken the next step,” Rivera said. “You have nothing to compare their growth to. Drafting a guy that opted out, you’re hoping as an athlete, as a football player, they’ve grown.”

Even with hours of preparation, the draft can still turn into a guessing game. That’s particularly true with quarterbacks, a position with high bust potential. “Everybody is a projection in my opinion,” Rivera said. And now, perhaps more than ever, teams have a shorter leash on signal-callers. A number of teams, including Washington, have already changed quarterbacks this offseason and the carousel doesn’t seem to be slowing down. 

For Washington, one of the biggest questions is whether they’ll look to add again at quarterback. The team does not have a long-term option as the team signed 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal.

There are a number of Day 2 prospects like Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, Stanford’s Davis Mills and Florida’s Kyle Trask who have been linked to Washington. Rivera hasn’t committed either way, only saying the team will explore all options. 

As far as the No. 19 pick, the last five players to be drafted at that spot are Las Vegas’ Damon Arnette, Tennessee’s Jeffery Simmons, Dallas’ Leighton Vander Esch, Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard and Shaq Lawson (drafted by Buffalo, now with Miami). 

Of those five, only Vander Esch has made a Pro Bowl. 

“You do want to pick a guy that’s going to be, obviously, with you for a long period of time, a guy that’s going to fit your scheme offensively or defensively,” Mayhew said. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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