The Commanders’ drafts under coach Ron Rivera usually have a theme. In his first year, Rivera emphasized “position flex,” finding players who were versatile. The following season, Washington focused on adding speed.
The through-line of Rivera’s third draft, however, is much more complicated.
The Commanders got tougher over the weekend by selecting physical players with size, such as Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis and Brian Robinson Jr. They relied on experience, taking only one underclassman in North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.
But ultimately, Rivera’s third draft class might be defined by bucking convention. Of Washington’s eight picks, multiple players expressed surprise at being taken earlier than expected — including first-round wideout Jahan Dotson and second-round defensive tackle Mathis.
Dotson, the 16th pick, said he thought he’d go later in the first or early in the second, while Mathis said his agent told him to expect to be picked in the third or fourth round. On the flip side, Howell went much later than analysts thought — with the Commanders grabbing a once top-ranked quarterback in the fifth round.
League experts predicted this draft would be one of the most unpredictable in years, and Washington helped make that a realization.
“You know, people are making projections about where they expect players to go. They’re not in these buildings, they’re not around these teams,” general manager Martin Mayhew said. “We understand our needs and what we need as a football team much better than people on the outside looking in. That’s why you end up with situations like Phidarian going in the second round, surprising some folks, Sam going in the fifth round, surprising some folks.
“Everybody has their own system and everybody sets up their program the way they want to set it up. We have different needs and we look at our teams differently than some other people would do.”
It’ll be a while before anyone can reasonably conclude whether Washington’s brass did in fact reach on certain selections. What will it matter if Dotson, for example, went 15 picks earlier than people thought if the rookie has close to 1,000 yards next season?
But the NFL draft always prompts instant analysis. And those handing out grades weren’t particularly high on Washington’s class. According to a roundup of 18 different draft grades from Twitter user Rene Bugner, the Commanders received the seventh-worst “GPA” in the league with a score of 2.38. In other words, the consensus appeared to be close to a C+.
Dig deeper into the grades and a number of people took issue with the value Washington gave certain players. “Running back Brian Robinson Jr. (98) went about 50 picks higher than I would have taken him,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper wrote. Mathis was the team’s “second straight major reach,” Pro Football Focus noted.
“Always rooting to be proven wrong, but feels like the Commanders valuation doesn’t match the consensus on quite a few players this year,” ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller tweeted. “A lot of reaches based on where guys were ranked. But they obviously like them!”
Miller’s tweet came shortly after the team took Louisiana safety Percy Butler with the 113th overall pick. Butler’s fourth-round selection perhaps best describes the differences in perception between Washington and the general public. The Athletic and NFL.com both assigned Butler a fifth-round grade, noting his potential to become one of the best special teams players in the league.
But when Rivera explained Butler’s upside, he hardly mentioned special teams. Instead, he said he envisioned Butler as an option to slot in at the team’s buffalo nickel — a hybrid safety-linebacker position filled by Landon Collins last season. He praised Butler’s speed and quickness, adding how the safety gutted through an injury last year.
“This is a guy that can help make an immediate impact for us,” Rivera said.
Rivera didn’t seem concerned about whether the team had “reached” for players. Bucking convention wasn’t something that Rivera said he wasn’t actively trying to do. For Mathis, Rivera pointed to how agents sometimes intentionally downplay a player’s range in order to “keep expectations in check.”
Mathis’ agent, interestingly enough, seemed to confirm this on Twitter — writing that her client would have gone within the next 10 or so picks if the Commanders hadn’t drafted him. “Managing expectations is a big part of my job,” agent Nicole Lynn tweeted.
“This is such an inexact science,” Rivera said of the draft, later adding, “I can tell you: Everybody’s been confident about what we’ve decided.”