Revisiting the Redskins Draft Conundrum

One of the things that I believe has caused a great divide with regards to the analysis of the Mike Shanahan era in Washington between local commentators (message: you can clearly see where things are running better than before) and national commentators (message: has Mike Shanahan lost his mind?) is — and this is just my opinion — determining the identity of the competition.  

Far too often, Redskins insiders as well as fans make comparisions between how Shanahan likes to do things and how Cerrato used to do things.  On a national-level, no one is making these comparisions execpt when writing columns about how Dan Snyder is still a major figure in the Redskins organization with his fingerprints all over the football operations.  I have a problem with both lines of reasoning, which I suppose is why I have three blogs.

Mike Shanahan can not earn credit for improving anything from the Cerrato era.  He is not competing against the past, and that’s the kind of reasoning that will prevent a critical evalution of the current administration.  Cerrato’s moves in 2008 and 2009 are not relevant.  On the other hand, we don’t know how much imput into day to day Football Operations that Dan Snyder maintains through his checkbook, and that lack of knowledge should not represent the opportunity to make assumptions about his involvement.  In both cases, there is a common link: the past.  If you are a Redskins fan who is irked by the frequent commentary that links Snyder to moves like the Donovan McNabb acquisition and as the reason that London Fletcher hasn’t signed a contract extension with the Redskins yet; be careful about finishing your argument with a conclusion that it’s all going to work out.  

Plenty of people who weren’t Vinny Cerrato have failed at building NFL teams.  Rich McKay, the architect of the early-aughts Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tried to pick up where he left off in Tampa building around Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons.  McKay is now employed by the NFL, after being disposed for Thomas Dimitroff in 2008.  Dimitroff put the Falcons in the playoffs three out of four seasons.  That is one of many reasons that I am continuing to advocate the “wait and see, but don’t wait too much longer” approach with the Snyder-Shanahan marriage.  There are plenty examples of wildly successful people in the NFL who really irreparably ruined their reputations given even more control.

I say this not to discourage Redskins fans from being excited for what lies ahead in 2012, but to establish the seriousness of the 2012 offseason for the Washington Redskins and more specifically for their current regime.  The Redskins are between a rock and a hard place heading into a do or die year: the Shanaplan essentially dictated that a year of having no long term quarterback could necessitate a team-wide improvement at other key areas to put the team on the fringes of the playoffs.  The problem was not the design: the design was fine.  The problem is that when you’re looking at grading progress in results, the goal at this point was to have a team around 8-8 that competed on discipline (the Redskins were in fact among the least penalized teams in the league last season) and intelligence to try to compensate for a lacking passing offense.

The passing offense performed better than expected under Rex Grossman, but the rest of the team failed to live up to expectations.  That was the big problem in the 2011 season that got glossed over.  Having no long term solution at quarterback was a highly publicized issue, but not one that was unaccounted for.  The Redskins probably did not have to be so dogmatic about Rex Grossman and John Beck being such important pieces of the puzzle (and more open to the idea that someone on the free agent market might have been better), but that is an ancillary issue.  The real issue is the Redskins decided they could compete for the NFC East title on the strength of their rushing offense (which was non-existant for about 10 weeks), and their total defense.  

That they spent two thirds of the season as a non-competitor was the big problem.  That did not happen by design.  The Redskins fully expected to be in the race in the NFC East.  The players sensed it.  The coaches thought it.  Dan Snyder believed it to the point where serious tremors went through the organization around midseason about whose job was safe and whose was on the line.  Ultimately, the Redskins finished the 2011 campaign a lot stronger than the 2010 campaign, and so nothing came of the dissatisfaction in ownership.  Credit Mike Shanahan for being able to get through the regular season without needing to make a sacrifical lamb out of a member of his coaching staff: that did not appear to be a likely outcome in November.

But when you realize how close Shanahan got to being forced to scalp a trusted member of his own staff to save his own standing in the organization, it paints a picture of how important a hot start — followed by sustaining that momentum — will be to the overall Shanahan-Washington legacy.  The conundrum alluded to in the title of the article is this: the Redskins are well behind pace, and now not only have to make up for lost time created by botching the quarterback situation in 2010, but now must also do the roster work they were supposed to have done in 2011 when they put the QB need on the backburner.  To do this, the Redskins have only one year’s worth of resources, and two years worth of problems to fix.

That’s the conundrum.  And the only question that matters for the Washington Redskins is not who the quarterback will be in 2012 and beyond, but how do you stretch your resources so that you can get a quarterback and fill in the depth issues that plague the roster in the same offseason?  Furthermore, the Redskins appear willing to create a hole by letting S LaRon Landry test the market, which would seem to stretch those resources even thinner.

One suggested theory is that if you get an elite quarterback, this one player can improve the team in a way that dwarfs all the other issues.  There are a couple problems with this.  Even if you draft the best quarterback of the year (lets say thats Robert Griffin the third), and get productivity out of him immediately, you’re still talking about at least five to six years before that player reaches a level where he’s actually carrying teammates.  Ben Roethlisberger got there in 2010, his seventh year in the league (and 2 super bowls in).  Eli Manning got there in 2009, his sixth year in the league.  Philip Rivers got there as fast as anyone: he was elite by 2008, his fifth year in the league and just third as a starter.  Aaron Rodgers had bumps in the road up through last season.

The reason why Shanahan has been so dogmatic about fixing the actual issues that ail the Redskins and not just trying to outscore everyone isn’t entirely attributable to failed attempts to improve the passing offense.  It is because his contract is not nearly long enough to reach a point where a QB in his prime is doing all the work at the line of scrimmage and throwing mediocre players open down the field.  Look how many times Tom Coughlin (who was much more successful than Shanahan in his first two seasons with his second job) had to Houdini his way off the chopping block just to reach a point where he could reap the benefits of Eli Manning’s maturity.  Coughlin’s job security is teflon strong now, but who knows how many times the Mara’s were gassing up the jet to find the next head coach of the Giants?  Systematic improvement is the easiest way to stay off the chopping block.

The Redskins cannot have an elite quarterback in 2012, so they will have to settle for a successful one, if they can even find that.  Griffin may fit the bill.  So may Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, or Kirk Cousins.  Peyton Manning certainly fits the idea of a successful quarterback, and he can even get you glimpses of elite play in key moments.  But again, the real question is not “who?” but “how?”  How can the Redskins stretch their draft resources to be two years worth of draft resources.

Trade down?  Sure, that’s a potential solution, but it’s insignificant to solve the biggest problem the roster has of lacking elite talent.  The Redskins had two players in 2011 who received a grade of greater than +10.0 from Pro Football Focus: Brian Orakpo and London Fletcher.  In 2010 they also had two: Albert Haynesworth and Vonnie Holliday.  The year before that they had three: Haynesworth, Fletcher, and Andre Carter.  They also had three in 2008: Fletcher, Pete Kendall, and Clinton Portis (offensive players? what the heck?).  The Redskins need to leverage their high picks to start drafting elite talent.  And yet, they still need depth.  And yet, they still need a quarterback.  Is there anyway this can work?

Yes.  The Redskins can target a group of young free agents to supplement draft picks.  I sorted a recently developed database of all NFL players by age and contract expiration and created a list of 25 and 26 year olds the Redskins can target in free agency.  The idea is that a team with no real foundation can go out and get one by using some of that cap space.  These players are still shy (in theory) of their athletic peaks, making them the best possible free agent investments.  Ranked by cumulative 3-year approximate value totals (in parenthesis), they are:

  • RB Ray Rice (47)
  • WR DeSean Jackson (33)
  • LB Curtis Lofton (26)
  • TE Jermichael Finley (24)
  • CB Brandon Carr (24)
  • DE Calais Campbell (24)
  • WR Pierre Garcon (24)
  • LB Geno Hayes (19)
  • DE Kendall Langford (19)
  • DE/OLB Cliff Avril (19)
  • WR Mario Manningham (19)
  • RB Marshawn Lynch (19)
  • S Tyvon Branch (18)
  • DE Amobi Okoye (16)
  • TE Fred Davis (16)
  • WR Stevie Johnson (16)
  • CB Tracy Porter (15)
  • RB Tim Hightower (15)
  • S Dwight Lowery (14)
  • DE Jason Jones (14)
  • RT Barry Richardson (14)
  • RB Peyton Hillis (14)
  • G Jeremy Zuttah (13)
  • G Chilo Rachal (12)
  • WR Eddie Royal (12)
  • OT Jared Gaither (9)
  • WR Jerome Simpson (8)
  • RB Steve Slaton (8)
  • LB Wesley Woodyard (7)
  • QB Josh Johnson (4)
  • CB Elbert Mack (1)

I have put current Redskins in italics and have bolded players who have prior experience with the current coaching staff.  Chilo Rachal was drafted by San Francisco when Chris Forester was the OL coach there.  Zuttah, Johnson, Mack, and Hayes, of course, were drafted by Bruce Allen with Tampa Bay.

The bottom of the list is mostly made up of role players, which are typically the kind of low-budget signings who find their way back to the group that drafted them, so for guys like Rachal, Royal, Slaton, Woodyard, Johnson, and Mack, a free agent visit with the Redskins is all but a formality.

But the Redskins also need the star power from the top half of the list.  The days of having two or three pro bowl type performers throughout the roster must end.  Sure, some of that improvement could come internally: you never know when Barry Cofield is capable of a 8 sack season.  In case you are wondering, however, the Redskins have just nine players who would rank on this list above Davis and Hightower.  So even in a case where the Redskins get those guys back in the fold, there are still 16 names here under age 27 who can come in and assist the Redskins in their improvement.

The direction of the draft will be defined by how free agency goes.  Cap room-wise, the Redskins can add about five or six of those guys and make them the foundation of the 2012 team.  That frees them up to use the draft picks to move up and acquire a quarterback.

The goal should be to keep free roster space and cap space available to add some bargain basement veterans who are certain to be on the market in May and June.  That should supplement what the Redskins do in the draft as well as what they’ve done to find cornerstone free agents, such as the one’s that populate the top of the list above.  May and June are the months when you find your “winning” free agents: the guys who are going to outproduce their contracts.  With the players above, the concern isn’t that you get value, it’s that you get young building blocks who can grow into their roles.  There is no point to signing choice free agents who are too old and expensive to be around when you are ready to compete for a super bowl title.  The players above are young enough to justify still being there when the Redskins are ready to compete.

If the Redskins are planning on trading up for a quarterback like RG3, they should prepare to do so on their own terms.  To many teams, the allure of trading down out of a draft pick you don’t really want is too much to pass on, and as it gets closer to the moment the draft clock hits zero, the team trading up should be able to name their own price.  Be it with the Rams, Vikings, or Browns, the Redskins should have no issue going up in the draft if Robert Griffin is their guy.  If he’s not, well, then they are well positioned where they are (and better positioned to trade down if Griffin falls to no. 6).  The Redskins clearly have the ammo to make this transaction.

But they shouldn’t do it just to be done with it.  Ryan Tannehill and Nick Foles are both very good prospects as well, and Kirk Cousins fits the Redskins offense like a glove.  This is a deep draft at the QB position.  It’s a rare year where players with first round ability will make it through to the second, perhaps even the third round.  It should feel like the Redskins are in control.  I firmly believe RG3 is there to be had if the Redskisn want him.  But he also may end up being the trade chip that gives the Redskins the depth they are looking for.  Either way, the Redskins are well-suited to make their splash at the top of the draft, quarterback or no quarterback.

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