Never Deviating From the Draft Board

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Everybody's always wondered what would happen if you put Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato in a room without any adult supervision. Now we know.

With three picks on Day 1 of the NFL draft -- all of them prime second-round selections, the kind of choices that NFL teams expect to turn into standout starting players -- the Redskins selected three receivers. That's right, three, all of whom have the same primary function -- catching the football. Two of them have virtually identical skills -- both are big wide receivers who did poorly in recent combines and fell out of the first round, but not out of the Redskins' hearts. So, a team that already has household-name receivers Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El and Chris Cooley, now also has Devin Thomas of Michigan State, tight end Fred Davis of USC and Malcolm Kelly of Oklahoma.

How did something so bizarre, so off-the-wall, so outside NFL norms and so unlikely to succeed come to pass?

Since February, Snyder, the Redskins' owner with boundless energy, and Cerrato, his personnel guru and perennial sidekick, have spent 12, 14 or 16 hours a day grading college players and creating their draft board, waiting for this day. Along with their rookie coach Jim Zorn, they have invested not only enormous time and sacrifice in this process, but tons of personal capital. "The board" has become the internal testimony to their credibility, their value to the Redskins, their right to take the team under their complete control without the presence of any football legends in the room, like Joe Gibbs, Marty Schottenheimer or even Steve Spurrier.

"We didn't sit in that room all those hours to make a board to come to the [draft] day and go all over the place and ignore it," Cerrato said at the evening's end. "We've always followed the board. In the past, when we've made mistakes, it's because [we] didn't go by 'take the best players, not fill a need.' Take the best guy on the board."

Even if, time after time, the players whom the "board" decreed were all receivers? Even if the Redskins ended up with a roster that will require a new NFL rule -- a sixth eligible receiver -- or a radical innovation -- two balls in play at once.

Zorn is going to institute the West Coast offense that uses many sets, often in rapid sequence, with two-tight-end packages replaced by multiple wideout formations. Still, the expression on the new coach's face as Cerrato explained the Redskins' unique decision-making process was, shall we say, a bit strained. "Both Vinny and Dan have discipline in their approach," said Zorn, "and they stuck to it."

Did they ever. Right over the cliff. The process all started so innocently. When the Redskins' first-round pick came up -- the 21st overall selection -- the board told them what to do. If they could, they should trade down with the Atlanta Falcons so that they could turn that one first-round pick into two second-round picks. That way, they would have the best chance to vindicate their judgment that, as Cerrato said, "the strength of this draft is in the second and third rounds." With 30 seconds left on the clock, the deal was completed -- the Redskins' picks in the first, third and fifth round for two of the Falcons second-round picks and a fourth-rounder.

Then the NFL's demons started playing their tricks. The Redskins now had the 34th, 48th and 51st selections in the draft. And, ever since their season ended, the Redskins' own evaluation of their needs was that a big wide receiver was their greatest void. Snyder may have held this view most strongly, but all agreed. Attempts to trade for Cincinnati's controversial wide out Chad Johnson had failed, quite publicly, with the Bengals discussing how they'd turned down the Washington deals while the Redskins kept mum about their frustrations.

When the 34th pick arrived, everybody in the room was elated. The receiver who was highest on their board, Thomas, was still available. "An outstanding deal for us," said Cerrato. "The guys we had on our board as our choices at 21 were [almost all] still there at 34."

"I'm very excited," said Zorn, who volunteered that he'd never been in an NFL draft room before. "That 10 minutes between picks goes fast. Whew!" he said. "The whole process was quite interesting, to say the least."

But it got far more interesting in a hurry. The Redskins have plenty of needs. Ever heard of "linemen," the guys who win championships? Even as Thomas was being picked, Zorn joked that offensive line coach Joe Bugel "kept walking in and out." However, with every pick, the players that the Redskins ranked highest at other positions disappeared. But all the receivers that they had scored far up on their board were still there. Were the gods playing tricks? Could they really be correct while everybody else in the NFL was wrong to leave such great talents untouched? As an added twist, receivers are notorious for being the most difficult of all players to project into the NFL.

When the 48th overall pick arrived, Davis stood far higher on the Washington board than any other player. Would Cerrato and Snyder trust their judgment, or their hubris, and dare to take two pass-catchers on the first day? So, the 247-pound Davis was picked -- much to his surprise. How much contact had the Redskins had with him before the draft? "They asked for my phone number. That's about all. I was kind of surprised," Davis said.

But the plot, already thick, was about to get absolutely fascinating. Just minutes later, the 51st pick rolled around and, once again, the Redskins' almighty board -- so different, obviously, from almost every other NFL board -- was screaming "Kelly," the 219-pound wide receiver whose poor times recently in the 40-yard dash had driven away other teams. Zorn was asked if he could have imagined any scenario in which the Redskins would draft two receivers on the first day. He shook his head and said, "I couldn't have predicted that scenario."

What will the Redskins do today when they have six more picks, including the 96th and 103rd overall? "Take the best guy on the board," Cerrato said. All those hours. All that credibility. All the criticism that he and Snyder have taken. He knows their precious board -- the creation that can vindicate them -- will get second-guessed, too.

But give the man credit. Cerrato realizes that he and Snyder have taken the football "book" on how to draft and ripped it to shreds. At the end of another marathon day -- what is this, almost 100 in a row -- Cerrato gave a little self-deprecating smile.

"But," he said of those choices today, "I don't think it will be a receiver."

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