Burgundy and Bold

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

C.S. Lewis once pointed out that if you are on the wrong road, it's actually progress to go backwards: "The man who turns back soonest is the most progressive." What makes the Washington Redskins' NFL draft so tantalizing is that they chose a certain road, one that starts in minicamp this weekend, and they will have to go pretty far down it before we know whether they're headed in the right direction.

The NFL draft is speculative, a matter of measured guesswork. "It's inexact, it's not a science," Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian said. "It's an art."

The Redskins' pretty-colored charts will be superseded by the performances of the authentic humans who report this week. All we really know about the Redskins' most prominent choices, wide receivers Devin Thomas of Michigan State and Malcolm Kelly of Oklahoma, and tight end Fred Davis of Southern Cal, is that they are spectacularly tall.

There was something heedlessly bold about the Redskins' draft; it was many things, but it wasn't cautious, and owner Dan Snyder and vice president Vinny Cerrato surely know that what's left of their reputations with ticket holders is riding on it. With needs at tackle, defensive tackle, defensive end, center, guard, safety, cornerback, outside linebacker and fullback, the Redskins instead concentrated three precious second-round choices on the trio of pass catchers, two of them 6 feet 4 and the other 6-2. Which was in itself a kind of backtracking. Obviously, some high-profile acquisitions at wide receiver over the last few years went the wrong direction.

In the lower rounds, they got even wackier. Punter Durant Brooks as the second pick of the sixth round? Nobody drafts punters, unless they are exceptional, once-in-a-decade.

But the thing about great drafts is that they are often counterintuitive. The "expert" observers who issue draft report cards base their judgments on conventional wisdom, yet it's the unconventional, rule-breaking choices that can be the best ones. Last season, ESPN's Mel Kiper gave the New York Giants a C-minus for their 2007 draft class. It proved to be a stupendous class, as seven rookies made key on-field contributions in their Super Bowl title run. "I don't think we ever get good grades around here," New York General Manager Jerry Reese said, laughing.

Only time will tell -- it's impossible to prejudge the Redskins. But what we can do is look at past drafts and see why certain teams seem to do consistently well. Who is a good drafter? "It depends on who're asking," Reese said. "You get overrated sometimes, and sometimes you draft good and it just doesn't work out for the team. And if you win a Super Bowl, then people start saying you're smarter than you really are."

But there are some executives who seem to be a cut above over time. Polian is one of them. Consider his performance in the last decade. In 1998, the Colts were coming off a 3-13 season. All Polian did that year was pick Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf.

Believe it or not, at the time Manning wasn't such a clear choice. Evaluations by scouts ran 60-40 in favor of Leaf, who got raves for his athleticism, while Manning got credit for competitiveness. "But you have to take into account that the scouts are influenced by the noise," Polian says. "The noise was almost at its highest level and conventional wisdom was that Leaf was miles ahead of Peyton on arm strength and athletic ability."

Polian went to the tape, and charted every single pass each of them had thrown in college. Every one. Then he studied their individual workouts. On closer examination, there was a big difference in Manning's ability to drive the ball, and make all the throws. The clincher was his maturity; Polian knew whichever player he drafted would start as a rookie, and would struggle. Manning seemed better able to handle setbacks.

And that was one of the easier choices. In 2002, Polian was criticized for drafting Dwight Freeney, who was said to be too short to play defensive end. Freeney made three straight Pro Bowls. In 2003, he took a walk-on tight end from Iowa, Dallas Clark, 24th overall. Clark has since set the Colts' single-season touchdown record for the position. In 2004, Polian snatched up another Hawkeye, a running back converted to strong safety named Bob Sanders, after he fell to the second round with a foot injury that required surgery; Sanders became defensive player of the year. In 2006, Polian drafted LSU's Joseph Addai at No. 30, after Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney and DeAngelo Williams had already gone. Addai led all of them as a rookie rusher.

Each seems like an obvious choice now, but they weren't necessarily at the time. How does Polian decide who is worth the risk? Sometimes a background is suggestive, like Clark's: What did a player have to overcome to get where he is? Was he outstanding on a weak club, did he carry a team on his back? Polian listens closely to college coaches for certain phrases that suggest what a player has inside. Phrases such as: "He's earned everything he got. There isn't anything he won't do to get better."

Otherwise, Polian tries to follow a couple of simple principles: "Don't overvalue a player simply because you have a need. When the need line crosses the talent line, go ahead."

If a good draft is about balancing need vs. value, the Redskins just may have done the right things. They didn't necessarily need three pass catchers in the second round, but they may have gotten extremely good value, especially if their bet that Kelly fell below his worth as the 51st pick pays off. Northern Iowa tackle-guard Chad Rinehart, their choice in the third round, may also be a good deal.

Value is established in relation to other players, too. It's not only about how players you selected turn out. It's about those you didn't select. The Redskins could have addressed a need by drafting Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling in the first round. But Merling recently underwent sports hernia surgery, which made them wary. Instead, he went No. 32 overall to Miami. If Merling proves to be great, the Redskins' decision to trade down and hoard receivers looks like bad value. If he's a relative bust, it looks like great value.

It's also possible that we'll evaluate this draft in the coming years by comparing it with what the Redskins could have done. Did they leave good players on the table? Should they have done more to fill holes on the offensive and defensive lines?

The first steps toward determining the answer will be taken by the players themselves this weekend. If they were wrong, at least the Redskins have shown a tireless willingness to backtrack. They've been down these roads before.

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