But for all the success of that draft, it was not Rivera’s alone. It belonged to Rivera and the front-office staff he had inherited. Owner Daniel Snyder had hired Rivera to run the football side of the franchise, and coaches given that kind of power tend to want their own people around them. It’s the way power has always been centered in the NFL, and for Rivera to truly make the team his own, he had to surround himself with people he chose for himself.
That makes this week’s draft an important one for Rivera. Not only is it the first that is truly his, but what he, Mayhew, Hurney and the others decide to do with their four picks in the first three rounds Thursday and Friday could help shape Rivera’s legacy in Washington.
Selecting at No. 19 in the first round, with several intriguing prospects at positions of need, Washington should be able to do well without having to trade up for a quarterback. It can pick a left tackle to fill the two-year hole left by Trent Williams or a linebacker to strengthen the middle of what is becoming one of the NFL’s best defenses. The following two days would allow Washington to find the kinds of players that Gibson and Curl were last year — middle- and late-round picks who could become critical starters.
Rivera repeatedly has said that he liked Washington best of all the coaching openings at the end of 2019 because it had a roster filled with talented players, especially on defense, who were still early in their careers. He saw a chance to build something big, despite the team’s 3-13 record. He knew he could rebuild a franchise in desperate need of a reset. Smith and others in the previous front office had built the framework of a future winner without leaving the burden of an overloaded salary cap.
This offseason, that cap space allowed Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney to sign quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Curtis Samuel and cornerback William Jackson III, filling needs with high-quality players and relieving the pressure to reach for players in the draft to help a particular position. Back in the winter, Rivera hinted that the right free agent signings could let Washington take advantage of this draft’s strengths — and it seems that may well happen, particularly if Washington takes a tackle or a linebacker.
Rivera played linebacker during his nine-year career with the Chicago Bears and has demanded a lot from the linebackers he has coached. Several times last year, he expressed disappointment in the play of Washington’s linebackers. He seems to like Cole Holcomb, whose promise has been limited by injuries, but he clearly wants more from the position.
A tell of how he feels, and perhaps a hint of the direction the team might want to go in the first round, came during a recent video news conference, when his longest answer, 401 words, came after a question about linebackers whom his teams have drafted in the past.
“I think [we are] looking for position flex guys, guys that can play more than one spot, because today’s game does ask that,” he said. “. . . A lot of it has to do with football intelligence.”
This draft has several players who fit that description and might be available at No. 19, including Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins and Kentucky’s Jamin Davis. Offensive tackles such as Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw, Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins and Liam Eichenberg of Notre Dame also should be around in the second half of the first round.
The need to find a franchise quarterback continues to loom, and Washington could take a chance on drafting one in the second or third round, perhaps Stanford’s Davis Mills or Kellen Mond from Texas A&M — particularly if the team comes out of the first round with a player who is a good fit.
“No matter where we pick or who we pick, hopefully they will contribute,” Rivera said during his news conference.
That is the luxury of not having to force a pick in the first Washington draft that is fully his.