“Just [a] great conversation about football, life and that aspect,” said tackle Samuel Cosmi, a second-round pick.
“We were able to build that chemistry compared with other teams,” said cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, a third-round choice.
Four of the 10 players Washington picked in this NFL draft said they had one-on-one virtual interviews with Rivera during the pre-draft process. While head coaches often meet with potential first-round players — such as Washington’s top pick, Jamin Davis — they don’t often do so with players expected to go after that. Cosmi, St-Juste and fourth-round tight end John Bates said Rivera was the only head coach they spoke to one-on-one. Others might have joined a group interview, but Rivera was the only one to talk to them by himself.
“That was kind of a unique thing,” Bates said.
Told this, Rivera seemed surprised as he drove home after the draft ended Saturday night. He hadn’t considered that he might be one of the league’s few head coaches to request interviews with non-first-round players. He always has believed in these meetings, seeing them as a way to understand the players around whom he wants to build his team. Why wouldn’t everyone?
So he scheduled as many conversations as he could in his second year with Washington, just as he did as the Carolina Panthers’ coach, focusing mostly on prospects from the scouting department’s top 100 who might be available around each of the team’s first four selections. In the past, before the coronavirus pandemic, the interviews were in-person, either during the player’s visit to the team facility or informally at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. This year, with the combine canceled and facility visits banned, he did the meetings virtually, always from his office, as a reminder to the player that the call was a business interview.
Still, the conversations were rarely about football. Rivera leaves X’s and O’s to his assistants, who often meet with prospective picks several times in March and April. He wants to know what motivates the players, what they care about and how they might fit the culture of his franchise.
“I want to give them an opportunity to let their guard down and show you who they really are,” Rivera said. “If you give a player the opportunity, they will tell you who they are.”
In these interviews, he has come to love players such as Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson, who became top linebackers for him with Carolina. It’s how he became enamored with Davis this year, admiring his intelligence and backstory of growing up as a military child, and he insisted the team keep the 19th pick to take Davis instead of trading to another spot.
These interviews also are where other players fall off his list, such as the philosophy major whose answers made Rivera wonder how much he cared about the game.
“How important is football to you?” Rivera asked.
“It’s up there,” the player replied.
Rivera told the front office to pick someone else that year.
Many of those who have been around Rivera say he likes to build relationships. “He treats people like people,” a Washington assistant said last year while speaking privately about the coach. Several times during news conferences last fall, he lamented the pandemic restrictions that kept him from face-to-face meetings with the reporters who cover the team. He likes personal conversations. He is especially happy when he learns a player is from a military family or is the son of a teacher or a coach, believing they have a different understanding of learning and responsibility than many others. But mostly it’s a bond he is seeking, a way to connect.
No one ever told him to spend extra time with draft prospects. He hated the formal 15-minute group interviews that teams have with players at the combine, figuring that was never enough time for a handful of coaches to get to know a player. As the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and the San Diego Chargers, he would linger in the lobby at the hotel where the combine interviews take place, grabbing players who interested him and saying, “Let’s sit down for a few minutes.”
In Rivera’s first year as Carolina’s head coach, the Panthers held the No. 1 pick and the obvious choice was quarterback Cam Newton, whose college career had been marred by several controversies, including a stolen laptop and allegations that Newton’s father had sought payment from teams recruiting his son. Because it was the top selection, Rivera felt he needed to truly know Newton.
“When you are picking number one or two, you have to get that right,” he said.
Rivera twice had breakfast with Newton in the weeks before the draft — once with Newton alone the morning after Auburn’s pro day, then with Newton’s entire family a few weeks later. He asked then-Panthers general manager Marty Hurney (now Washington’s executive vice president of football and player personnel) to meet with Newton as well. As Rivera watched Newton talk with his parents during that breakfast, he was struck by how genuine the conversation felt and how much the quarterback and his family seemed to understand the gravity of being the top pick. He left convinced Newton was the right choice.
Last spring, Rivera had a similar moment with defensive end Chase Young. Much like Newton for Carolina, Young was the clear selection for Washington at No. 2. And while Young had none of the controversies that Newton did, Rivera — again — needed to be sure. They sat together at the combine and talked. As he did after breakfast with Newton’s family, Rivera walked away certain that Young was the player he wanted.
Had the pandemic not led to a ban on in-person meetings several days later, Rivera would have asked to spend more time alone with Young and top pick Joe Burrow in case Cincinnati, which had the No. 1 choice, decided to take Young instead. The one-on-one interviews are that important to him.
“What you try to do is get them off-script,” he said, lamenting that agents spend a lot of time preparing players for their meetings with teams, filling prospects with rehearsed answers that reveal little. “If you can get them off-script, you can get a feel for them.”
It’s why, even after becoming a head coach, he would still linger around the hotel lobby, grabbing players for chats. Often, he would notice he was the only head coach doing this, but he didn’t care. Those stolen conversations in the lobby chairs were too important, too valuable to give up.
“You have to know as much as you can,” he said.