INDIANAPOLIS — In a year when the Washington Redskins lack a first-round pick but remain in need of upgrades on offense and defense, the NFL draft still could play out in their favor.
Washington’s former first-round pick (22nd overall) belongs to the St. Louis Rams as part of the deal that gave the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III last year. Washington’s first selection in April’s draft will be 51st overall.
So the mission of Coach Mike Shanahan, General Manager Bruce Allen and their assistants at this week’s NFL Scouting Combine is to find impact talent that will remain available after the first round. (The Redskins have six choices after the second round: a third, fourth, two fifths, sixth and seventh).
Washington’s top needs are believed to be safety, cornerback and offensive tackle. Fortunately for the Redskins, draft analysts and NFL executives believe the talent pool at the combine reflects great depth at those positions.
“When I look at it, there are a number of corners in this draft class that can play and they can help teams as a 1, 2 or 3. I would say that’s a strength,” Chicago Bears General Manager Phil Emery said. “There’s a strong safety class. In our minds, there are five or six starters in this class at safety and that’s rare to me. . . . The offensive line class has strength in the front end, when you look at it from tackle, guard and center, and you look all the way through. There are a number of players who would be in the mix as starters.”
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock agreed.
“This draft is a little bit different than previous drafts, in that because of all those junior underclassmen that have declared this year, I think we probably have better depth than we’ve had in the last 10 years,” Mayock said. “. . . Now the top end of the draft, the top 10 picks, I don't see the difference-makers like we’ve had the last several years. . . . So I think the quick snapshot of this draft is more depth. Not quite the difference makers at the top end and a whole lot of holes in the quarterbacking class.”
In addition to Griffin, the Redskins appear to have found their long-term answer at running back in last year’s sixth-round pick, Alfred Morris. The 2011 and 2010 drafts have produced starters Ryan Kerrigan (linebacker), Jarvis Jenkins (defensive end), Trent Williams (left tackle) and Perry Riley (inside linebacker). The team also has added depth along the interior of the offensive line and among wide receivers, running backs and tight ends in the past three drafts.
Cornerback is a concern because veteran DeAngelo Hall is owed $8 million this season by the salary cap-strapped Redskins and faces an uncertain future. Additionally, the team doesn’t have a proven third corner. Meantime, right tackle also is an issue with the oft-injured Jammal Brown no longer with the team and replacement starter Tyler Polumbus set to become a free agent.
Nonetheless, safety seems to carry the highest priority.
Kenny Vaccaro of Texas and Matt Elam of Florida are considered the top safeties in the draft, and likely would be gone before Washington picks. Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien, who projects as a mid- to late-second-round pick, could be. After putting up a solid showing at the Senior Bowl, the 6-foot, 209-pound Cyprien looks to further establish himself as a potential impact player by showing well at the combine.
The same goes for fellow safeties Phil Taylor of Fresno State, T.J. McDonald of Southern Cal, Bacarri Rambo of Georgia, J.J. Wilcox of Georgia Southern, Eric Reid of LSU and Zeke Motta of Notre Dame, all of whom are expected to go anywhere from late second round to third or fourth round.
The combine also is expected to benefit small-school cornerbacks such as Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Alford, William & Mary’s B.W. Webb and Rutgers’s Logan Ryan, who boast talent worthy of second- and third-round consideration, according to analysts, but lacked the type of exposure players at larger schools receive.
The measurements, running, lifting and positional drills draw attention from fans, but rarely do performances in those categories significantly sway a team’s opinion of a player.
“The 40 doesn’t make you a football player; it’s not track,” Denver Broncos Coach John Fox said. “Guys come out with great football intelligence, but maybe not great book intelligence. At the end of the day you’re trying to evaluate a football player.’’
But how a player does in the 15-minute interviews with teams can change a team’s opinion.
“They want a little background, where you come from, and then what you know about football,” said Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh, who sat down with the Redskins on Wednesday night. “They’ll ask you to draw up a few run plays, your favorite pass play, just general information to see what you know.”
The conclusions drawn will then be used to help teams fill holes on their roster. Sizing up the draft, Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland believes a team with needs like the Redskins has a chance to do so on multiple fronts this draft.
“I think there are some difference-makers,” Ireland said. “I look at difference-makers in the offensive line, defensive line, maybe there’s a safety for you there. . . . I think there’s good depth in the draft.”