From the moment the Chicago Bears traded up to take quarterback Mitchell Trubisky second overall, little about Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft unfolded as predicted. A draft class loaded with defensive talent instead saw a run on offensive players, with two quarterbacks and three wide receivers chosen among the top 10.
The upshot proved a blessing for the Washington Redskins, who badly needed to shore up their defense and headed into the proceedings with a wish list designed to do just that.
“Never in a million years,” as Coach Jay Gruden later put it, did Redskins executives think that Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen still would be available when they chose 17th overall. Regarded as a top-10 pick — top five, in the minds of some — the 6-foot-3, 286-pound Allen had won the 2016 Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards as the nation’s top defensive player.
Regarded as a first-round pick after his outstanding junior year, Allen instead chose to return to Alabama for his senior season to hone his skills and toughen his run defense. Under Coach Nick Saban’s tutelage, he blossomed further, leading Alabama with 10½ sacks and had 69 tackles, including 16 for a loss.
Allen was so highly regarded, in fact, that Gruden almost didn’t bother asking Saban about him when he spoke with the Alabama coach about a handful of his defensive prospects, all but sure the Redskins had no shot at him.
So as one team after another ahead of the Redskins chose offensive players, Gruden and everyone else in the team’s draft room couldn’t believe Allen was still an option.
“There was not a lot of debate in there,” Gruden said afterward. “He’s a very versatile guy — he can play all the positions on defensive line. Really, never in a million years did we think he would be there at 17, but we’re happy as heck he was.”
Allen’s arrival in Washington will mark a homecoming for the three-time All-Met from Stone Bridge High, just five miles from Redskins Park in Ashburn.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock declared Allen “a steal” at 17th on the draft broadcast. Allen’s NFL.com draft profile characterizes him as having “Pro Bowl potential down the road.”
If concerns about a previous shoulder injury led to his draft-night slide, Allen said he wasn’t worried about it, feeling nothing but “blessed and happy” to be a Redskin and eager to get to work and earn a spot in the lineup.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call Thursday night, Allen called his selection by the Redskins “a blessing” and said he could barely remember his conversation with Gruden, who phoned with the team’s decision, because he was so overcome with emotion.
“He said, ‘We’re lucky to have you,’ ” Allen said, recounting Gruden’s words. “And I said, ‘No. I’m lucky you took me.’ ”
Allen recalled rooting for the Redskins as a child and attending the first day of training camp at Redskins Park to watch Donovan McNabb play. “It’s crazy I’m going to be out there playing with them,” Allen said.
Allen will be paired with the two free agent defensive tackles the Redskins signed last month — Terrell McClain, 28, and Stacy McGee, 27 — in what amounts to a near total overhaul of the defensive line.
It was the first time the Redskins have used a first-round pick on a defensive player since 2011, when they chose Purdue linebacker Ryan Kerrigan 16th overall.
Defensive struggles handicapped the team the past two seasons. The unit ranked 28th in 2016, allowing 378 yards per game. It struggled against the run (24th) and the pass (25th).
Allen’s selection represents a concrete step forward amid what has been a tumultuous offseason, in which the Redskins fired their general manager, Scot McCloughan, just seven weeks before the draft.
It’s imperative that Allen pay dividends for the Redskins after last year’s first-round disappointment. Despite an obvious need to upgrade the defensive line, the Redskins used their first-round pick (22nd overall) on Texas Christian wide receiver Josh Doctson, convinced he was the best player available. But mysterious Achilles’ ailments limited him to just two catches and two games, and he finished the year on injured reserve.
Doctson may well vindicate his first-round selection this season. He proclaimed this winter on social media that he’s 100 percent. But his rookie season was essentially lost.
Thursday’s first round was riddled with plot twists, including a report on social media in the first hour of the proceedings that the Cleveland Browns were interested in trading for Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Gruden said the team received no overtures about Cousins.
The Redskins sent two representatives to Philadelphia to relay the team’s decision, which was reached behind the closed doors of the draft room at Redskins Park, where team President Bruce Allen and Gruden huddled with the scouting staff.
Meanwhile, McCloughan, who has not spoken publicly since his dismissal, reportedly has offered his evaluation skill to other NFL teams, rebooting the private consulting business that he ran when he was between front-office jobs with Seattle and the Redskins.
According to a Redskins source, Allen made clear to fellow general managers at the NFL owners meeting in March that McCloughan was free to work for other teams under the terms of his severance.