Welcome to the era of “What the hell?” team building.
That’s often going to be your initial reaction to draft picks made by Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan because, even though he preaches about selecting the best talent over the greatest need, the normal brain isn’t built to think this way. You’re programmed to set expectations based on a team achieving ideal roster balance — create strengths, eliminate weaknesses — but McCloughan comes from a very successful scouting tradition that adds a wrinkle to the approach.
The theory is that, when trying to put together the best 53-man team in a sport complicated by transience and injury attrition, it’s shortsighted to acquire players merely to be sufficient in all areas. For the same reasons, it’s also naive to think a team is ever set at a position. Doing so can foster mediocrity and lead to miscalculation when a seemingly comfortable situation turns dire. It’s far better to keep adding, within reason, the top athletes at the greatest value. Need is a consideration, and smart teams tailor their draft boards to their roster situation to account for it. But need cannot drive every decision.
Instead, versatility is the standard. That word helps explain what McCloughan and the front office did in this draft and throughout the entire offseason, really. A year ago, during McCloughan’s first season in charge of personnel, Washington was desperate for size and better physical play, especially up front. Those moves, which were more based on need and intended to set a tone for the franchise moving forward, contributed to a surprise NFC East division title. This offseason has been a much closer match to McCloughan’s history of roster construction.
He has returned to his unconventional conventions. Washington didn’t have a glaring need for a wide receiver, but took Texas Christian’s Josh Doctson in the first round. The defense needs to replace nose tackle Terrance Knighton and end Jason Hatcher, but McCloughan chose Su’a Cravens, a hybrid linebacker/safety type, in the second round. The ink isn’t even dry on the $75 million contract that all-pro cornerback Josh Norman signed last week, but Washington took Virginia Tech corner Kendall Fuller in the third round despite the fact that he’s still recovering from microfracture knee surgery.
McCloughan warned you that he’d make choices without restraint. Before the draft, he said, “You can’t just say, ‘Okay, we’re great there. Let’s just forget about it.’ No, I’ve been in situations like that. All of a sudden, a guy gets hurt or two guys get hurt, and you’re like, ‘Son of a gun, we had that really good player that we passed on because of need.’ We’re going to take a football player.”
McCloughan has a holistic draft approach, and his knack for finding great players in the middle-to-late rounds and even among undrafted rookie free agents can’t be discredited. But the first three rounds also reveal how a team read the draft and what it valued.
By picking Doctson, Cravens and Fuller, Washington showed good forward thinking and indicated its desire on defense to match up better with offenses employing spread concepts. It all comes back to versatility and roster flexibility.
In Doctson, a big receiver at 6-foot-2 with a 41-inch vertical leap, the team didn’t just add another receiving option to a group that already has DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and pass-catching tight end Jordan Reed. It added a player with a special talent the team lacks: an athlete who can jump over defensive backs to make big plays while in the air. Don’t just think positionally; think about skill set. This is a new kind of player.
Doctson should help in the red zone, and he has a reputation for being a good route runner, too. For a team that must make decisions on whether to extend Jackson and Garcon after this season, it’s reassuring to have Crowder and Doctson, two young wideouts with starter talent.
Cravens was McCloughan’s most inspired pick. Ten years ago, Cravens would’ve been considered a tweener, too small to play linebacker at 6-1 and 226 pounds and too limited in man-coverage defensive schemes. But now, as teams try to spread out defenses and exploit coverage flaws, Cravens is an ideal fit. The hope is that he can be like Arizona’s Deone Bucannon or Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David or emerging young Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson. They’re Swiss Army knives for defenses, with the talent to blitz, bring a physical presence while playing in the box or hold their own in coverage.
With Norman, Fuller and Cravens representing the most high-profile additions to the Washington defense this offseason, it’s fascinating that they valued speed and versatility over girth up front. The common belief was the team would focus heavily on improving a run defense that allowed 4.8 yards per carry last season, tied for 31st in the NFL.
But after letting Knighton go, the team seems willing to get better in that area with emphasis on mixing and matching parts rather than employing an established run stuffer. It’s more concerned with giving defensive coordinator Joe Barry the pieces to be a multiple defense that can play any style.
“It’s very important,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “There are so many sub-packages nowadays — three-receiver sets, four-receiver sets, halfbacks lined up outside. Tight ends nowadays are versatile and can line up outside. And you need a guy that can be in the box, be effective in the run and then go out and cover people. We’re playing [Philadelphia running back] Darren Sproles. We’re playing running backs who can go out there and catch the ball. Shane Vereen with the New York Giants.
“We can put in [Cravens] the box. He’s effective against the run. He can cover tight ends. He can cover backs. He’s a great blitzer. He’s got a great nose for the football. He’s one of the best zone defenders that we saw in this draft. He’s got great vision on the quarterback, all-out break, everything that Joe Barry preaches, he does. So we’ll find a spot for him, whether it’s in the box, out of the box, he’ll be effective.”
Gruden will say the words hundreds of times this season: “We’ll figure it out.” Washington has holes, but what team doesn’t? It’s just as important to look at the depth it is building at cornerback, at the options it has at receiver, the enhanced competition it’s created across the roster and the transition occurring as so many players change positions or learn to think about their roles differently (DeAngelo Hall and Will Blackmon at safety, Trent Murphy on the defensive line).
I’m not sure Washington has fewer worries than it did at this time last season. But it has more overall talent.
“We’re just trying to add good football players to this team,” Gruden said. “And we’ll figure out who’s playing where, how to get receivers the ball, what have you. I think the important thing here and the goal of this draft is to draft the best players we can.”
Some individual decisions will leave you scratching your head. But over about three years, the result should be the formation of one of the most talented teams in football. That’s what McCloughan experienced in Green Bay, San Francisco and Seattle. This seemingly unconventional way has an impressive track record.
What the . . .