Like skid marks at the scene of a car crash, the evidence of a college career’s worth of collisions was evident to a skilled medical practitioner looking to find fault with the test results on Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen at the NFL scouting combine. There were signs of surgery on each shoulder and a trace of arthritis in each joint.
In the estimation of some NFL teams, that apparently was enough to knock Allen from his projected status as a top-five selection in this year’s draft. An unexpected run on offensive players dropped him further.
But in the view of the Washington Redskins, any hesitation by other teams was a gift — one Coach Jay Gruden later said he didn’t see coming “in a million years.” With Allen still available when they chose at 17th overall, the Redskins snapped up the 6-3, 286-pound lineman, convinced by their own medical experts — along with ringing endorsements of Allen’s character and work ethic from former coaches — that they’d landed a gem of an athlete who’d prove plenty durable.
“A no-brainer,” Gruden called it, pointing to Allen’s 28.5 career sacks that rank second in Alabama history. “We didn’t have any concerns.”
Three former NFL general managers interviewed about the pick say the Redskins’ thinking was sound — particularly in the current era of pro football, in which traditional notions of longevity for playing careers no longer apply.
“Ten, 15 years ago, GMs and coaches went into the draft thinking that a top-round pick needed to play eight, nine or 10 years,” said former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, who also served as a personnel executive in Baltimore and Philadelphia before taking over administration of the Senior Bowl. “I think now, because of the urgency to win and the fact that everyone has a short shelf-life unless you’re winning, people are picking players based on the here and now. ‘What’s he gonna give us in the next two, three years?’”
For all NFL teams, the draft represents a gamble. And when a medical red flag is raised about a player’s health, it becomes a calculus of risk versus reward: For a player with a certain condition, what’s his likelihood, based on medical norms, of playing in Y games over X years?
Heading into the recent draft, the Redskins badly needed a win with their first-round pick after last year’s top pick, Texas Christian wide receiver Josh Doctson, chosen 22nd overall, managed just two catches before landing on injured reserve.
So why take a chance on Allen, if others were skittish? What drove the Redskins’ thinking?
For starters, the team leaned heavily on assurances from James Andrews, the Alabama-based orthopedic surgeon who treats many elite athletes and serves as a consultant to both the Redskins and Alabama football.
“We sent him to the combine as part of our medical team,” Redskins team president Bruce Allen said of Andrews on Monday, “and we feel we have a great handle on [Jonathan Allen’s] physical condition.”
Allen underwent shoulder surgeries to repair muscle tears in back-to-back seasons while at Alabama, but in each case returned to compete effectively. In an interview prior to the draft, Dr. Lyle Cain, an associate of Andrews who also works with Alabama football, detailed the procedures and downplayed any concern, telling the NFL Network: “This is something that a lot of offensive linemen and defensive linemen have … things guys play with their whole careers.”
David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, S.C., said in a telephone interview that Cain’s endorsement and Allen’s strong finish to his college career likely carried weight with NFL executives.
“When you hear ‘arthritis,’ that’s still a risk. A guy has got to use his arm and wrist to drag his guy to the ground, and that’s going to scare some teams off,” Geier said. “But I feel like if he played for two years after that and never missed a snap, the risk isn’t probably that high.”
Allen is expected to start as a rookie, Gruden has indicated, and takes his next step this week at the team’s three-day workout at Redskins Park. Along with Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson (the Redskins’ second-round pick) and third-round pick Fabian Moreau, a UCLA cornerback who’s recovering from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, Allen represents a significant investment in a defense that has ranked 28th in the NFL the last two years.
If shoulder ailments prevent him from playing a decade in Washington, that doesn’t mean Allen isn’t a wise pick, said Bill Polian, the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.
“The NFL has changed,” said Polian, now an analyst for ESPN.
For starters, careers are shorter. Polian said the average career is six years among players who make it to their second year in the NFL, according to the most recent statistics he’s reviewed. Moreover, under free agency, many of the best players change teams after their fourth or fifth year.
So even if a medical test flags an arthritic knee or shoulder, today’s general managers are more apt to overlook that if the prognosis suggests a player might last five or six years.
Asked whether Doctson’s Achilles’ injuries his rookie season should have tempered the Redskins’ tolerance for risk heading into this year’s draft, Polian replied with an emphatic ‘No!’
“If you follow that line of thinking, you’d be letting emotions get in the way of intellect,” Polian said. “Facts are what you have to be driven by. In the NFL, we’re all inured to the fact that injuries do occur. There are plenty you can’t predict. It’s just bad luck.”
Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said his thinking on what constitutes longevity evolved over time. Credit Bill Parcells and the success he had in drafting Pittsburgh running back Curtis Martin with a third-round pick in 1995, ignoring Martin’s injury woes in college and banking instead on his 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. Martin went on to an 11-year, Hall of Fame career.
“Turned out, he had a career,” Casserly said of Martin. “But either way, all careers now are three or four years. So if someone told me that medically there was a question about a guy’s career length, I’d ask, ‘Is he fine now?’”
“ … There’s a risk with every pick you make,” Casserly said. “But I would have taken Allen where the Redskins took him.”
In the view of former Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis, it’s the teams ahead of the Redskins who missed out.
“The one thing they don’t know about this kid — this kid is tough,” Davis said. “I’d have told them he was a top-five pick. I feel like Washington got a steal at 17 with him. His shoulders, to me, had nothing to do with his ability to play. That kid plays through pain and never shows it. He’s tough mentally, and he’s tough physically.”