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Rivera's 2022 draft class makes his Commanders' strategy clear originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
When Prince Caspian returned to Narnia he did so with purpose. To return a glorious land to its people and overthrow a brutish oppression.
When Ron Rivera rolled into Ashburn, the stakes weren’t quite that high, but he set forth to fix a broken football franchise and return it to previous glories.
Through two seasons, it hasn’t gone great.
It hasn’t been awful with a 14-19 record and one NFC East title and playoff appearance, but it’s hard to look at the state of the now-Washington Commanders and consider it anything close to glorious.
The stadium stinks. There won’t be a new one for at least five years. FedEx Field’s seats sit largely empty, and the team has its third name in four years.
None of that is Rivera’s fault. None. It’s the fault of the person that signs his checks, owner Dan Snyder, and the series of sycophantic ex-Washington executives and business boobs in the front office who help fuel a series of scandals still bedeviling the franchise.
But much like Caspian returning to Narnia with Rhindon in hand, Rivera has a weapon in rescuing Washington.
Win football games. It won’t make FedEx less awful, but winning games could fill that dump again. FedEx once bumped. I saw it. It can bump again.
So what does the 2022 NFL Draft do for Rivera’s quest?
Well, it’s unclear.
The coach believes his team got better, immediately.
"We're anticipating the number of these guys, especially the first four, are going to get an opportunity to come out and contribute and play," Rivera said. "It's exciting to know that we feel comfortable and confident with those guys. It's always good to have guys that you can plug in and get some contribution from."
The headline of the Commanders draft came early, when the team traded back from the 11th pick to the 16th pick and acquired a solid haul of picks for later in the draft.
Eventually, that trade netted wide receiver Jahan Dotson at No. 16, a talented speedster wideout from Penn State, Brian Robinson Jr., a brick wall running back from Alabama, intriguing quarterback prospect Sam Howell from North Carolina and a promising offensive weapon at a position of need in tight end Cole Turner from Nevada.
On paper, that trade was a winner.
"Looking at what we did, we have guys that we think are going to come in, be part of some rotation, be part of some opportunity to play for us and truly contribute," Rivera said.
Look at all those players from Washington’s draft class and a strategy seems clear - physical players ready to play immediately. GM Martin Mayhew said the team wanted to upgrade from its six picks entering the three-day draft and the Commanders did it with eight players in all taken thanks to the trades.
Dotson will start for Washington in the slot. He will play a ton and offensive coordinator Scott Turner will move him around in bunches. Dotson might even be the punt returner, which is a black hole otherwise given Pro Bowl alternate DeAndre Carter left for the LA Chargers via free agency.
Second-round pick Phidarian Mathis will play immediately. His job on the first day of camp is to replace the departed Matt Ioannidis. That’s probably about 60% of defensive snaps. Whether the pick was a reach or not, as some draft analysts contend, we will know fast. Mathis will be on the field. Immediately.
Robinson will play. A lot. He will take over as Washington’s power back, a position vacant since Peyton Barber’s departure last September. On a related note, Robinson has a WAY higher ceiling than Barber. He could eventually have a much larger role than just a power back, but he will at least serve that role.
Incumbent running back Antonio Gibson is liked by coaches, but advanced metrics also show a tendency to leave yards on the field. And a penchant for fumbling remains a concern. Robinson leaves nothing but bruised defenders on the field and never fumbles. Legit never fumbles. He had zero fumbles in five years for the Crimson Tide.
Do the math - three picks, three players with starting roles and major contributors.
Rivera didn’t roll the dice on prospects in this draft. This was not a boom-or-bust player acquisition session.
The moves are obvious - one can practically hear Rivera telling his staff, ‘Get players that help on the field from day one so we can win 10 games. Or else.’
Nobody knows if the strategy will work, but it would be naive to ignore the strategy.
"You know, people are making projections about where they expect players to go," Washington GM Martin Mayhew said. "They're not in these buildings. They're not around these teams. We understand our needs and what we need as a football team much better than people on the outside looking in."
And that strategy - build a team to win 10 games this season - was shown most clearly even before the draft when the Commanders traded for quarterback Carson Wentz in March.
Wentz is a reclamation project. That’s Rivera’s real boom-or-bust play. The draft was about putting Wentz in the best possible situation to achieve his quarterbacking rehabilitation.
Don’t be fooled, either, to think Rivera approached the Wentz rehab without a backup plan. That was already made clear by the organization not reworking the passers’ contract to spread some money out. Nope. Instead, the Commanders ate all of Wentz’s salary this year so, if things go bad, they can pull the ripcord on the Wentz experience and start fresh in 2023.
And who better to play that role, potentially, than Howell. A year ago Howell was considered a first-round lock. His final season in Chapel Hill didn’t finish that way, but there’s talent and guts there. Stay tuned.
In Rivera’s vision, however, it works with Wentz. And it works because of the players in this draft that can hit the field immediately for Washington.
Sometimes it’s as simple as listening to what coaches and executives say.
Since the move for Wentz the Commanders coach had told anybody who will listen that the priority is helping the new QB. Two of the first three picks did exactly that, specifically with skill position ability.
Time will tell. If economics is called the dismal science, then the NFL Draft should be the inexact science. Nobody really knows anything.
Caspian returned to Narnia and eventually won. It was hard but it was worth it.
Let’s see what Rivera does.