The road to repeating as NFC East champions began shortly after the Washington Football Team suffered a close defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild card round in January.
The coaches evaluated each position group to identify strengths and weakness, then collaborated with the personnel department to identify players to retain and those to pursue in free agency. The result was an inspiring haul that included a proven veteran quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a potential No. 1 corner in William Jackson III and an offensive chess piece in Curtis Samuel.
All the while, director of college personnel Tim Gribble and his staff were in lockstep with the coaches and decision-makers to begin constructing the board Washington followed this past weekend during the 2021 NFL Draft.
1. Valuing Draft Capital
Washington has made it clear it wants to build through the draft; doing so, Mayhew said, will make the team younger, faster, healthier and, because of the salary cap, cheaper. "Where we are as a football team right now, we see investing in this group right now with draft picks is going to make us better fast."
That said, Rivera admitted after Day 1 that there were a "couple guys that we felt worthy for giving up a lot," and he expanded on that subject after the draft, telling ABC 7's Scott Abraham that there were conversations both about trading up for a quarterback in the first round and taking one later on.
"We liked a couple of those quarterbacks an awful lot," Rivera said. "The thing that always seemed to [make us] just kind of step back and think about it, though, was the draft capital we'd have to give up."
As the revamped front office debated these moves, Rivera said the conclusion was always, "Well, let's take one more look. Let's see if he falls again." That never happened -- the top 5 quarterbacks all went in the top 15 -- so Washington was perfectly happy with sticking at 19 and selecting one of its top-rated defensive players in the draft in linebacker in Jamin Davis.
Going with Davis allowed Washington to preserve its other seven draft picks, which became nine Saturday afternoon when the team traded a 2022 fifth-round pick for a sixth-rounder and a third seventh this year. With those selections, Washington addressed its need at long snapper with Cameron Cheeseman and added edge-rusher depth with William Bradley-King.
Appearing on 106.7 the Fan's "BMitch & Finlay" on Monday, Rivera said the trade up was in part to limit the team's exposure in the college free agent market. The competitiveness to sign these players drives up their value, Rivera added, and the team did not want to pay more than it needed to in terms of signing bonuses, salaries and guarantees. The only undrafted rookie it ended up signing was running back Jaret Patterson.
Including Patterson, Washington welcomed 11 players to its already young and talented roster.
"They all, we believe, have the opportunity to reach their potential in this league," Mayhew said of these newcomers, "and we're going to do everything in our power to make that happen."
2. Culture Fit
"It's about cultural fit and then football player fit."
Rivera used that phrase after the draft's completion Saturday night, but it was a philosophy Washington followed throughout the weekend, starting with its top selection.
"We're getting a solid fit to what we're trying to create in terms of the culture," Rivera said of Davis. "We talk about having a sustainable winning culture. He's the kind of guy you want to plug in. Very strong family support, he was a military brat. It was mentioned earlier, he was born in Hawaii on a military base. I'm very partial to guys like that because I played with a lot of guys like that, that have that family background. He's a solid young man that is very bright, very intelligent. Like I said, I think he's the right fit for us."
Rivera and Mayhew echoed similar sentiments about each of the team's draft picks, and for good season. Its draft class has three former team captains in tackle Sam Cosmi, safety Darrick Forrest and defensive end Shaka Toney.
Some of its other selections, namely third-round defensive back Benjamin St-Juste and fourth-round tight end John Bates, had 1-on-1 conversations with only one head coach during the draft process. It was Rivera, who after those discussions deemed them worthy selections if they were available. On Day 2, Washington snagged both players.
Mayhew has been a part of two Super Bowls -- one as a player with Washington in 1992 and the second as a personnel executive with the San Francisco 49ers in 2020 -- and described the locker room and culture of both teams "outstanding." That's what Mayhew wants to build with this franchise, and he credited Rivera for beginning to transform the culture last season. Both men understand what it will take to remain on the right track.
"It's important from the very beginning, more so than anything else," Rivera said about establishing a certain culture. "If you're going to take a guy that's got tremendous talent but his character is always in question, at some point you're going to have to answer to it.
"It's important and that's what I'm trying to get across to everyone. We don't want to be in a bad position. We want to be in a position where we feel good about what we have. Sure, some people make mistakes and there are some occasional [things]. But when it becomes a problem, then you have to reassess your core values, what culture have you truly created. I don't want to do that. I don't want to restart anywhere. I want to make sure we do it right from the beginning. Does it have an impact, does it play in my mind? Yes. I'll answer that bluntly, yes it does."
3. Position Flexibility
Listen to any of Rivera's press conferences, and you'll likely hear him talk about position flexibility. His affinity for the trait dates back to his days as a defensive coordinator for the then-San Diego Chargers in the late 2000s, and he's stressed its importance in the years since.
Just look at the players Washington drafted this past weekend: Davis can play all three linebacker spots, Cosmi spent time at left and right tackle, and St-Juste was a collegiate cornerback but, according to Rivera, has the skillset and body type to potentially play elsewhere in the secondary. Bates and Forrest probably won't deviate from tight end and safety, respectively, but both have proven special teams value.
Over the past two offseasons, Rivera has built a versatile roster capable of handling the ever-changing landscape of the NFL. The more players can do nowadays, the better, and no one knows that better than Rivera.
"Your primary backups at each position cannot just be single slot guys anymore; they have to have position flex," Rivera said. "Even if they are starters, they have to have it because...for instance, a guy playing right tackle, if something happens to the left guard and that right tackle can be a better left guard than the backup, who is a better right tackle, then you take the backup and put him at right tackle because he is better at it than he is at left guard, but then you move somebody that is already starting to another position. That is what position flex does for you: it gives you the opportunity to put the best combination of guys out on the field."
Rivera demands that Washington play fast, and one of the best ways to ensure that happens is by adding athleticism across the roster. As it pertains to this draft class, mission accomplished.
A part of being athletic is having pure speed, and Washington's draft picks have plenty of it. Cosmi ran a 4.85-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, which would have been the fastest among offensive lineman at last year's combine. Brown ran a 4.44 at his Pro Day, which is actually the fourth-slowest on Washington's offense behind Curtis Samuel (4.31), Terry McLaurin (4.35) and Antonio Gibson (4.39).
"None of those guys were picked just specifically for their speed," Mayhew said. "But yeah, we want to get faster, we want to get younger, we want to get healthier. That's the purpose of the draft from my standpoint, and all these guys have brought that to the table for us."
Perhaps the only knock on Davis is that he started just 11 games at Kentucky. Aside from that, "this guy just checked a whole bunch of boxes for us," Mayhew said.
"He's what you look for in a football player," Rivera added.
Davis was an outlier in a draft class full of experience. Cosmi, Brown, Bates and Forrest were all three-year starters with a combined 127 college starts. St-Juste, Bradley-King and Toney all started in their final two years. And of all of Washington's draft picks, seven of them played in Power 5 conferences, went up against top-notch competition on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, COVID-19 impacted the draft because a lot of prospects opted out, meaning there was less game film for NFL teams to evaluate. But the only Washington rookie who did not play last season was Cheeseman. Everyone else suited up for at least five games.
Washington has a vision for Davis based on his overall skillset, but with a lot of these selections, the coaches should have a good sense of who these players are based on the tape. That should simplify the process of integrating rookies into the team's greater philosophy.
"All the guys we took have an outstanding opportunity with us to make our team and make us better," Mayhew said.