Work in Sports
Striking it rich
'Skins in enviable position of having two high picks
Posted: Friday April 14, 2000 11:34 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
This isn't how the NFL is supposed to work. Teams that finish 10-6, win their division and come within a botched field goal snap of a conference title game appearance aren't supposed to wake up on draft day and find themselves sitting on a pair of winning lottery numbers.
But that's the remarkable reality facing the Washington Redskins this weekend, as they prepare for Saturday's first round of the NFL Draft, in which they hold the second and third overall selections.
So much for the NFL Draft's meek-shall-inherit-the-earth model, which former commissioner Pete Rozelle so championed in the name of parity.
"Let's put it this way, we hope we don't ever have the second and third picks again," said Redskins director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato on Thursday, with obvious irony. "But it's a rare opportunity and an exciting opportunity. Coming off an NFC East championship, being a snap away from the championship game, and still having the chance to be selecting two of the elite players in the college draft.
"I mean, it's a dream come true."
Cerrato has been envisioning this particular dream scenario -- over and over again -- from the moment he and the Redskins ever-involved owner Daniel Snyder executed a trade with San Francisco at the February scouting combine, assuring Washington of the second and third overall picks.
In a draft that by consensus goes four deep in terms of special players, half the battle has already been won by the Redskins, who made the playoffs last season for the first time since 1992.
Cleveland? The Browns earned their draft-day top billing, taking that ugly 2-14 bullet last season in true expansion team form. But for Washington, this year's math looks like it's going to go something like this: 2 plus 3 equals 1. That being a second consecutive first-place finish, or, as some have already dared predict, an even loftier Super Bowl victory.
"I've been thinking about this ever since we completed the trade and knew we could get two of the guys," Cerrato said. "There's been anxiety in anticipation of April 15. Now that it's less than 48 hours away, the excitement is really building. Then, once you make the picks, you're looking at April 28 when they're here for minicamp, and you can't wait to see them on the field."
Barring either an open-field reverse by Cleveland or the collapse of the Browns' pre-draft contract negotiations with Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown, the two players Washington won't have to wait long to field are Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington and Alabama offensive tackle Chris Samuels.
The Redskins front office and coaches have been locked in on those two for weeks and both players will walk into starting jobs -- at strongside linebacker and left tackle, respectively -- the moment they sign.
As of Thursday night, there were no indications that anything but the expected top-four scenario will unfold Saturday in New York. Negotiations between the Browns and Brown's agents, Marvin Demoff and Sean Jones, are already under way.
For their part, the Redskins have diligently maintained that they will be just as happy if the Browns go for Arrington, leaving them Brown and Samuels. Though they have talent somewhat stockpiled at defensive end, the Redskins say they would make room and find a way to get Brown on the field, even if it means standing him up at linebacker on first down.
In either scenario, Florida State's multidimensional receiver Peter Warrick looks to be the man on the outside looking in at Cincinnati's No. 4 slot.
"We're in a draft where there's four great players and we just happen to be picking second and third," Cerrato said. "So how can we lose? We're going to get two great players, and we covet those guys. We're just waiting for 12:15 on Saturday."
Were the team's high-profile draft position the only cause for optimism among Redskins fans, all the inspired Super Bowl talk might still ring a bit hollow. But Snyder, the 35-year-old whirlwind who plunked down a record $800 million for the franchise and its stadium last year, didn't just sit back and quietly wait for the draft to address all his club's needs.
Sndyer was the wallet behind the deals that brought Pro Bowl Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith, Detroit safety Mark Carrier, Arizona running back Adrian Murrell and Minnesota quarterback Jeff George to town. And it's a good bet that soon-to-be-former Dallas cornerback Deion Sanders will be wearing burgundy and gold before the 2000 regular season is out.
Throw in the impact that Arrington and Samuels should have and the Redskins look to be a team that has fully separated themselves from the rest of their NFC East rivals.
"They're going to be good. They're going to be damn good," said New York Giants coach Jim Fassel of the Redskins, in the days leading up to the draft. "They're going to have all the bases covered. If they get Deion, they're going to have an all-star defense."
Last season, the Redskins defense ranked 30th among 31 teams and was anything but a collection of all-stars. But with new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes and linebackers coach Foge Fazio -- himself a former Vikings defensive coordinator -- on hand, Mike Nolan's old beleaguered unit has gotten a face-lift on any number of fronts.
"It's obvious that we have a great chance to be improved, when you see the aggressiveness of getting a Bruce Smith as a pass rusher," Fazio said. "Then you say you need some big-play makers, and that would be one of the two Penn State kids. And of course, if you have a weakness on the offensive line, you take Samuels. I think those are no-brainers right there.
"If these guys come in here and perform like they did in college, and we groom them and coach them, we're going to improve. Now, if we get them here and for some reason it doesn't work out, either we didn't do the job right or something happened. Because they're good players. So if we draft two and three again next year, none of us will be here."
Washington, which has eight overall picks, may not be done on the trading front. Cerrato confirmed that they would like to turn their third-round pick into a pair of fourths, drafting more depth in the secondary and on special teams.
But those are the final pieces, not the building blocks that already appear to be in place or on the way.
Perhaps as important as being a team on the rise in this era of free agency is the perception of being a team on the rise, Cerrato said. While the Redskins are the chic pick to make a run at the Super Bowl, the designation has a chance to become somewhat self-fulfilling in this day and age of frequent player movement.
"What happens is, guys get the feeling that, hey, this is the place to be, and then it becomes easier," Cerrato said. "Because then people start calling you, and it snowballs. Guys want to come and have an opportunity to win, and they'll come and play for less just to have that chance.
"You have to give all the credit to Dan Snyder. He set the tempo and set the tone on how things will work, and he's done what he said he would do. He wants to win and he's paid what he had to pay to get the players. We have one goal and that's to win the Super Bowl. And we won't stop at anything in trying to improve this team until we reach that goal."
Washington will take two huge steps toward that goal in Saturday's first round. Two more steps that will keep them well ahead of the pack in the NFC East.