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Reviewing The Conventional Wisdom On Mike Shanahan's Drafts

Posted by Matt Terl on January 6, 2011 – 12:15 pm

As the Cowboys prepare for an afternoon press conference, presumably to announce Jason Garrett as their new head coach, one of the columnists at the Dallas Morning News has already started gloating about how pleased he is that the team won’t be able to hire Mike Shanahan.

“It was on this day one year ago that the Cowboys were saved from making a mistake that would have sent the franchise reeling into the dark ages,” Gerry Fraley writes. “They will get a second chance with Garrett. This day marks the first anniversary of the Washington Redskins hiring its latest celebrity coach: Mike Shanahan.”

Fraley is entitled to his opinion, of course; to no one’s surprise I disagree with his basic thesis. The whole basis of this column — Thank goodness our rivals saved us from ourselves! — is just a sports columnist being a sports columnist, and not something that I would usually bother to mention. But one of Fraley’s anti-Shanhan arguments really jumped out at me:

After the season-ending loss, Shanahan talked about “a good draft” helping the Redskins return to contention. Check Shanahan’s draft history with Denver. If the Redskins have a good draft, it will be Shanahan’s first in a while.

Fraley is far from the first person to make this assertion — and it drives me crazy every time — but the specific phrasing here, the “first in a while” bit … that makes this occurence particularly galling.

See, here’s the thing: Shanahan’s drafts aren’t nearly as bad as they’re made out to be, and, if anything, they seemed to get better as he accrued more experience. They say you can’t really judge a draft class until three seasons in, which (by coincidence) is how long it’s been since Shanahan’s 2008 draft in Denver. Fraley says Shanahan’s next good draft will be his “first in a while”; I say we don’t even have to look farther back than that draft, Shanahan’s last before coming to Washington. So instead of relying on the conventional wisdom that Shanhan’s drafts are terrible, let’s actually look at those picks:

Round 1: Ryan Clady, T

The Clady selection is iron-clad. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2008 behind Matt Ryan and Chris Johnson, was named All-Pro in 2008 and 2009, made the Pro Bowl in 2009, has started all 48 games for the Broncos since being drafted, and even won the Broncos’ Ed Block Courage Award this year for coming back from an offseason knee injury.

Round 2: Eddie Royal, WR

Eddie Royal had a stellar rookie season under Shanahan, catching 91 passes — second-most ever for an NFL rookie — for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns. His stats have diminished in the two years since, but at least some of that can probably be tied to the departures of Shanahan and quarterback Jay Cutler.

Round 4: Kory Lichtensteiger, C/G

Kory Lichtensteiger didn’t make much of an impact in Denver, nor in 2009 with Minnesota. But he started 14 games for the Redskins this season and — despite some initial rough patches — made steady improvement throughout the season. And don’t just take my word for that. Professional Redskins curmudgeons Rick Snider and Kevin Ewoldt debate the offensive line on Hogs Haven today, and even they aren’t particularly harsh on The Steiger:

“I’m going with Kory Lichtensteiger,” Ewoldt writes. “He struggled early in the year but he looked good against a young, strong Giants D. He was consistently at the second level on screens and rushing plays, and he of course can play Center.”

“Kory was OK, but I don’t think he’s anything special,” Snider responds. “Just fits Shanahan’s blocking system better than Derrick Dockery did. Wouldn’t surprise me if Lichtensteiger starts again next year, but he’s a stopgap until they can upgrade.”

Coming from those two guys, that’s about as high as praise gets — and it’s also perfectly in line with what you’d expect from a solid fourth-round pick.

Round 4: Jack Williams, CB

Does not appear to have made much of an impact. Thirteen tackles his rookie year, three passes defensed the following year; now with the Lions where he “may be in the mix” for next year per The Detroit News.

Round 5: Ryan Torain, RB

I would hope you know about Ryan Torain by now, as Shanahan has said that he’s competing for the Redskins’ starting RB job next season. He finished 2010 with 742 yards and 4 touchdowns in just 10 games (8 starts), averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He also added another 129 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 receptions. The knock on him, of course, is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but I certainly think he’s lived up to a fifth-round draft choice — and he might excel well past that if he can avoid injury. /knocks furiously on everything wood in the office

Round 6: Spencer Larsen, LB

Converted from linebacker to fullback, started at both those positions during a Week 11 game his rookie season (winning Diet Pepsi Rookie Of The Week). He’s contributed a bit ever since despite being nagged by injuries, and had 3 carries and 5 receptions for a combined 69 yards and a touchdown this year before being placed on injured reserve. As a draft pick, nothing remarkable, but certainly not a bust in the sixth. (Also potentially an interesting precursor to Redskins LB-turned-FB Darrel Young.)

Round 7: Josh Barrett, S

This is a familiar pattern for Shanahan rookies: during his rookie year, Barrett started the season on the practice squad, was elevated to the active roster in Week 11, and — in 6 games (3 starts) — got 22 tackles and an interception. He had an unremarkable 2009 under the new coaching staff, and was waived/injured before the 2010 season … at which point the New England Patriots signed him from waivers directly onto their injured reserve list. The jury’s still out on this pick, but if the Patriots think enough of you to sign you injured, I’m not going to be the one to call you a bust.

Round 7: Peyton Hillis, RB

Possibly the most bizarre story here. Under Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner, Hillis started the 2008 season at fullback. Then Ryan Torain got himself injured (see: “hasn’t been able to stay healthy” above) and Hillis eventually found himself starting at running back. Where, somewhat unexpectedly, he excelled, carrying the ball 68 times for 343 yards — a 5 yard per carry average — and 5 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury. His 2009 season was a wash, as he returned to the bottom of the depth chart amidst rumors of a conflict with new head coach Josh McDaniels. The following offseason McDaniels traded Hillis — AND two draft picks! — to the Browns for Brady Quinn. In Cleveland this year, Hillis started 14 games and carried the ball for 1,177 yards and a 4.4 yards-per-carry average, adding another 477 yards receiving. So, yeah, pretty solid seventh round pick.

The Tally

That’s the eight guys. By my count, it’s a list that includes one (1) Pro Bowler, four (4) NFL starters of average or better ability, two (2) guys who are still unknowns but seem like at least roster-worthy guys (Larsen and Barrett) and only one (1) guy whose first three years look completely underwhelming.

Maybe the Cowboys are happy with their solid-if-unspectacular 2008 draft class, but I suspect they’d prefer Shanahan’s draft … and I absolutely KNOW that Redskins fans wish that they could have these eight guys instead of Durant Brooks, Devin Thomas, and Chad Rinehart.

The obvious counter-argument to all of that is that only one of those guys is still a hugely productive member of the Broncos, but multiple changes in coaching staff, quarterback, and philosophy have played a huge role in that — and, anyway, I would say that drafting productive players is the primary sign of a good talent evaluator.

And that’s just looking at Shanahan’s most recent draft because of Fraley’s specific phrasing. The first five picks of the Broncos’ 2006 draft yielded Jay Cutler, Tony Scheffler, Brandon Marshall, Elvis Dumervil, and Domenik Hixon — and Shanahan was just about the only guy who reportedly had Cutler rated ahead of Vince Young and Matt Leinart that year. (Cutler, in case you’re not paying attention, is on a bye this week waiting to host a playoff game; Young has been informed that he’ll be gone from his team next year, and Leinart already knew he was heading to free agency.)

Yes, Shanahan has made plenty of lousy picks and even had a few outright terrible draft classes. No talent evaluator is going to be perfect.

But he seems to have gotten better the more he did it, and think about this: if Mike Shanahan had been drafting for your team for the last five NFL seasons, but had stayed in place and been able to use guys as he envisioned when he acquired them, here is what the bulk of your starting offense might look like:

  • QB Jay Cutler
  • RB Ryan Torain
  • FB Peyton Hillis
  • WR Brandon Marshall
  • WR Eddie Royal
  • WR Brandon Banks
  • TE Tony Scheffler
  • LT Ryan Clady
  • C Kory Lichtensteiger
  • RT Trent Williams

Also, all of them would be under 30. Fill in with a couple of guards via free agency and you’ve got an offense that can match up against just about anyone in the NFL.

Yes, that last bit is pure speculation and fantasy. Yes, it’s kind of pointless. But looking at that … well, it certainly doesn’t seem like the work of a guy who deserves the rap Shanahan gets as a questionable drafter of talent.

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