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Commanders scouts provide inside look at evaluation of Washington's previous draft picks


Fans have been waiting months to see which players the Washington Commanders will take with their eight picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. For the team's scouting department, however, it is the culmination of years of work. 

Since Ron Rivera took over as Washington's head coach, the team has managed to find some gems in later rounds, where scouts' evaluations can play a pivotal role. The Commanders took chances on players like Chris Paul, John Bates and Darrick Forrest, and while all three are in the infancy of their professional careers, they are either in position to or already have important roles going forward. 

For the scouts, it's gratifying to see their efforts pay off. 

"You have to make sure you do the amount of work to where you feel comfortable," said national scout David Whittington. "Because at the end of it, we have to put our name on these guys."

If the draft is the end of the road in terms of evaluating college prospects, getting a list from the BLESTO scouts is where it starts. It's a national scouting service that teams can use to help whittle down a list of hundreds of prospects to a more refined group that could be of interest for the team heading into next year.

For Whittington, who is entering his 15th season with the Commanders and oversaw scouting operations in the Southwest region before being promoted to a national scout, Bates and Paul were two of the names that popped up in recent years.

Whittington's first exposure to Bates was the summer of his senior year. By then, Bates had already played in 19 games and caught 35 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns. Bates wasn't "just a throwaway as a receiver," Whittington said, but he had several other traits that made him an interesting prospect."

"He's a big, physical, athletic dude," Whittington said. "You saw him attached at the line of scrimmage. He was a very technical blocker."

Bates' athleticism can be partially credited to the sports he played besides football. On top of playing basketball, he was a championship-winning track star with titles in the 110-meter hurdles and the javelin.

All those accolades were complements to Bates' evaluation, but as impressive as they are, Whittington was just as pleased with Bates' personality when the two spoke at the Senior Bowl. Whittington had spent time talking to Boise State's coaches, trainers, academic staff, support staff and equipment staff to learn as much as he could about Bates, and it was satisfying to have that praise affirmed.

"He's professional and mature," Whittington said. "Highly intelligent … And you kind of see it clicking. He's very self-aware, very sharp, and you can tell he was business and detail oriented."

Characteristics like that matter to Whittington and the rest of the Commanders' scouts. On-field performance will always be a key role in determining whether a player is worth taking with a draft pick, aspects of their personality that make them unique are also part of the process.

That was the case with Paul, who the Commanders took with the No. 230 overall pick last year. Most of the attention on Tulsa was because of Tyler Smith, who was taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round, but Paul had as much to offer off the field as he did on it. He served as chair of the conference's SAAC executive board; a member of the AAC's Racial Equity Action Group (REAG) a member of the Black Men's Initiative (BMI); and a member of the University Ambassadors, Student Association, Future Alumni Council and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

All of that told Whittington that Paul was "a high achiever."

"Super bright academically, he's played multiple spots, multiple year starter. He's big, he's long, he's strong. Just a well-rounded player."

That drive for achievement stood out on the field as well, regardless of where Paul was on the offensive line. He started at both guard positions and at right tackle. All that experience helped Paul fine tune his blocking technique -- something that Rivera was eager to praise on several occasions during his rookie year.

"He was smart, could play multiple positions," Whittington said. "He was strong, and he was long, so he had that NFL-ready strength. There wasn't really any physical development that you needed. It was more of a, 'We gotta find the right home for him.'"

Projecting a player's path and potential in the NFL is also part of scouts' evaluations, but there are times when a player shatters those expectations and becomes a bigger part of the team. For the Commanders, Forrest is one of the best examples of that. Forrest was expected to be more a special teams player when Washington used a fifth-round pick on him in 2021, but after a breakout campaign in 2022, Forrest has become one of the defense's top safeties.

Even then, though, there were signs that Forrest could offer more than punt coverage.

"His physicality," director of college personnel Tim Gribble said when describing what stood out about Forrest at Cincinnati. "Everything we got back at the school when we made the school call on his character, that showed up in his style of play. He's relentless, he plays to the whistle, he's physical and his passion for football showed up on the film."

That relentless mentality showed up in a couple of different ways. During the Peach Bowl matchup against Georgia in his senior year, Forrest lost a shoe but continued to "bust his tail to try to make a play," Gribble said. Cincinnati lost that game, 24-21, but Forrest ended the matchup with nine tackles.

Forrest's role on special teams also spoke to his passion for football.

"You could see it on film," Gribble said. "You could just tell by the way he played. The physicality, the love of football showed through on the film. He's smart, he's tough, he loves football, and those are the three traits that we look for, especially whenever it comes to projecting the guy to play special teams."

Forrest played most of his snaps in the latter half of the 2021 season and first half of the 2022 season on special teams, but as it became clear that he could be an impact player in the secondary as well, those snaps became less frequent.

Now, as Forrest enters his third season, he has already grown beyond that role, which is not a surprise to Gribble. Forrest has worked with Washington's coaching staff to improve his skill set, but those strides can also be credited to who Forrest is as a player.

"At the end of the day, we knew that...he was gonna be a great kid," Gribble said. "He's gonna be a hard worker, and he was gonna be an outstanding teams player. And then he transcended that role, partly because of his makeup. He's physically gifted. He's very fast and he's smart and he's a tough player and it was easier for him because of his physical traits."

As the Commanders prepare for the 2023 season, Forrest, Bates and Paul are all primed to take a step forward. Forrest and Bates can continue their development from the previous year, and Paul is set to potentially compete for a starting job. That speaks to them being able to make the most of their opportunities, but it is also a credit to the scouts for finding players who can improve their roster.

Finding high value players in later rounds is why the Commanders' roster is so solid heading into the fourth season of Rivera's tenure. In a few hours, we'll see what the scouts' work can produce this year.

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