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Ron Rivera's 'Unique' Approach With Prospects Pays Dividends

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera speaks with first-round draft pick Jamin Davis as he visits Inova Sports Performance Center for the first time. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera speaks with first-round draft pick Jamin Davis as he visits Inova Sports Performance Center for the first time. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

Head coach Ron Rivera gave a sly answer after Day 2 of the NFL Draft when asked what common thread connected the team's three picks that night: "They now play for the Washington Football Team."

It was a tongue-in-cheek moment to start the press conference -- Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew even gave a couple chuckles after the response -- but in reality, there was something else many of Washington's draft picks have in common: they got some 1-on-1 time with the head coach himself.

"I think that was kind of a unique thing," said fourth-round pick John Bates.

Rivera and Mayhew had a goal heading into their first draft working together to find players who fit in the team's culture and scheme. This year, Rivera tried something different; it is common for coaches to meet with potential first-round picks, but Rivera had personal meetings with at least four of Washington’s draft picks to figure out if they possessed the right kind of character he wanted on his roster. That extra effort played a large role in Washington rounding out its draft class, and now the team knows with more certainty that its new players can grow the sustainable, winning culture Rivera established in his first season.

"I think you get more insight into the young people when you get a chance to speak to them person-to-person," Rivera said during his pre-draft press conference on April 16.

Rivera actually took a similar approach when considering whether to take Chase Young with the No. 2 overall pick. Washington felt strongly about Young from the start of the pre-draft process, but it still wanted to do its due diligence on him. Rivera and Young did not have many encounters during the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, but there was "a glitch in his schedule," as Rivera put it, where Young had about 15 minutes of free time. The two had a nice personal conversation, and while it was not a long interaction, Rivera said "that 15 minutes really helped me in terms of just solidifying who he was for us."

"You sit down and talk to him about those things and watch his eyes light up when he talks about being on the field, so there were a lot of positives," he said.

This year, those efforts were more amplified. The conversations prospects had with the rest of Washington's coaching staff were more about who they were as football players -- third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste said he spoke with defensive backs coach Chris Harris about things like being a rookie and how to have a long career -- but their Zoom meetings with Rivera were more about who they are as people.

"We believe that they all fit culturally," Rivera said. "That was one of the questions we tried to make sure we asked every one of these candidates is, 'Hey, talk about culture and understand that culture is very important to us.' Loved the answers. Then when we looked at them as football players, 'Okay where does a guy like this fit? Where's a guy like that fit?' Because again, you don't want to force anything."

The conversations not only helped Rivera arrive at his final conclusions, but they also made the players he spoke to feel like Washington was interested in drafting them.

"It was awesome. It was sitting down and having great conversations about football, life and that aspect," said second-round pick Sam Cosmi. "I was really happy about it to be one of those guys he took the time to talk to 1-on-1."

Cosmi, along with other players Washington drafted, went on to say Washington was the only team that allowed them to speak with the head coach 1-on-1, adding more significance to Rivera's approach.

"It was great. I knew he was a great coach; I knew he was a great person," St-Juste said. "There was no doubt there and I think he saw the same characteristics in me. …We were able to build that chemistry compared with other teams."

Perhaps the best example of conversations paying off was how much they factored into Washington's decision to draft Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis with its first-round pick. Rivera could see Davis stuck out during film sessions, but once they started talking, Rivera realized he was an ideal character fit for what he was building. Davis spoke about his family and all the positive things that pushed him through difficult times. When Rivera wanted to learn more about Davis, all he wanted to talk about was his team. That, Rivera said, was "very refreshing."

"It was always about, 'We did this as a team, the guys are like this,'" Rivera said. "So, the conversation really wasn't just about him, him, him, and that really struck me as a positive as well."

There was not anything special about how Davis approached those meetings, either. All he wanted to do was give them "every bit of Jamin Davis that I could."

"Just going in and telling them who I am as a person on and off the field and like I said, giving them Jamin Davis," he said. "It wasn't going to be any hat tricks or doing anything special. I just was telling them who I am and just letting them know that even if I win a Super Bowl, I'm a pretty laid-back guy."

Rivera is the kind of person who prefers speaking to people in person because he can see their body language on top of their facial expressions. He was able to do some of that last year before the COVID-19 pandemic altered the league's draft plans, but he had to settle for the allotted five Zoom meetings teams received with each prospect. Adjusting to that style was difficult at first, he said during his and Mayhew's pre-draft press conference, but it turned out to be an interesting process.

Based on how Washington's draft class turned out, it looks like he made the most of it.

"I think that really helped me," Rivera said, "and it was the first time I really had done it that way and honestly, it might be something that I continue."

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