Can the Washington Commanders break draft curse of 2008?
By Jonathan Eig
Can the Washington Commanders break the curse of 2008 during Day 2 of what’s been a fascinating 2023 NFL Draft so far?
Every year, buckets of virtual ink are spilled predicting and analyzing what a team might do in the first round of the NFL Draft. Now that the Washington Commanders have Emmanuel Forbes on board, we can turn our attention to the second and third rounds, held tonight.
By the way, big props to Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network, who has had the Commanders taking Forbes for more than a month. More importantly, Washington should be in a position to get a quality player with the No. 47 overall selection.
But beware the curse of 2008.
Commanders have endured some rough second-round draft luck
As long-suffering fans know, this was when yes-man extraordinaire Vinny Cerrato really put his stamp on the franchise. Washington, like all teams, has made its share of boneheaded draft moves. But for sheer across-the-board failure, nothing can rival what he did in 2008.
He had ten total picks. None of them resulted in a player who played more than 72 NFL games. A few had a single good year, as likely for another team as for Washington. A few had modest careers as backups.
When seventh-rounders like Rob Jackson and Chris Horton contribute some decent snaps as backups, it’s not such a bad return. But when your higher draft picks barely rise to average, it becomes a problem.
Never was that clearer than with Cerrato’s three second-round picks in 2008.
In the years prior to 2008, Washington had actually done fairly well in the second round. Jon Jansen was a standout right tackle for an entire decade. Fred Smoot and Rocky McIntosh were solid defensive starters. Steven Alexander was a decent tight end. Ladell Betts had one magnificent year as a running back stuck in the middle of a good career as a backup.
The only complete whiff in the second round in the years leading up to 2008 had come in 2003 when the overmatched college coach Steve Spurrier grabbed one of his Florida receivers Taylor Jacobs. He flamed out rather quickly.
But overall, some decent players came to town.
Then came 2008.
Cerrato knew he needed pass catchers. The team had Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, but little else. So he took Michigan State wide receiver Devin Thomas at No. 34, USC tight end Fred Davis at No. 48, and Oklahoma wideout Malcolm Kelly at No. 51.
Problem solved, right?
Thomas couldn’t play. He was scarily reminiscent of Desmond Howard, who turned out to be a better special teams player than an actual professional receiver. Davis was a very talented guy who didn’t seem all that committed to perfecting his craft. From oversleeping practice during his rookie training camp, to getting suspended for a failed drug test in his fifth season, the pass-catcher never lived up to his potential.
And Kelly? Look up pulled hamstring in the dictionary and you’re apt to find a picture of Malcolm Kelly.
The bottom line, all these guys looked impressive on paper and in gym shorts. None of them turned into quality pros.
What gives it that extra Cerrato touch is that Jordy Nelson went two picks after Thomas and Martellus Bennett went 13 after Davis. You know, in case you wanted a Pro Bowl receiver and tight end. Yep – the former executive could really pick them.
And since 2008? The second round has been a virtual wasteland for the Commanders. Preston Smith, in 2015, was the only player who even came close to his draft pedigree. Jarvis Jenkins didn’t. David Amerson didn’t. Neither did Trent Murphy or Ryan Anderson. Su’a Cravens and Derrius Guice, second-round picks who should be in their prime right now, are long gone from not just the team, but the entire league.
I’ll leave the last two second-rounders, Sam Cosmi and Phidarian Mathis, out of this for now, since they haven’t been around long enough to draw conclusions. But the six players drafted at this stage between 1998 and 2007 started a total of 338 games for the Commanders.
The ten second-rounders drafted between 2008 and 2020 started 200.
Pro Football Reference has a handy little tool called “approximate value”. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it provides a way of statistically comparing all players. Those pre-2008 players have an average AV of 31. From 2008 to 2020, their counterparts have an average of 9.5. Or, at least according to this analysis, the first group was about three times better.
If you need a point of comparison, the 31 equates to a player like Shawn Springs. The 9.5 equates to Leonard Hankerson.
That’s what the curse of 2008 managed to do. It took a valuable draft asset, and turned it into a bunch of Hankersons. Let’s hope the Commanders have better luck this year.