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Bill Belichick’s draft trade might have outmaneuvered the Jets

Bill Belichick's draft trade might have outmaneuvered the Jets

It was hardly the sexiest transaction of the first evening of the NFL draft, let alone the entire weekend, but the business the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots conducted Thursday was plenty intriguing.

Pittsburgh moved up three spots in the first round, from 17th to 14th — and gave up precious little to do so, sacrificing only pick No. 120. The timing of that trade raised eyebrows around the league: because of the compensation, the player involved and some of the connections between franchises.

It appeared to some rival executives and general managers that Pittsburgh was granted easy access to Georgia offensive lineman Broderick Jones, specifically to keep him away from the New York Jets, for whom Patriots football czar Bill Belichick has no love and whose draft he would eagerly attempt to derail.

“They should have had to give up a [third-round pick] and not a four to move up there,” said one NFL general manager who had been keeping tabs on a potential trade up with the Patriots. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to cause potential conflicts with either team. “Belichick did it just to f— the Jets. He sold low because he knew the Steelers were going to take the kid the Jets wanted to take.”

A personnel executive from a team also picking around the middle of the first round said: “Bill will try to screw them over any chance he gets. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

The Lions missed their chance, and the Eagles are smarter than everybody

It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that the Jets, after acquiring the now-plodding Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers last week, had some major issues along the offensive line and that protecting him would be a premium objective. Several evaluators through the draft process identified Jones as potentially the best offensive line prospect; I was among those who had originally mocked him to the Jets at No. 13.

That selection, however, was part of the compensation the Jets used to acquire Rodgers — they paid a price far steeper than any other team would have considered — and in the end it cost them the chance to get Jones, whom they coveted.

Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl, who put together Pittsburgh’s draft board and knows the Jets organization inside-out from his time spent alongside New York General Manager Joe Douglas in Philadelphia, had to be well aware whom the Jets were targeting at No. 15, their new first-round selection after the trade.

Some within the Steelers organization were concerned the Packers might just nab Jones themselves at No. 13 — they could use line help as well — but the prevailing feeling was that Green Bay would go tight end or wide receiver. (In fact, the Packers took Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness.)

With so many cornerbacks still on the board — only Devon Witherspoon of Illinois had been selected in the first 13 picks — Belichick was plenty content to move back three spots. And with offensive tackle picked pretty clean, the Jets — in what some in league circles believed was at least something of a panic move — took Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV at No. 15, a spot much higher than teams I spoke to in the run-up to the draft had projected him.

“I think the trade totally blindsided them,” the GM said. “They were scrambling.”

For his part, Belichick still ended up with Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, who some teams believed was an equal to Witherspoon or even slightly preferred. The Steelers still ended up with cornerback Joey Porter Jr. at No. 32 — a pick they had acquired for disgruntled and unproductive wide receiver Chase Claypool — which was incredibly well-received locally, given his father’s years of performance as a Steeler.

The Jets took offensive linemen with their next two picks, which came in the second and fourth rounds. With little out there on the free agent market, we’ll see if Rodgers’s blind-side — or front-side — protection becomes a cause of concern in New York.

The Lions may have outsmarted themselves

The Detroit Lions were among the most polarizing teams in the draft, discussed during almost any post-draft conversation with other front-office officials. Perhaps Detroit will get the last laugh after moving back in the first round, selecting Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12 — and then doubling down on the counterintuitive approach by taking another less-preferred position. Detroit used the No. 18 pick on Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, whom many executives did not project as a first-rounder. And while we knew there would be some shockers in such an unpredictable draft, this felt extreme.

“I like Gibbs, maybe even more than most people,” the longtime personnel executive said. “But even I wouldn’t think about taking him at 12. They could have stayed where they were [with the sixth pick] and taken [Texas running back Bijan Robinson] and got maybe the best player in the draft, and then taken a defensive tackle or a receiver or a corner with the other pick. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The GM said: “They outsmarted themselves. They passed on the better back, and then go linebacker? I didn’t really like their draft. The linebacker probably would have been there when they picked again in the second round.”

With top receiver Jameson Williams suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s gambling policy and no receivers off the board when they took Campbell, the Lions certainly threw a few curveballs. No other inside linebackers went in the first round. Robinson, meanwhile, went eighth to Atlanta, as many had forecast.

NFL draft grades: Texans, Eagles, Seahawks are at the head of the class

Are the Cardinals looking to the future?

After making a deft trade to ship the third pick to the Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals were panned by some for moving back into the top 10 to select Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr. at No. 6. And Houston’s move will be scrutinized as well.

“I hate that trade for Houston,” the GM said. “They paid a quarterback premium to go from 12 to 3. They really gave up a lot, just to get [Alabama edge rusher Will] Anderson. He’d better be a big-time pass rusher for them.”

For all that Arizona accomplished there, this GM was not impressed by the Cardinals trading with Detroit to move back up to No. 6. “I think they would have taken him at 3 if they couldn’t trade out,” the GM said of Johnson. “I think he was the pick. But I’m not moving back up for him.”

Multiple club officials who had contact with the Cardinals came away with the same observation: Everything they did was about 2024, loading up on future draft capital and being in position to take a top quarterback to phase out Kyler Murray if needed.

Notes from around the NFL

The Steelers earned kudos around the industry for how they handled the draft. “They got a lot better,” the personnel executive said. There was grumbling, on the other hand, about the Chicago Bears. “Not sure how much the guys they picked really love football,” the GM said. “They had a weird draft to me.” …

Several teams told me they would not have selected Texas Tech edge rusher Tyree Wilson in the first round, let alone at No. 7, where he went to Las Vegas, given concerns with his foot injury. …

The Giants may prove to be the perfect landing spot for Maryland cornerback Deonte Banks, who went No. 24 overall. “He’s exactly what [defensive coordinator Wink Martindale] wants in a corner,” the exec said. “That is a total scheme fit.” …

Expect a wave of signings to begin this week, with players no longer figuring into the compensatory pick equation. Cornerbacks and edge rushers are in demand, and it would be shocking if the Baltimore Ravens didn’t delve into both markets with the salary cap savings from Lamar Jackson’s contract. Full details of that pact have yet to emerge, but the $185 million figure making the rounds is almost certainly going to reflect the figure for the quarterback’s injury guarantee, not the amount fully guaranteed at signing.

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