INDIANAPOLIS – Bears general manager Ryan Poles is the most popular man in Indianapolis this week. All 32 NFL teams are in town scouting hundreds of the top college prospects at the NFL Combine.
Behind the scenes, however, combine week is an opportunity for GMs to begin feeling each other out ahead of free agency in March and the draft in April. For Poles, that means initial discussions about a potential trade for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Poles said this week that the Bears have “always leaned that way” toward trading the top pick because they are excited about what quarterback Justin Fields did last season. With no need for a quarterback prospect, there might be more value in trading the pick to the highest bidder and acquiring a handful of draft picks in return.
But in order to do that, Poles needs a trade partner. That’s why all eyes are on quarterback-needy teams across the league. The most likely candidates to trade up are the teams that might have a high interest in a quarterback, namely Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis.
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Among the teams in the discussion are the Houston Texans at No. 2, the Indianapolis Colts at No. 4, the Las Vegas Raiders at No. 7 and the Carolina Panthers at No. 9, among others.
“To move up, there’s got to be a guy worthy of it,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said Wednesday. “OK? I know everybody in America is going to say, this is what’s great right now. Everybody has just automatically stamped that you’ve got to move up to [No.] 1 to get it right. I don’t know if I agree with that. I don’t.”
Ballard is in the awkward position of trying to temper expectations after Colts owner Jim Irsay openly applauded Young, the Alabama QB, at a news conference several weeks ago. After years of signing and trading for veteran retreads at the quarterback position, Irsay has made it pretty clear that it’s time his organization drafted a young quarterback to develop.
But Ballard is not wrong. The Colts are in great position to grab a quarterback at No. 4. The Arizona Cardinals, who have the No. 3 pick, don’t need a quarterback. One of those top three QBs will fall to the Colts if they stay put at No. 4.
How much will teams be willing to leave such a big decision up to chance? As has happened time and time again, GMs with conviction for a quarterback will move up and grab them. Six years ago, former Bears GM Ryan Pace did just that when he traded multiple picks to move up from No. 3 to No. 2 to grab Mitchell Trubisky.
Teams typically will group prospects into bunches. Poles color codes his draft board, with the best prospects in blue. If he does trade down, he certainly will try to make sure he still gives himself a chance to draft one of his blue-rated prospects. But just how many blue-rated prospects are there?
Other teams have to go through that same calculus with the QBs.
“We’re not necessarily worried about what other teams around us are doing,” Texans GM Nick Caserio said. “You’re cognizant of that, but ultimately you have to be prepared to pick wherever you’re going to pick. Then, be prepared to pick whatever player. I’d say most teams, not to generalize here, but most teams, wherever they pick, you probably have three or four guys that you would feel comfortable taking. If a team is in front of you and you’re only talking about [them drafting] one player, then it’s going to leave two to three other players. So, you’re either comfortable with that group of players or you’re not.”
With the second pick, Houston doesn’t have to trade up either. Instead, it might be in the awkward position of being jumped by another QB-needy team if the Bears trade the pick to someone else. That fear alone might be impetus enough for the Texans to move up one spot.
Each of those top quarterbacks has different traits. Young has the best tape, but is smaller than the prototypical NFL QB. Stroud is solid, if not flashy, with a tremendous body of work. Levis has the size and rocket arm that teams covet.
.@Hub_Arkush: Matt Eberflus back in Indianapolis for combine, looking for players with love of the game https://t.co/Z2QKuhYHrj— Bears Insider (@bears_insider) March 1, 2023
“That’s why this is both an art and a science,” new Panthers head coach Frank Reich said. “I like to say if there’s 10 things to evaluate, really the question – and this differs from club to club, person to person within the club – how much weight do you put on [each category]. How do you weigh category one?”
With so many teams in need of a quarterback, a trade partner feels destined to emerge.
The Raiders, with the seventh pick, recently released veteran QB Derek Carr after nine seasons together. Asked if he wakes up every day thinking about the QB position, Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said, “Yeah, yes, I do.”
“It’s obviously one of the biggest factors that will certainly impact our season, let alone our offseason,” McDaniels said. “But look, there’s nothing we can do other than go through our process, and really do a good job of evaluating our opportunities and our options.”