Early in the movie Rounders, Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, is observing his law professor’s poker game. McDermott is a poker shark who quickly realizes that everyone at the table, including his professor, is a minnow. He plays his professor’s hand for him and bets the maximum amount after the first round of cards is dealt. The other lawyers at the table start grumbling. One questions whether what Mike is doing is wise. “It’s plenty wise,” Mike responds. “We know what we’re holding—and we know what you’re holding.”
The mood shifts. One of the judges at the table offers to consider Mike for a cushy clerkship if he can guess what cards are in everyone’s hand. Mike, of course, guesses everything right and his professor wins, well, handily. They ask him if he wants to stay and play. “I can’t,” Mike says, “I don’t play cards.” Mike’s key to poker is playing the man, not the cards. In this year’s NFL draft, the Chicago Bears have found themselves in a high-stakes poker game similar to what Mike McDermott deals with throughout Rounders.
The Bears have the first pick, an incredibly valuable asset because there are four good quarterback prospects in this class: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson, and Kentucky’s Will Levis. The Bears don’t need any of those passers. Chicago already has a quarterback in Justin Fields, their 2021 first-rounder, who had the second-most rushing yards for a quarterback in NFL history last season. So Chicago is in position to trade the pick away for a bonanza—if they play their cards right. GM Ryan Poles told NBC’s Peter King that the pick is likely for sale and that he believes the Bears can get three first-rounders for the no. 1 pick—one this year, one in 2024, and one in 2025.
Does Poles know this because, like Mike McDermott, he’s already gotten a good read on what his competitors are holding and planning to do? Or is Poles bluffing and at risk of overplaying his hand?
If we want to answer the simple question of who is going to be taken with the first pick in the 2023 NFL draft, we first must figure out which team will be trading up with Chicago for the first pick—which is to say, who will be offering the most for the first pick. And to answer that, we must try to pull a Mike McDermott and guess the cards in everyone’s hand.
We have narrowed this list to the teams that seem most likely to want to move up—teams that have a clear need at quarterback, are picking in or near the top 10, and have an owner, general manager, or head coach who is desperate enough to make a big move up the draft board.
Pick No. 1: Chicago Bears
In theory, the Bears could trade Fields and take a quarterback with the first pick. In reality, trading down is a dream scenario for Poles, a former college offensive lineman who speaks scouting as his native football language but is also fluent in analytics. Adding tons of picks by trading down from no. 1 scratches every itch for the nerds who think the first pick is overvalued while satisfying the scouts who get more players to draft. The Bears need picks because the Bears need bodies. Chicago must fill out a barren roster, and while they have the most cap space in the NFL (nearly $100 million), teams build through the draft.
“All options are open for us,” Bears head coach Matt Eberflus told reporters at the NFL scouting combine last week. “We have tremendous flexibility because we have that no. 1 pick, because we have all that revenue inside free agency.”
The real question is how far the Bears could move down the board until Poles or Eberflus becomes unhappy about losing out on an elite prospect. Moving down to no. 4, should they trade with the Colts, would put them in excellent position to get a top defender like Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. But what if Poles trades out of the top 10? In a draft that might not have as much elite talent at the top, that might frustrate a defensive-minded coach like Eberflus, whose defense certainly needs more high-end players. As Poles considers how to play his hand, he also has to keep in mind his relationship with Eberflus and the coaching staff. And Poles must also keep in mind that if the Bears hold out for too high of a price, the Arizona Cardinals at no. 3 might become a competitor for teams looking to trade up without breaking the bank.
Pick No. 2: Houston Texans
The Texans need a quarterback. There is no doubt about that, even though Texans general manager (and former longtime Patriots front office staffer) Nick Caserio is doing his best Colin Robinson impression and draining the life force of anyone listening to his press conferences.
We know Houston’s cards. The Texans can get one of their top-rated two quarterbacks at no. 2, no matter what. Yet we also know the man holding those cards. Caserio is obsessed with draft picks. Giving up even a relatively small amount of draft capital to move up to no. 1 is the kind of thing that probably keeps this man up at night. Expect the Texans to stand pat—and leach the energy of the other general managers they talk to on the phone.
Pick No. 4: Indianapolis Colts
As they say in Rounders, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” The Colts have been at the table for four offseasons. Ever since Andrew Luck stunningly retired in 2019, the team has bounced from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan, just burning through veteran QBs like they were scratch-off lottery tickets. The Colts developed this habit because they’ve won the lottery twice: In 1998 they had the first pick when Peyton Manning was available, and in 2012 they had the first pick when Andrew Luck was in the draft. But winning the lottery twice doesn’t make you a businessman.
Team owner Jim Irsay has all but said his team wants a young quarterback. He even tweeted a picture illustrating his relationship with the Chicago bears, alluding to a trade-up.
My relationship with the Chicago bears goes back more than 60 years… pic.twitter.com/6yZ7vB3DFs— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) February 15, 2023
He even said at new Colts head coach Shane Steichen’s introductory press conference last month that “the Alabama guy [Bryce Young] doesn’t look bad.”
Perhaps Irsay is playing four-dimensional chess here and these are tactical headfakes so sophisticated they’re beyond our comprehension. Or maybe this is a 63-year-old guy who inherited an NFL team and just says what he thinks, even when he shouldn’t. Just scroll through the things Irsay tweets, and you can make up your own mind.
FACT: No one went to see "One Million Years B.C." because it was a good movie. #RIPRaquelWelch— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) February 16, 2023
These are the fish that poker sharks try to eat—or in this case, the salmon that the Bears can pluck out of an Alaskan river. Chicago can trade down to this fourth spot, get a boatload of picks from the Colts, and still draft one of the top two non-quarterbacks in this year’s draft.
“To move up, there’s gotta be a guy worthy of it,” Colts GM Chris Ballard told reporters at the combine last week. “Everybody has just automatically stamped that you’ve gotta move up to 1 to get it right. I don’t know if I agree with that. And that’s going to be the narrative and that’s OK. Y’all gotta write something, you got to keep the news flowing. …
“I don’t know if [trading up is] the right course of business. If, when we meet as a staff and we say, ‘This is what we need to do, this is the guy for the next 10 to 15 years,’ and we think he’s the right guy, sure, we’ll do it. But who’s to say we won’t get one at [pick no.] 4?”
In a draft with four quarterbacks, that’s a legitimate question.
Pick No. 7: Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders are caught between the present and the future: Do they trade for Aaron Rodgers and instantly reestablish the best connection in football, between him and receiver Davante Adams? Or do they avoid the 39-year-old who just completed a darkness retreat and is openly talking about retirement for the third year in a row? The Raiders are picking seventh. Why trade away draft picks and pay Rodgers $50 million a year when they could trade up and secure a rookie quarterback on a far cheaper contract?
“The goal for us eventually is to have somebody who is going to be here for a long time,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said at the NFL combine last week. “I think that you see the teams that are having success right now in our league, in our conference, and in our division, are young players who were drafted by their clubs and being developed there under the same continuity. So eventually, yes [we have to draft a quarterback]. But do I think you have to do that if you are not sure or not sold on the player and now you’re making a mistake just to try and say you’re solving a problem? I don’t really think that’s a smart decision.”
It’s a surprisingly honest answer: If the Raiders like one of the guys in this year’s class, they can go and get him. If the Raiders don’t trade for Rodgers, they could target McDaniels’s former pupil in New England, Mac Jones, who was reportedly the subject of trade buzz during the combine last week, or sign Jimmy Garoppolo, who was Mac Jones before Mac Jones. A move for a veteran passer would likely reflect what they thought about this year’s collection of quarterback prospects. The trick is to not pass on Rodgers or a solid veteran and miss out on picking one of the better QBs in this draft, thus winding up without competition for Jarrett Stidham (currently a free agent) to be their no. 1 QB.
Pick No. 9: Carolina Panthers
If the Colts are the main mark at the table, the Panthers are second. Whereas Indianapolis has a desperate owner who inherited his team in Jim Irsay, the Panthers have a desperate self-made billionaire owner in David Tepper. Tepper is a hedge fund shark who is worth almost $20 billion (someone so rich that when he moved from New Jersey to Florida, it cost New Jersey at least $100 million in state taxes for the next fiscal year, creating such a large hole in its annual budget that the state Legislature convened an emergency session to fix it). But there is a long history, from Dan Snyder in Washington to Shad Khan in Jacksonville to Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland, of billionaires buying NFL teams, thinking they will crush it, and discovering that building a winning football team isn’t as easy for them as succeeding in other business ventures.
This has been Tepper’s NFL experience so far. He has been obsessed with getting a quarterback and has failed in new and spectacular ways: cutting Cam Newton in 2020 because Newton was cooked, then signing him again in 2021. Trading three picks, including a second-rounder for Sam Darnold, then benching him to trade for Baker Mayfield when Darnold was still the highest-paid player on their team. Trading up in the draft for Matt Corral in the third round last year while sending the Patriots the pick that New England used on QB Bailey Zappe, who was surprisingly competent in limited action in 2022. But the difference between Carolina and other bad teams is Tepper’s potential to recognize the problem and fix it. You don’t make $20 billion in hedge funds by not noticing when you’re losing trades on the margins.
“That is the right route to go,” Panthers GM Scott Fitterer told reporters last week. “We’ll see if we can get in a position where we get one of the guys we like. Is there a guy in the second round? Can we [trade] up in the first round? Those are all the things we’re exploring right now.”
If the Panthers remain as aggressive as they’ve been over the past few years in their chase for a QB, they’ll be as likely as anyone to trade up to the no. 1 spot with Chicago, or the no. 3 spot with Arizona. The question is how much more the Bears would need in return to drop to no. 9, as opposed to the Colts at 4 or the Raiders at 7—and would the Panthers be willing to pay that higher premium? They should certainly be motivated to move ahead of the division-rival Falcons, who are picking at no. 8.
Pick No. 11: Tennessee Titans
“I know everybody wants to make a big deal out of the quarterback position, whether [Ryan Tannehill] will or won’t be here,” new Titans general manager Ran Carthon said last Wednesday. “But you guys have to accept the fact that Ryan is under contract for us and right now he is a Titan, and he will be a Titan.”
It is fitting that Carthon said those words almost exactly at the same spot where one year earlier Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had told reporters he had “no intention” of trading Russell Wilson.
The reality is Tannehill’s time with the Titans may be waning. He’s too expensive and too banged up, and considering that Titans head coach Mike Vrabel chose journeyman QB Josh Dobbs over third-round rookie Malik Willis to start a win-and-in-the-playoffs game in Week 18, it is obvious that Vrabel doesn’t trust Willis. (In fact, considering that GM Jon Robinson was fired last fall, it is possible that Vrabel never wanted Willis last year at all.) Now that the Titans have a new general manager, they’re one of the best candidates to be a surprise trade-up before April.
That throws a true wrench into this entire draft equation. The Titans are in the same division as the Texans, who are picking at no. 2, and the Colts, who are picking at no. 4. Teams hate their division rivals just as much, if not more, than fan bases do. And that adds a high-stakes layer to this year’s draft, where three AFC South teams that could use a QB are in the top 11. It’s one thing for a team to want a quarterback and fail to get him. It’s another thing to lose your guy to the division rival and have that guy kick your ass for years to come.
Bears GM Ryan Poles has a lot riding on this hand. If he overplays it, he may send one of these QB-needy teams to the Cardinals at the third spot. Underplay his hand, and he may cost the Bears a chance for a complete franchise reset. But if he can play these other teams against one another, the Bears might get a massive haul. The key is to play poker the same way Mike McDermott does in Rounders: play the men, not the cards.