What it's like for an NFL GM with the No. 1 draft pick

ByCourtney Cronin ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Chicago Bearsgeneral manager Ryan Poles was a popular figure at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February, thanks to owning the No. 1 draft pick and the most salary cap space in the NFL. He was so popular, in fact, he had to change hotels.

"With the first overall pick, everyone wants to talk," Poles told ESPN recently. "Everyone wants to try to get an idea of what we're trying to do.

"With having a ton of money, every agent wants to talk to you, and there's only so much time in the day. So I thought, for clarity, just kind of move away a little bit. The lobby's empty at the Hyatt, so it just allowed us to be efficient, to have good meetings with different teams."

Whether the setting made any difference is debatable, but the fact is Poles and Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer started to lay the groundwork for a blockbuster trade that sent the No. 1 pick to Carolina for a package of draft picks and receiver DJ Moore.

Now Fitterer is the one with the first pick when the draft begins on April 27. The pressure on him is different, because the Panthers almost assuredly are going to draft a quarterback. It's just a matter of whether it will be Ohio State's C.J. Stroud or Alabama's Bryce Young, or possibly Florida's Anthony Richardson.

Through the years, GMs with the No. 1 pick have faced unique levels of pressure. There's the internal tension about how to handle such an important opportunity, and the annoyance of unsolicited advice from colleagues, fan bases, friends, family and strangers. Suggestions on who to pick or whether to trade the selection will accompany the general manager all the way to draft night, and then the second-guessing begins.

Poles recalled one piece of unsolicited advice suggesting a trade with the Houston Texans for their No. 2 pick, and much more.

"It was like, [also] 'Get their No. 12 and their No. 33,'" Poles said. "Some of it just wasn't reasonable. ... Teams aren't going to do that to make up one spot."

While pressure is attached to every draft decision, having the top pick is escalated. It's a position to covet and to dread, as it usually follows a disappointing season. And from Fitterer all the way back to Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, who won Super Bowls with the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990, it's a position that comes with its own set of challenges.

Inside a trade for the No. 1 pick

Poles had conflicting emotions on Jan. 8. There was the dejection of losing to the Minnesota Vikings to complete a 3-14 season. But 20 minutes later, after the Houston Texans beat the Indianapolis Colts, there was the realization the Bears would have the No. 1 pick.

"I got home and one of my buddies from the neighborhood drove by, like, 'Hey, congratulations on the first overall pick,'" Poles said. "I'm still not in that mindset. It hurts. It hurts to be in that position. Obviously, the opportunities and the things that will come from that, I hope that it helps us. But you're always expecting to win. You don't want to be in this position."

Chicago's belief -- in particular, Poles' belief -- in 24-year-old quarterback Justin Fields meant the Bears wouldn't draft a QB with the first pick, despite doing ample research on the top prospects available. That's why Poles, who's 36 and in his second year on the job, and his staff attended the combine looking for a trade partner.

At the beginning of combine week, Fitterer sent Poles a text to meet up. If the Bears were looking to move the No. 1 pick, Carolina wanted to be involved.

If Fitterer were to move from No. 9 to No. 1, he'd be conducting business with an old friend in Poles, who started with the Kansas City Chiefs scouting department in 2009 when Fitterer was evaluating college prospects for the Seattle Seahawks.

Fitterer took a break from watching prospects work out one day and stepped outside of the Panthers' suite at Lucas Oil Stadium. He spotted Poles mid-conversation with a personnel executive from a team also looking for a quarterback.

Was this a casual chat? Was this the beginning of laying out the framework of a trade? Fitterer had no way of being sure, and he didn't want to wait any longer, so he set up a meeting.

Inside Poles' suite at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis, Fitterer ballparked an offer. He made it clear he wanted to move up to No. 1 and got the feeling that it would take more than draft picks to get there. Days later, the two general managers reconvened, and Fitterer said he presented a "loose" offer.

The Bears didn't bite. They were adamant a player be included in the compensation. Poles was comfortable waiting for the right deal, but waiting too long could come with consequences.

"You think this could get even bigger, but I also think that if you get a little greedy, it can come back to get you, too," Poles said..

As the combine concluded on March 6, Fitterer didn't want to leave the offer on the table. He rescinded the Panthers' trade proposal and headed back to Charlotte.

"There were other teams involved," said Fitterer, who is entering his third season as Carolina GM. "We were hoping we would pull it off, but we knew it was going to be tough. And we knew we could get up there, but we didn't know how much it would take."

Monday came and went without Fitterer and Poles making contact.

Meanwhile, Poles returned from the combine to four teams presenting what he described as "good" offers.

There were teams that showed interest and backed out. Some changed their mind on the compensation they were willing to offer. At one point, Poles thought he was going to have everything wrapped up in one day, only to have the process pushed.

"The noise around it was crazy compensation, but I think at some point when you feel comfortable with what you're receiving, you pull the trigger," Poles said. "Sometimes you wait too long and things move on. Trades are hard. When you're a part of them and they pop up and you're having those conversations, they're not comfortable conversations, especially when you're moving on from a player.

"So the longer that you're talking about it and thinking about it, you can start to sway a little bit. So when we hit a position where I was comfortable, we were good with it."

On Tuesday, Fitterer started hearing buzz that the Bears were in talks with other teams and could be closing in on making a deal.

"Tuesday afternoon, you just got the sense the pick was going to be traded," Fitterer said. "I kind of heard some things, so I called Ryan. He's like, 'OK, why don't we talk? Why don't you throw something together for us?'"

The Panthers went to work and made a difficult decision to include Moore, who had been a staple in Carolina since he was drafted in 2018.

Fitterer got a sense from Poles how pivotal Moore could be to Fields' success.

"He didn't talk about Justin directly, but he did talk about DJ playing a role for Justin," Fitterer said. "So indirectly he referenced Justin, but it's more about bringing in the receiver for the quarterback."

There were several times Fitterer thought the trade might not go through. As Thursday became Friday, the two GMs were on the phone nonstop.

"You can get to a point in a conversation where you can kind of hear it in their voice that, OK, this is it. This is our best offer," Fitterer said. "You can hear when they're starting to think about it, and it's starting to make sense with them.

"If you do enough trades and you have enough conversations and you know a person like Ryan and I know each other, you just know it's at that point like, 'OK, if we do this, let's just get it done.'"

Just after 5 p.m. ET on March 10, the teams had a deal.

The Bears acquired the No. 9 and No. 61 picks, along with Carolina's 2024 first-rounder and a second-round selection in 2025. And along came Moore, 25, who had seven touchdowns last season and topped 1,100 receiving yards the three before that.

"The fact that there was a young receiver who had consistent production, who had been healthy and was a great person as well to add into the mix really kind of took it over the top for me," Poles said. "Where we can improve the roster now, improve our quarterback, but also set us up for the future.

"Right now, we don't talk about it that much, but I guarantee at this point next year, having those two 1s, we're going to be excited about it."

Fitterer celebrated in his office with Panthers assistant GM Dan Morgan, coach Frank Reich and team president Kristi Coleman, but the reality of losing one of their best -- and most popular -- players quickly set in. The Panthers had to call Moore to let him know he had been traded before news leaked. Morgan got on the phone with Drew Rosenhaus, Moore's agent, while Fitterer dialed up the receiver.

"It's like, wow, we just went up to No. 1, gave up one of our best players," Fitterer said. "And you have to kind of sit back and take it all in, like -- OK, what just happened? But it was a really cool moment."

'Those picks were going to be for sale'

Kara Snead was trying to put things into perspective for her husband, Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead.

The Rams had lost their 2015 season-ending game to the rival San Francisco 49ers, falling to 7-9, and Les said he was "devastated."

"We weren't going to be able to finish 8-8," he said.

Kara Snead told her husband: "It's Week 17. No one's going to remember what happened. Get over it."

Les didn't have a choice. It was time to focus on the draft, and the Rams needed a quarterback. The problem was the Rams had the 15th pick, and it was considered a two-quarterback draft with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz expected to go 1-2.

But Snead knew there was hope. The teams with the top two picks -- the Tennessee Titans at No. 1 and Cleveland Browns -- didn't need quarterbacks. The Titans took Marcus Mariota at No. 2 the previous year, and the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel 22nd two years prior.

"Common sense intuitions said those picks were going to be for sale," Snead said. "So it was up to us to go, 'Is Jared, is Carson -- whomever else was in the draft -- worthy of those picks?' And if so, let's try to go up."

But the Philadelphia Eagles, who had the No. 8 pick, were thinking the same thing.

"The teams that really want to make the trade, they're not talking to each other and they're throwing out smoke screens," Snead said. "Now, a lot of times you would have an intuition based on the team making the trade. How strong they are in their stance of, 'Hey, it's going to take this or quit bothering us.'"

To pull off a trade of this magnitude, Snead leaned on a past experience.

In 2011, Snead was the director of player personnel for an Atlanta Falcons team coming off an NFC South title. Atlanta sought a wide receiver in the draft to pair with Roddy White, who led the NFL in receptions during the 2010 season.

Atlanta, with former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff calling the shots, moved up 21 spots to draft Julio Jones out of Alabama at No. 6, sending a package of picks, including two first-rounders, to the Browns.

"The only thing that probably gave me hope [to be able to trade up to No. 1 in 2016] was our Julio trade in Atlanta," Snead said. "We came from way back. It was a long three-pointer to come up."

Five years later, Snead sent a package of picks that included two first-rounders and two second-rounders to the Titans for a package that included the top overall pick, which they used on Goff.

The Eagles then traded up to No. 2 and drafted Wentz.

Wentz helped lead the Eagles to an 11-2 record before suffering a knee injury in his second season. Philadelphia would go on to win Super Bowl LII. Goff helped lead the Rams to Super Bowl LIII in his third year.

And Kara Snead put that loss to the 49ers years earlier in proper perspective, telling Les: "If you'd have finished 8-8, you would've had no chance [to move up to No. 1], because it was probably a four- or five-pick swing."

'If you're interested in this pick, let me know'

While draft picks are traded every year, the deal the New York Jets and New England Patriots completed in 1997 was anything but ordinary.

The Jets sent third- and fourth-rounders in '97, a second-rounder in '98 and a first-rounder in '99 as part of a settlement the league brokered after coach Bill Parcells, while still under contract, left New England for New York.

But the Jets didn't have to surrender their first-round pick in 1997, which was the No. 1 pick overall.

Parcells inherited a team that went 4-28 the prior two seasons, so he knew the Jets were more than one pick away from contending.

Had there been a quarterback Parcells felt was worthy of the top pick, the Jets would have stayed at No. 1. When Peyton Manning decided to remain at Tennessee for his senior year instead of declaring for the draft, Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace was then considered the top prospect in 1997. But the way Parcells saw it, Pace was "a very good player, but he wasn't going to make as much difference as three or four guys."

With his mind made up, Parcells called St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil. The two had a relationship from their days in the NFC East, where Parcells coached the Giants and Vermeil coached the Eagles.

"I just called him up and I asked him if you're interested in this pick, let me know," Parcells said. "And he did. It wasn't immediately, but that's just the way it went. It was relatively easy and no drama at all. It was just kind of a matter-of-fact thing. You know -- we got something; if you want this something, let us know. That's really what it was."

The Jets sent the No. 1 pick to the Rams, who used it to draft Pace. The offensive tackle played 13 years in the NFL and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

Parcells accomplished his goal of having more picks. The Jets received the Rams' first-round pick at No. 6, which Parcells flipped into the No. 8 pick in 1997 after a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New York then selected linebacker James Farrior, who played five seasons with the Jets and 15 total in the NFL.

The Jets also received picks in the third, fourth and seventh rounds in 1997, two of which Parcells traded to garner more draft capital as the Jets entered a rebuild.

The Jets then recorded their first winning record in nine years, finishing the 1997 season at 9-7.

"I don't want to sound dull, but I had been in the NFL for a long time prior to that," Parcells said. "We're just trying to do business the best we think we can to improve our team as quickly as we can. And when your team's only averaging two or three wins a year for the past three years, you're trying to show your improvement and get some credibility in your program and give the players some hope. They need hope. They really do. People don't think about that very much, but if you don't have hope, it's hard to play football."

Hope is what having the No. 1 pick is all about. For some, it's the hope of landing a franchise quarterback. For others, it's the hope of parlaying the pick into multiple selections to accelerate a rebuild. For all of them, it's the hope of making the most of a huge opportunity.

ESPN Rams reporter Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.

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