Coming off an 8-9 season, the New England Patriots were originally slated to pick 14th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft — one selection behind the New York Jets, and one ahead of the Green Bay Packers. With their division rivals acquiring quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a trade with the Packers, however, the two teams bookmarking New England changed positions: it was Green Bay at 13 and New York at 15 now.
This gave the Patriots and de facto general manager Bill Belichick an opportunity to mess up their division rivals’ draft plans, and lo and behold they appeared to do just that. Instead of staying put at No. 14, they swapped spots with a team almost certain to pick a player New York had its eyes on.
New England dropped to No. 17 in a move with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who — like the Jets — were in need to upgrade at offensive tackle. The Steelers ended up taking the best one remaining on the board in Georgia’s Broderick Jones; the Jets went with Will McDonald IV to add to an already deep defensive line.
Was there some hidden motive behind the Patriots’ trade-down, besides gaining additional ammunition in the form of a fourth-round pick? Based on a recent Washington Post story, some around the NFL seem to think so.
“Belichick did it just to f--- the Jets,” one NFL general manager was quoted. “He sold low because he knew the Steelers were going to take the kid the Jets wanted to take.”
Another executive added that “Bill will try to screw them over any chance he gets. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
The Patriots did not make any official acknowledgements when it comes to the matter, but though director of player personnel Matt Groh did discuss the motives behind the trade shortly after it happened.
“[T]he Jets going from right in front of us to right behind us certainly shifted things,” Groh said. “Then for us to kind of jump right back behind them and give Pittsburgh the opportunity to come up and select a player who they selected, which, when you make these trades, you don’t know who the other team is coming up for. But again, we try to do our research and try to have a feeling as far as positionally what a team might be looking for. ...
“We’ve got all that posted right there in the draft room and try to be cognizant of what the teams are looking for. So, maybe we had an idea of what Pittsburgh was looking for. Certainly, didn’t know if that was going to be accurate; didn’t know what player it was going to be. But there started to be a little bit of a run there on the tackles. That position group was thinning out. If you wanted one of those guys, you’d have to come up and get him.”
While Groh’s statements leave questions unaddressed, the trade value charts give us some additional context that might help explain New England’s line of thinking.
Here's what the Patriots-Steelers trade looks on the different draft value boards. (via @josephjefe) pic.twitter.com/OkYCTOJb0g— Bernd Buchmasser (@BerndBuchmasser) April 28, 2023
On the charts by Rich Hill and Jimmy Johnson analyzing how the market views selections’ worth, the Patriots did come up short against the Steelers; they should have gotten more out of No. 14 than No. 17 and No. 120 per those calculations. However, on the three advanced charts aimed at evaluating how much picks are actually worth they gained value.
So, what does this mean? Did the Patriots take a worse deal just to screw up the Jets’ plans?
As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Messing with New York’s draft board might have been an added (and attractive) benefit, but it seems unlikely it was the sole motivation behind the Patriots’ first-round trade-down.
More than not, it appears the board was the primary reason to exchange picks with a team willing to move up. Groh said so himself.
“We’ve got our players stacked the way we got them,” he said after the first round. “We can’t predict what anybody else is going to do. We try to get as good a feeling for that as possible. Then when you have a certain amount of players that you still feel comfortable there in the first round, to be able to go ahead and pick up that extra pick.”