Inside the draft conversations that happen at the NFL combine

Mike Tannenbaum has a good idea of what Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles is about to experience at the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst, was the GM of the New York Jets in February 2006 when he spotted Houston Texans GM Charley Casserly in the airport on their way to the combine. That year, Houston owned the No. 1 overall pick while the Jets were drafting No. 4.

Throughout the 2006 offseason and up until the eve of the draft, USC running back Reggie Bush was widely expected to go No. 1 overall. There was only one problem. Houston wasn't comfortable with drafting the Heisman Trophy-winning running back at that spot in the years before the NFL implemented a rookie wage scale.

"Charlie goes, 'We'd really like to move back to four, would you be interested in the first pick overall?'" Tannenbaum recalled. "I was half joking -- 'Sure, Charlie, what else would you give us to move up from four to one?'"

"He goes, 'We really don't want to draft [Bush] first overall.' I said, 'Yep, neither do we,'" Tannenbaum laughed.

These candid conversations between general managers and the information gathering that takes place between interviews with draft prospects, meetings with player agents and informal talks with fellow team personnel is commonplace when the entire NFL world converges on Indianapolis.

Poles will be in high demand at the combine this week, with the offseason effectively running through Chicago. Not only do the Bears own the No. 1 overall pick in a year when anywhere from eight to 12 teams could be looking to make a switch at quarterback, Chicago also has approximately $100 million in salary cap space to utilize in free agency.

While Poles will undoubtedly be engaged in conversations with other teams, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday the Bears are leaning toward trading the pick, it's not as if Poles will have time to hold court at St. Elmo Steak House and field proposals.

"He would not do that," former New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller said. "You have so much on your plate with your own team and own team's scheduling that there's just not time for that."

Poles has maintained a steady hand in his approach to upgrading the Bears roster. In January, he reaffirmed his commitment to quarterback Justin Fields, whom the Bears drafted No. 11 overall in 2021, and said he would have to be "blown away" to draft a QB prospect in April. Alabama's Bryce Young is expected to be the first quarterback taken.

That intel could give other teams leverage in what they'd offer for the No. 1 overall pick. And if Poles isn't keen on what the Bears would receive in exchange, he could opt to stay put.

"We have flexibility where if there's opportunities where if we can turn that into a lot of players that come in and help us, we can do that," Poles said. "If it's staying put or really being selective with certain people, we can do that as well. I know my expectation, our expectation, is that we move the needle to be more successful. We can win some of these close games and bring in guys that can impact this football team."

Should the Bears be actively looking to move back from No. 1, when would conversations regarding a trade partner start?

Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1967, the No. 1 pick has been traded 12 times before the start of the draft. It last happened in 2016 when the Los Angeles Rams moved from No. 15 to No. 1 two weeks before selecting quarterback Jared Goff out of Cal. It was only the second time in the last 22 years that the No. 1 pick changed hands before the draft (the Atlanta Falcons moved up from No. 2 to draft Michael Vick first overall in 2001).

In each of the last two seasons, there has been a dramatic shift to the draft order weeks before the draft takes place. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Saints shook up the order in the first round on April 4, 2022, with New Orleans receiving two first-round picks (No. 16 and No. 19) and a sixth-rounder, while the Eagles got No. 18, which they eventually traded to the Tennessee Titans in a package for wide receiver A.J. Brown and a haul of other picks. On March 26, 2021, the Dolphins made two trades that began with swapping first-round picks with the San Francisco 49ers, which the 49ers used to draft quarterback Trey Lance before trading multiple picks with the Eagles.

These trades didn't come together the morning they were announced. The combine and other offseason events were the breeding ground for candid conversations to gauge interest.

In January 1997, Mueller, then the vice president of football operations for the Seattle Seahawks, sat down with former Bears chairman Michael McCaskey and general manager Rod Graves at the East-West Shrine Game. Over a sandwich, the three discussed quarterback Rick Mirer, who was traded from Seattle to Chicago a month later.

In 2009, the Jets traded up from No. 17 to No. 5 to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez. From January's Senior Bowl to the combine in late February, Tannenbaum tried to gauge where he could find a trade partner.

"It was super informal," Tannenbaum said. "I would pop in and out of other teams' suites [at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, where combine workouts took place]. That year, Detroit had the No. 1 pick, and they weren't budging off [Matthew] Stafford. You really want to start getting a sense of the landscape where, OK, we're at 17, what's realistic? How high can we go?"

After months of maneuvering, the Jets then pulled off their 12-spot jump while on the clock in the first round of the draft.

Poles' first combine experience with the Bears was spent preparing to let over 20 players from the 2021 squad walk in free agency, which included meetings with those players' agents. His first major move as Chicago's GM came less than two weeks after returning from Indianapolis when he traded edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers for two draft picks.

Until the dust settles from free agency, it's premature to project whether Poles will come away with a trade partner for the No. 1 overall pick. Quarterback-needy teams that fail to land veteran QBs such as Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and potentially Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson should they become available, could be looking more closely at trading up for the top pick.

"I don't think there's a lot of draft strategy talk [at the combine]," Mueller said. "You're gathering information on individual players who are in the draft pool and you're spending every minute outside of that gathering information from agents who are in free agency."

What's more likely to come directly from the combine are trades involving players. Days after the combine wrapped up in 2010, Tannenbaum acquired cornerback Antonio Cromartie from the San Diego Chargers in a trade. Often when teams are looking to trade a player, contract guarantees that are often triggered at the start of the new league year in March lead to a sense of urgency.

The idea of trading Fields has sparked rampant external discussion the last few months. That discussion will likely fuel rumors that permeate the halls of the J.W. Marriott and Indianapolis Convention Center, and Poles is in prime position to either fuel that speculation, squash it or send messages through the media to create more leverage for the Bears surrounding the top pick.

"That time period can be used as a tool for GMs to send messages or shots across the bow," Mueller said of the combine. "But the actual conversations, really the meat and potatoes of it, probably happened already and then they'll conclude after."

After failing to find a trade partner for the No. 1 pick in 2006, Casserly ended up selecting defensive end Mario Williams first overall while Bush fell to the New Orleans Saints at No. 2. Tannenbaum and the Jets stayed at No. 4 and selected offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

Poles could find himself in a similar position if the offers he yields for the No. 1 pick don't match what he feels is the right return. And staying in possession of the top pick means the Bears would have the entire draft board at their disposal and could select one of the top players in the draft, like Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter to fix a defense that ranked in the bottom five in 2022.

Either way, Poles won't have much time to sort through the possibilities until he returns from the ensuing marathon in Indianapolis.

"It is a crazy exercise of multi-tasking for every GM," Mueller said. "You're juggling free agency, you're juggling deals in your head, you're juggling meetings with agents, you're also trying to gather as much information on these individuals players in the draft because that's the reason you're there."