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NFL draft deception: Stories of smoke screens and subterfuge

Putting up smoke screens of all varieties has been part of the NFL draft for many years. Helen H. Richardson/Getty Images

The NFL draft provides high drama, especially behind the scenes, and the most compelling development this year was the Chicago Bears' trading up one spot to grab Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback the San Francisco 49ers reportedly weren’t interested in selecting at No. 2.

Were the Bears bluffed by San Francisco into trading three additional picks to move from No. 3? The MMQB.com website had a reporter embedded with the Niners, and he revealed there was one other team interested in No. 2, although the level of interest wasn’t disclosed.

Did Chicago have to make the trade to avoid another team trading up to get its quarterback? We may never know the answer with 100 percent certainty.

Smoke screens, bluffs, misdirection and misinformation all play roles during the draft. Teams go to great lengths to conceal their intentions, from not meeting with a prospect to outright telling a player they’re not interested, only to reverse course on draft night.

ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters provide examples of the games teams play.

Secret dinner with Trubisky

The Bears may have been caught up in subterfuge by the 49ers, but Chicago also performed some deception of its own.

Chicago sent nearly every key member of its organization -- including general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox -- to Deshaun Watson’s pro day to give the impression Watson was the team's potential target, according to ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson. But the Bears staged a secret dinner with Trubisky behind the scenes and begged his camp not to leak the news.

The plan worked as news of the dinner didn’t get out until after the pick was made.

Misdirection in Miami

Defensive end Charles Harris remembers his disappointment last month when the Miami Dolphins cancelled a pre-draft visit to South Florida without explanation.

“I was like, ‘Man, that’s messed up,’” Harris said.

The former University of Missouri standout thought he had a great meeting with the Dolphins at the combine in February. However, the team didn’t request a personal workout and then Harris’ visit to its facility was terminated, which created doubt. But those questions were erased when Miami selected Harris with the No. 22 pick. The Dolphins purposely went silent with Harris two months before the draft.

“Everyone is tracking visits and all this stuff. Last year, we selected a bunch of players that we had in here” for one of the 30 allowed pre-draft visits, Grier said. “Teams track that stuff and I know it is your job [in the media] to do that, and that is fine. It’s just there are some players that we purposely try and stay away from once we are comfortable with the player, his character and what type of kid we are getting. We just do not feel the need to spend any more time with them.”

Minnesota’s ‘game of chicken’

The Minnesota Vikings were surprised to see Florida State running back Dalvin Cook available on Day 2, according to ESPN NFL Nation reporter Jeremy Fowler. So they started calling every team picking ahead of them at No. 48 overall -- save the Green Bay Packers, who had the first pick of the second round. Intradivisional trading is considered blasphemous.

Minnesota figured the Philadelphia Eagles were a threat to move up for Cook, and at least one team told the Vikings it had trade interest brewing. Was that interest real or manufactured? The team on the other end usually doesn’t know.

“Game of chicken,” one NFL executive said.

The Vikings essentially could protect their interest in Cook because they didn’t have to tell potential trade partners whom they were picking. They just wanted a higher draft pick.

Eventually, the Cincinnati Bengals obliged. Cincinnati dropped from No. 41 to No. 48 to take controversial Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon. The Lions, picking 53rd that round, were one of the few teams that had shown interest in Mixon during the draft process. So as long as the Bengals were ahead of Detroit, Mixon was theirs.

Keeping secrets, even in-house

In Seattle, offensive line coach Tom Cable may have more say on personnel than any other assistant on the Seahawks’ staff. Yet when the team drafted LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic in the second round, Pocic said he’d never spoken to Cable, according to ESPN Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia.

“We just wanted to be very careful with how much interest we showed,” general manager John Schneider said.

The Killebrew curveball

Miles Killebrew didn’t know how to react at the 2016 Senior Bowl when the Lions flat out told the safety, “We don’t want you at all.”

“I think I took it well because the coach told me he liked the way I handled it,” Killebrew said. “I was disappointed.”

It turns out the Lions were bluffing, according to ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein. They were indeed interested in the safety and selected Killebrew with the No. 111 overall pick in the fourth round. Detroit was the last team Killebrew thought would draft him after the Senior Bowl encounter.

How Jeff Fisher became Mike Shanahan’s accomplice

Occasionally, it takes two teams and two head coaches to get in on the act. In 2006, former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan needed help from good friend and Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher to land quarterback Jay Cutler, according to ESPN Broncos writer Jeff Legwold.

Denver wanted Cutler but did everything it could to avoid showing interest. The Broncos did not work out the quarterback and never met Cutler face-to-face during the pre-draft process.

Shanahan had a secret accomplice in Fisher, who had the No. 3 overall pick that year and did a deep dive into all the top quarterbacks. Tennessee wasn’t interested in Cutler -- the Titans targeted and selected Vince Young -- so Fisher was willing to dish his Cutler intel to his longtime friend. Shanahan and Denver landed Cutler that year with the No. 11 pick in the first round.

The Eric Fisher story

Even with the No. 1 pick, the Kansas City Chiefs felt the need to deceive in the 2013 draft, according to ESPN NFL Nation reporter Nick Wagoner.

The Chiefs had no interest in drafting Geno Smith, but set up a private workout with the quarterback to give off the impression they were considering him. Kansas City also put word out through the media that the team was “fascinated” by Smith after his workout. Any other public discussion by the Chiefs involved offensive lineman Luke Joeckel.

But Kansas City surprised nearly everyone when it took Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher with the top pick. The Chiefs were not linked with Fisher by design.

In retrospect, the Chiefs were in a no-win situation with Fisher, Joeckel and Smith, who all failed to reach their potential at the NFL level.

Owner in the dark

Three years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars kept their intentions to select quarterback Blake Bortles so tight that no one in the organization knew except general manager David Caldwell and former head coach Gus Bradley, according to ESPN Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco.

Caldwell and Bradley told owner Shahid Khan the day before the 2014 draft that Bortles would be the selection at No. 3 overall, which was one of the surprise picks that year. To be fair, Caldwell and Bradley didn’t leak any smoke screens or false information. The two just kept their decision to themselves.

Charley Casserly’s fib

Finally, here is a personal story: Sometimes a general manager can outright lie to protect his intentions, which was the case in 2003 with former Houston Texans GM Charley Casserly.

I was covering minor league baseball in Columbus, Ohio, when I received a tip Houston was interested in drafting Drew Henson, who at the time was in the Yankees' farm system. Henson was a former quarterback at the University of Michigan who famously -- or infamously -- took Tom Brady’s starting job for the Wolverines.

Doing my due diligence, I made a call to the Texans to check on this, and in his loud and accented voice, Casserly told me, "I am not drafting Drew Henson! If you report that, you will be wrong!" I doubled back with my contact, who stood by Houston's interest. But Casserly's defiance was so strong that I chose not to report it.

Two weeks later, the Texans drafted Henson in the sixth round. They held his rights for a year, then traded Henson to the Dallas Cowboys for a third-round pick.

It was a smart move by Casserly, now an analyst for the NFL Network. Casserly and I often laugh about this draft smoke-screen story when we see each other, but I definitely wasn't laughing then.