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NFL Draft: Giants GM Dave Gettleman surprises even his own team with his draft moves

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman talks to the

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman talks to the media during training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, N.J., on July 26. Credit: Brad Penner

Picks weren’t the only things being traded in the Giants’ draft room these past few days.

Barbs, jabs, needles and punchlines were flying around, too. There probably were a few wide-eyed looks of surprise at times and even some nods of approval exchanged.

Even from beyond the confines of the room, with a population capped at 10 because of league protocols during the pandemic, outside comments were able to make their way in through calls or texts to join in on the bizarre bazaar that the process had become.

The Giants, an organization not known for a free-wheeling approach to the draft, spent the first two days of this year’s process darting up and down the board, weaving in and out of traffic, maneuvering for picks not only in this year’s selection process but — and this may have been the key — next year’s.

And while there were plenty of influences as to why he was spurred to make those moves, and lots of speculation as to who was prodding him to do so, the unlikely glut of trades ultimately will go on the record of general manager Dave Gettleman.

All of which led to the yuks. Because Gettleman has plenty of reputations when it comes to his theories for running NFL teams, and one of them has long been that he is not a fan of trading draft picks.

" ‘Trader Dave’ has brought some excitement to the room," Giants director of college scouting Chris Pettit said. " ‘Trader Dave’ is hearing it from a lot of people throughout the league, so it’s been fun. There’s been a little ribbing."

Even his own head coach couldn’t pass up an opportunity to take a swing. While Joe Judge is used to such an aggressive and fluent draft process, having spent eight years with the Patriots — a team notorious for hovering over the draft like a hawk, then swooping in talons-up for the players they had targeted all along — he knew that Gettleman’s style has long been different.

"I’m sure Dave has got a concussion or something," Judge said on Friday night after the jarring movements that led to the Giants’ third selection of the draft . . . and third that came from a spot they were not assigned at the beginning of the week.

Gettleman himself joined in the fun, recalling a famous line from NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah from last month.

Noting that Gettleman had never traded back in his eight previous drafts as a general manager, Jeremiah said we’d see right turns in NASCAR before he did so.

"We were busy," Gettleman said of the deal-making. "I’m learning to make right turns in NASCAR."

The first hook in that direction came on Thursday in the first round, and while it was a sudden swing, Gettleman actually had been driving with his turn signal on for a while. The process of trading the 11th overall pick to the Bears for their 20th — plus three other picks, including a first-rounder next year — began weeks earlier.

"We had called around, and you do that calling, and I had spoken to [Bears GM] Ryan Pace," Gettleman said. "I had heard he was interested in moving up, so I called him. When I spoke to him, he said, ‘Yes, we’re very interested.’ And then the conversations begin."

The two sides touched base on Thursday before the draft began, just to make sure there were no changes in expectations. Finally, the Bears rang the Giants as the first round was unfolding.

"He called me again somewhere around the seventh pick," Gettleman said. That was when the top two receivers, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle, had come off the board. There still was one more top receiver the Giants were eying with their 11th pick, but when the Eagles leapfrogged them in a trade with the Cowboys to select DeVonta Smith at 10, the Giants traded back.

"We had really talked this through," he said. "Me, Joe [Judge], Chris Mara, Tim McDonnell, Kevin Abrams and Mark Koncz, we had all discussed thoroughly, really looked at our board. We had a lengthy meeting on Monday and we followed it up with another meeting on Wednesday. We knew what we wanted. We knew where we wanted to go and we knew at which point we would consider a trade back. And then we met again at 6 o’clock [Thursday] to just constantly review and talk it through, and it was a great group effort. We all felt very together on the decision. And we made it."

The trade back from 42 to 50 in the second round on Friday came together with the Dolphins a bit faster . . . and was a bit riskier. As the Giants’ assigned pick approached, Gettleman said the team had five players they were considering. Moving back eight spots was a gamble, but it was one he was willing to take:

"The odds are, eight slots, it’s five guys, one of those five is going to be there for you."

It turned out that the guy they would have taken at 42 all along was there for them. They picked Azeez Ojulari, the edge rusher from Georgia.

Then, in the third round, as their 76th overall pick was approaching, another of those initial five from 42 was still around. They used a fifth-round pick — the very one they had acquired in the trade with the Bears 24 hours earlier — to forge a deal with the Broncos to move up to 71 and drafted cornerback Aaron Robinson.

Call it luck, call it guile, it worked out pretty well for the Giants.

"I feel good about what we did," Judge said.

So what’s gotten into Gettleman and the Giants? Judge probably is one of the big reasons why they approached this draft like a Saturday morning estate sale, sifting through the rubbish to find the pieces of value. The mindset he brought from New England certainly has been on display in these proceedings.

"It’s making the best decision for the team at the time," Judge said. "You evaluate all these players for a reason. You never know how it’s going to shake out. You know where you want to take certain guys, you know what you’re looking to fill in terms of best player available and some positions of need . . . In terms of the roller coaster of emotions, you just let the round play out."

Another impetus to the apparent change in philosophy has been the pandemic. Not only did it limit in-person access to prospects in this year’s draft but, as Gettleman noted, it created a situation in which some of the top talent that might have been available this year received an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA.

"One of the SEC schools, they had 13 kids decide to go back and play next year, 13 kids that could have been in this draft," Gettleman said. "That was pretty heavy throughout the Power Five conferences. We really have a feeling that next year’s draft is going to be really strong, and it just gives you options."

Besides their own picks, the Giants will have three more in 2022: a first and a fourth from the Bears and a third from the Dolphins.

"I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a priority," Gettleman said of adding future picks. "It was important to us."

Eventually, the Giants’ 2021 draft will be graded not on the dance moves but on the players they selected, and perhaps even the ones they let slip past.

But for now, it is being positioned as the one in which they learned to play the game, accepted the risks associated with flipping picks and pogo-sticking through the order, and came away pleased with the results.

"It’s exciting," Pettit said of the ride. "It gave a little juice. It’s been different."

Now that they have a taste for it, it might even become the norm for Gettleman and the Giants.

"Let me tell you something, you never know," Gettleman said. "You never know."

Fourth round (116 overall)

Elerson Smith

LB, 6-6, 252

Northern Iowa, R-Sr.

Registered 14.0 sacks in a breakout season in 2019, his one full season of college action … A long, lanky athlete who had a good enough showing at the Senior Bowl to overcome the dearth of film on him since his FCS season was cancelled in the fall … Also has special teams abilities including a pair of blocked kicks in college … Weighed 190 as a barely-recruited prospect out of Minneapolis before adding weight throughout college.

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