When the 49ers were ruling the NFL a generation ago, Bill Walsh, their coach and architect, treated the draft like a chessboard. At one point in the middle of the San Francisco dynasty Walsh made 11 draft-choice trades in a two-year period. In 1987 the Niners traded two picks for Steve Young, even with the great Joe Montana at quarterback, then six years later dealt a bitter Montana for a first-round slot to make room for Young to play. Walsh and those who followed him were loyal to players if they helped the team win—but also to the talent-accumulating possibilities that future draft picks represented.
Sound familiar? New England coach Bill Belichick could have studied at Walsh U. With a chance to get a potentially prime draft pick, Belichick stunned the NFL on Sunday by trading standout defensive lineman Richard Seymour to Oakland for a 2011 first-round choice. The Patriots now have seven picks in the top two rounds of the next two drafts, more than any team in the NFL.
Even without longtime vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli by his side—Pioli left to be Kansas City's G.M. in January—Belichick has continued the Pats' practice of wheeling and dealing while remaining prime contenders. Getting a possible top 10 pick for a defensive lineman who has missed eight games to injury in the last two years and will turn 30 in October is a smart move. Tom Brady will be 34 in 2011, and as unlikely as it may seem now, Belichick may be looking for a quarterback then. Plus, Seymour will be a free agent after this year and would likely command $9 million a year, out of New England's range for a nonquarterback.
To be sure, it's a risky move. The Pats were looking for pass-rush help even before trading Seymour, who led them with eight sacks last year. But Belichick has always gambled on himself, the same way Walsh did. Around the league last weekend no one was betting against him.