Inside the Jets' trade pursuit of Tyreek Hill, and how they rebounded

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Friday, October 7, 2022

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On March 18, New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas received a call from Tyreek Hill's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. The Kansas City Chiefs had granted Rosenhaus permission to shop the star wide receiver, and now he was reaching out to see if the Jets were interested.

They were. Very.

What unfolded was a five-day pursuit that included a compensation agreement with the Chiefs, an elaborate sales pitch to Hill's camp and a contract proposal that would've made Hill the highest-paid player in franchise history -- by far. The Jets knew he'd be a tough get, but their hopes increased to the point where they felt it was a down-to-the-wire decision for Hill.

On March 23, Rosenhaus phoned Douglas with the news that Hill was being traded to the Miami Dolphins, the team he chose over the Jets.Douglas & Co. were disappointed. In fact, they conducted an internal postmortem, retracing their steps to see if they could have done anything differently during the process.

"Sure, we would've loved to have had him here, but I think things happen for a reason," Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday.

"It was a very realistic possibility," Rosenhaus told ESPN of a deal to the Jets.

Hill, who tops the NFL with 477 receiving yards, leads the Dolphins (3-1) into MetLife Stadium Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) for a key AFC East battle against the Jets (2-2). The Jets' leader in receiving yardage is rookie Garrett Wilson (255), who essentially became their fallback option after failed attempts to trade for Hill and the San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel.

How did the trade proposal come together? Here's how it unfolded and why the Jets' bid fell short, according to sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

BEFORE FREE AGENCY, the Jets' personnel department compiled a list of potential cap casualties leaguewide. Hill was on that list.Heading into the final year of his contract with the Chiefs, due to count $21 million on the cap, his future in Kansas City wasn't certain. So the Jets pegged him as a player to watch, which allowed them to start their homework ... just in case.

When the Jets got the initial call from Rosenhaus, they already had a full scouting report on Hill. They spent the next 48 hours on his personal background, checking into past off-the-field incidents. Comfortable with their findings, they got into intense contract negotiations with Rosenhaus once they worked out a compensation package with the Chiefs.

The Jets agreed to trade two second-round picks (Nos. 35 and 38 overall) and a third-rounder (No. 69) to the Chiefs for Hill and a third-rounder (No. 103). It would've been a lot to give up, but this proposal enabled them to retain both first-round selections.

Technically, the Jets and Dolphins weren't allowed to negotiate with Rosenhaus until their proposed trade package was accepted by the Chiefs. Then it all hinged on a "yes" from Hill. He didn't have a no-trade clause, but gained leverage once he had permission to negotiate a contract with other teams.

The Jets wanted to fly down to South Florida to meet Hill at his home for a face-to-face recruiting trip -- or at least fly him to New Jersey -- but those meetings never happened. They suggested a video call with some of the coaches, but Rosenhaus preferred to be the point man, relaying information to Hill. The Chiefs were sensitive to the idea of teams talking directly to Hill. The Jets, who have a good working relationship with Rosenhaus, didn't make a stink.

For the most part, it was Douglas and Rosenhaus, one on one. David Socie, the Jets' senior director of football administration, was involved in the actual contract negotiations.

The Jets' sales pitch focused on their young, homegrown talent, and how Hill could've been the player who galvanized it all. They want to become a destination team, and their feeling at the time was that a player of Hill's magnitude could've been the trend-setter.They made an "awesome presentation," according to Rosenhaus.

Hill would've been their biggest wide receiver star since Keyshawn Johnson in 1999. Since then, they've had only one Pro Bowl season by a receiver -- Brandon Marshall in 2015. Hill would've been big box office for a franchise searching for an identity.

"Tyreek was interested and heard a lot of good things about the coaching staff and the direction the team was heading," Rosenhaus said. "... We really felt like -- myself and Tyreek and his family -- that New York would be a great fit for him. Obviously, they needed at the time another big playmaker and a signature player. He would've been the face of the franchise, which was appealing. So there were a lot of things that were exciting about it. Ultimately, what it boiled down to was a close call."

Rosenhaus did his own homework, reaching out to Jets wide receiver Braxton Berrios -- a client -- for intel on quarterback Zach Wilson. When a receiver picks a new team, the quality of the quarterback is important. Not as important as money, though, which typically drives the deal.

The Jets offered essentially the same deal that Hill signed with the Dolphins -- a four-year, $120 million extension, a record for a receiver. It included $52.5 million in fully guaranteed money. The Jets were willing to go dollar for dollar with the Dolphins; they even offered a bigger Pro Bowl incentive than Miami. Rosenhaus characterized the Jets' offer as "very competitive."

In the end, the Dolphins closed the deal -- one of the biggest in a wild NFL offseason. It cost them five draft picks --a 2022 first-round pick (No. 29), second-round pick (No. 50) and fourth-round pick, plus fourth- and sixth-round picks in the 2023 draft.Coach Mike McDaniel hasn't stopped gushing about Hill, saying the three-time All-Pro has capitalized on "an opportunity for him to take his game to another level in terms of leadership and tone-setting."

"We knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but we wanted to make a really strong offer to try to convince the player and the agent that this was a good place to be," Douglas said at the time, calling it a "unique opportunity" to acquire a premium player.

Rosenhaus negotiated with three teams -- Dolphins, Jets and Chiefs. He revealed that Hill "gave serious consideration to going back to Kansas City." They were talking to the Chiefs about an extension, but Davante Adams' new deal with the Las Vegas Raiders (five years, $140 million) altered the wide receiver landscape. In training camp, Chiefs GM Brett Veach reflected on the trade, calling it "one of those difficult decisions that is the right thing to do, but it doesn't make it any easier."

Meanwhile, Hill is loving life amid the palm trees and sunshine.

"It was very close to happening, but it was just those state taxes, man," Hill told the South Florida media on Monday, explaining why he picked the Dolphins over the Jets. "I realized I had to make a grown-up decision, and here I am in a great city in Miami."

Because Florida has no state income tax, Hill saved millions on his contract. The Jets would've had to pay him approximately $58.75 million in guarantees to match the Dolphins' $52.5 million, according to Robert Raiola, the director of the sports and entertainment group at the New York-based accounting firm of PKF O'Connor Davies.

Money aside, Hill liked the idea of playing for the Dolphins because he has a home in South Florida and trains there in the offseason, according to Rosenhaus, who said it was "tough to beat that scenario."

Still craving a playmaker, the Jets turned to the draft. That, too, made for some anxious moments.

Wilson was the No. 1 receiver on their board, slightly ahead of Drake London, and they were nervous about losing Wilson when the Seattle Seahawks were on the clock at No. 9. London already was gone -- he went eighth to the Atlanta Falcons -- and their intel told them the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints were looking to trade up. (This was before the Eagles' traded for A.J. Brown.) The Jets, sitting at No. 10, almost swapped places with the Seahawks. They stood pat, a calculated risk that worked out because they got Wilson without having to surrender draft capital.

While the Jets' front office considers Hill perhaps the most dangerous offensive playmaker in the league, it's absolutely thrilled to have Wilson, 22, who is a lot younger and cheaper than the 28-year-old Hill.

Wilson had heard about the Jets' interest in Samuel, which occurred close to the draft, but he didn't know about the Hill dalliance until a reporter mentioned it last week.

"Hopefully, over these next few years, I can prove they did make the right decision," Wilson told ESPN. "That comes with time. Those are proven vets that go in and out every week and do it. I hold myself to a high standard. I'm not going to say I feel like those dudes are better than me or vice versa. At the end of the day, I know what I bring to the table."

Wilson is fast, but he's not an extreme burner like Hill. Wilson's super power, as the coaches like to call it, is an uncanny ability to use his lower-body strength to separate from defenders. Zach Wilson said, "He's hard to throw the ball to sometimes because he's faking me out" with his moves. Wilson is second on the team in receptions (20) and tied with Corey Davis in touchdown catches (two).

But he's not the Cheetah.

"He's a little bit different; he runs by everybody," Garrett Wilson said of Hill. "That's not me. I just can't run by everybody. He's a special talent."

Hill might have been the most dynamic playmaker in Jets' history, but the cost would've been steep. Had the trade gone through, they would've surrendered the picks that allowed them to select first-round defensive end Jermaine Johnson and second-round running back Breece Hall. Both rookies have played meaningful snaps -- Hall 137, Johnson 80 -- helping contribute to the 2-2 record, the team's best start since 2017.

Hill's contract also would've altered their entire salary structure. His cap charges from 2022 to 2026 are a combined $90.6 million, compared to only $20.6 million for Wilson -- a tremendous amount of flexibility for the organization. Still, they were willing to take the plunge for Hill, in part, because they still have Zach Wilson on his rookie contract.

So everybody's happy, right?

"I think it's working out well for Miami, but they're further along than the Jets in terms of their roster," said a personnel executive not affiliated with either team. "The Jets are still in that rebuilding, 'who are we?' mode. They're still formulating an identity with their personnel. I'm a big Tyreek Hill fan, but he wouldn't have been the right fit for them."