The NFL boils down to scheme and personnel. With so little time to implement the former this year, 2020 will be all about the latter. Does your roster have the horses or not?
For the purposes of this article, I consider the “general manager” to be whomever is believed to have the biggest role in shaping the roster, regardless of who has the official title. The criteria is the same as always. All front office activity — from players and coaches to draft picks and contracts — is taken into consideration. Past achievements are not forgotten, but recent history is given greater emphasis. Even in a results-based business, the process is vital. Last year’s list can be found here. 2018’s is here.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
The Bears traded a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles. The Raiders made Marcus Mariota the highest-paid new backup at any position. Bill Belichick? He signed Cam Newton for $550,000 guaranteed on June 28. The move was the latest in a long-running trend. As the rest of the league ties itself up into knots trying to catch up with the Patriots, Belichick makes staying on top look easy. Belichick is not perfect, especially as a general manager. His roster failings are often wielded against him as a weapon, as if he is supposed to bat 1.000. A GM who does not make frequent, annual mistakes is a GM who does not exist. It is how you work around them that bakes the cake. Belichick left himself undermanned on offense last season. How did he compensate? By putting together the best defense of his entire tenure in New England. Belichick never focuses on what he doesn’t have. He takes his best shot at putting together a 53-man roster then molds and manipulates it as needed. It’s never flawless, but there are no excuses. Only Bill.
2. Kevin Colbert, Steelers
What does depth get you? An 8-8 record in a year where you had to trade the best receiver in football and your quarterback played six quarters. Kevin Colbert has been getting the big things right for his entire two-decade run as general manager. It was a little thing that tripped him up in 2019: Backup QB. The lack of a Nick Foles or Teddy Bridgewater undermined an otherwise heroic playoff pursuit. That glaring hole remains for 2020 as 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger returns from an injury to his throwing arm. All the other pieces are in place. Arguably the league’s keenest eye for high-end defensive talent and wide receiver gems, Colbert’s loaded roster has upside to spare. It is lacking a first-round rookie after last year’s aggressive acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, though Fitzpatrick is still only 23 years old. Colbert has a little less margin for error than usual, but he has his team well positioned for its 20th winning season in 21 years.
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3. Andy Reid/Brett Veach, Chiefs
The rich don’t necessarily get richer in the NFL. In a salary-capped league, the best teams are frequently victims of their own success. Too many star players can mean too many bloated contracts, limiting roster flexibility and curtailing depth. Knowing who to let walk and who to re-sign is a balancing act many GMs never master. Ex-Chiefs GM John Dorsey couldn’t manage the cap, and it cost him his job coming off a 12-4 season. Brett Veach has better walked Andy Reid’s tightrope, executing Reid’s orders like trading Dee Ford and acquiring Frank Clark. He gave Sammy Watkins a bad contract only to get out from underneath it. Those moves were the opening act for Veach and Reid’s jujitsu of making Patrick Mahomes the highest-paid athlete in American history while maintaining balance and maneuverability. Right on cue, the Chiefs were then able to extend defensive linchpin Chris Jones. Past “imperial phase” teams like the 2000s Colts accepted flawed rosters as the cost of doing elite quarterback business. The Chiefs have solved the big problem, positioning themselves well for the 1,000 little ones that come after.
4. Howie Roseman, Eagles
A roster that had won playoff games with its backup quarterback in back-to-back years finally reached January with its starter. Then he got hurt again. It was that kind of year — again — in Philadelphia, but even “those kinds of years” have produced postseason appearances under Howie Roseman. Only one other team the entire decade, the 2011 Texans, won a playoff game with its backup quarterback. Roseman has accumulated depth even as it has been lacking in a few critical areas. Try as he might, Roseman can never seem to find enough cornerbacks or wide receivers. He aggressively addressed both this offseason, taking Darius Slay off of Matt Patricia’s hands before spending a first-round pick on Jalen Reagor. Roseman added three other wideouts, joining a hopefully healthy DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery. Despite a steady stream of bad injury luck since December 2017, the Eagles keep winning games — one of them Super Bowl LII — and making the playoffs. If Roseman’s squad ever regresses back to the health mean, it won’t just sneak into the playoffs, but contend for another Lombardi.
5. Mickey Loomis, Saints
Mickey Loomis’ second act has featured everything but a parade. Built on the back of Loomis and Sean Payton’s legendary 2017 draft class, the Saints have stockpiled 37 wins over the past three seasons, coming within a Nickell Robey-Coleman of Super Bowl LIII. Loomis and Payton have accounted for every contingency, including backup quarterback. When Drew Brees was lost for five games last year, insurance policy Teddy Bridgewater guided the team to a 5-0 record. Loomis deserves credit not only for signing Bridgewater, but building a roster good enough to go undefeated with its No. 2 QB. The same was true at running back, where free agent addition Latavius Murray helped spell an ailing Alvin Kamara. As was the case during the Saints’ first championship window under Loomis and Payton, the bill could come due at any moment. The Saints are not playing for tomorrow. Trades have left them with only nine total draft picks over the past two years. Just four of those came on Days 1 and 2. Open market additions have tended to be on the older side, including this spring’s signing of Emmanuel Sanders. Loomis and Payton just want to win. They aren’t thinking about 2025. It’s a breath of fresh air in an increasingly calculated front office world.
6. John Lynch, 49ers
The 2019 NFC champion 49ers were a case study in how to build a winning roster. There were nailed early-round picks along the defensive line. Mid-round finds in George Kittle and Fred Warner. Instant rookie contributors in Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel. A reclamation project in Richard Sherman. Scrap heap phenomenons in Raheem Mostert and Kendrick Bourne. Trade acquisitions in Emmanuel Sanders and Dee Ford. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan pursued every avenue, and the road led them to the Super Bowl. They stayed in the zone this offseason, turning DeForest Buckner into a first-round pick after they determined they would not be re-signing him and acquiring LT Trent Williams for pennies on the dollar. Perhaps the scariest part about this group is that it has yet to be maximized on offense and is already a championship contender. Lynch and Shanahan could be just a player or two away from building one of the teams of the decade.
7. Rick Spielman, Vikings
Working on five straight winning campaigns, Rick Spielman has been uncharacteristically quiet since his historic Kirk Cousins deal in 2018. Spielman was forced to play defense this spring, trading an unhappy Stefon Diggs to the Bills for first-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks. Three of those selections were part of this year’s comically large 15-man class, the biggest in NFL history for a seven-round draft. Spielman had seven of the first 132 picks, including four in the top 90. That infusion of young, cost-controlled talent will be an asset if Spielman decides to return to his aggressive ways in 2021. Although he’s known for gambling, Spielman has not gone bust since hiring coach Mike Zimmer as his top lieutenant. With rare exceptions, a Spielman team is always going to be in the mix. That’s all a fan can reasonably hope for.
8. John Schneider, Seahawks
The Seahawks make first-round picks again. After a five-year period from 2013-17 where John Schneider and Pete Carroll made all of one Night 1 selection, they have now held onto their top pick each of the past three seasons. Good news, right? Not so much. Groupthink can be a pernicious force in football. You don’t want to follow the leader when it comes to your draft board. You do want to stay on the same planet. That is not where the Seahawks have been with Rashaad Penny, L.J. Collier and Jordyn Brooks. Penny is already a bust. Ancient for a rookie, 24-year-old Collier was not impressive in 2019. Brooks is unproven in pass coverage. You do not draft an off-ball linebacker in the first round if you’re not sure how they will hold up in the air. Schneider and Carroll have made hay elsewhere even as they continue to botch their most important annual decision. DK Metcalf was a second-round steal. They pilfered Jadeveon Clowney from the Texans and Quandre Diggs from the Lions. It’s just impossible not to focus on the way the Seahawks make things harder on themselves. Despite Carroll’s stubborn game-day strategies and Schneider’s questionable roster building, the ‘Hawks keep winning. The question is whether they know something we don’t or if Russell Wilson papers over every mistake.
9. Brandon Beane, Bills
Rick Spielman has company. Like his Vikings counterpart, Brandon Beane only speaks in big moves. The two worked together on one this offseason, with Beane avenging last year’s Antonio Brown near miss by acquiring Stefon Diggs. It is Beane and Sean McDermott’s last-ditch effort at salvaging their front office-defining move of trading up — twice — for Josh Allen. Beane and McDermott are in perfect harmony on defense. The pieces are also falling into place on offense, but Allen is a literal and figurative wild card. If he’s the next Blake Bortles, the Bills’ defensive foundation won’t amount to much. If he’s something more, the Patriots’ reign of AFC East terror might finally be over. Beane and McDermott have been good enough that they should survive a potential Allen failure, but it will represent a massive missed opportunity with an otherwise readymade roster.
10. Chris Ballard, Colts
Some problems cannot be fixed. Your 29-year-old franchise quarterback retiring 15 days before Week 1 would be one of them. Left in a daze by Andrew Luck’s stunning decision, the Colts’ 7-9 2019 record was something of an accomplishment. It was made possible by a roster Chris Ballard set up for success on both sides of the ball. With Luck gone, the Colts’ new foundation is a 2018 draft class that produced a pair of All-Pros with its first two picks, OG Quenton Nelson and LB Darius Leonard. That core has been fleshed out with a series of 2020 moves. New quarterback Philip Rivers had the best years of his career under Frank Reich in San Diego. Rivers’ supporting cast was fortified with Ballard’s first two 2020 selections, WR Michael Pittman and RB Jonathan Taylor. Both picks came on Day 2 after Ballard flipped his first-rounder for interior force DeForest Buckner. Beyond quarterback, Ballard had identified defensive tackle as one of his biggest needs. Ballard’s entire Colts career has been off his back foot. His first move — hiring Josh McDaniels — lasted less than one day. Ballard hasn’t made excuses. He’s simply kept improving his roster. Rivers may not work out, but Ballard has earned the right to draft his successor.