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As I said with the coaches, the state of NFL front offices is actually quite good. With a few notable exceptions, processes league-wide have grown more empirically sound. Yes, even some of the better general managers can’t quite resist the occasional first-round running back, but they at least know it is something they have to explain now. Very few of these men are actively bad at their jobs. The problem is, there are only so many franchise quarterbacks to go around, and when you don’t have a quarterback, it’s hard to have a plan. Despite all the advancements, all the analytics, team building still begins and ends under center.
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. Admittedly, there are more teams where I probably could have listed more than one name, as the role of executive coach has been back on the rise in recent seasons. 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. 2019’s is here.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
You’re permitted one bad year, right? Yes and no. It’s no ordinary bad year when the franchise icon quarterback you let walk in free agency immediately wins another Super Bowl elsewhere. What figured to be an intricate debate — Belichick or Brady? — didn’t seem so complicated in 2020. It is, of course, but it wasn’t so much letting Brady go as the underlying factors that drove him away. A shoulder-debilitated Cam Newton throwing up prayers to Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers last season laid bare just how talent-bereft Brady’s final few offenses really were. There is no band-aid fix to a situation like that, but Bill Belichick tried in free agency, going on an uncharacteristic spending spree as he added Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne, amongst others. It was an admission of fault from the Patriots’ long-time czar, but those are not as rare as you might think. Quickly admitting missteps has always been one of Belichick’s super powers. Despite his foibles as team builder — hello Patriots receiver picks — no general manager has done a better job of giving the coach the right players than Belichick. He will eventually stack together enough little fixes to correct the past half decade’s big mistakes. You could argue I’m blinded by the rings. There is still no one I would rather build a front office around.
2. Kevin Colbert, Steelers
21st-year GM Kevin Colbert assembled an 11-0 roster. You’ll never guess what happened next. Despite last year’s collapse, Colbert’s 21st century team building is rivaled by only one man: Bill Belichick. Colbert’s squads have posted one losing season in 21 years, winning 10-plus games 13 times. The past two seasons have produced 20 total victories despite some of the league’s shakiest quarterback play, speaking to the depth Colbert has assembled. It will be severely tested in 2021, with QB remaining a trouble spot as the offensive line churns. Although there remains an impressive talent base on defense, the cornerback group is a variable. Colbert has always had the answers, but Ben Roethlisberger’s fade under center is his biggest question in more than a decade. There has been scuttlebutt that Colbert may not even try to answer it, retiring at the same time as his signal caller. If he sticks with it, no one will be better equipped to lead the Steelers into their next iteration than Colbert.
3. Andy Reid/Brett Veach, Chiefs
Brett Veach takes the heat, but this is Andy Reid’s roster. Just ask John Dorsey about that dynamic. Thankfully for Reid and his front office foot soldiers, this is typically a credit-claiming operation. A .711 winning percentage in eight years in Kansas City will do that. But it was not bouquets being tossed after February’s Super Bowl loss. That’s where all the Chiefs’ biggest weaknesses got exposed. An injured offensive line that wasn’t even that great at full health. An ordinary pass rush. The lack of a reliable third weapon behind All-Pros Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. An undermanned backfield despite the use of a first-rounder on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It was too much to address in one offseason, with this spring’s focus being the blocking. Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney were group-altering additions, ones that will make this line substantially better no matter how the other three starters shake out. The cavalry didn’t come elsewhere, with the hope being to get more out of what was already there. It is not the world’s worst plan seeing as this roster went 26-6 over the past two seasons. Problems tend to be of the champagne variety when Patrick Mahomes is your quarterback. The Chiefs just have to be careful not to put it all on their superstar’s shoulders. Brown and Thuney will help see to that.
4. Mickey Loomis/Sean Payton, Saints
The Saints’ past four seasons were a textbook example of going all in. Spending big in free agency. A first-round trade up for a defensive lineman. Emphasizing the backup quarterback position. Not only did the approach produce 49 victories in four years, it generated an 8-1 record with No. 2 signal callers over the past two seasons. There is nothing more Mikey Loomis and Sean Payton could have asked for … except a Super Bowl. The Lombardi never arrived, but the bill came due all the same. Or did it? Years of paying for tomorrow today coupled with the coronavirus’ decreased salary caps created an expectation of the Saints’ roster being blown to smithereens this offseason. It didn’t happen. Players like TE Josh Hill and P Thomas Morstead had to go, but Loomis and Payton solved most of their problems with some of their trademark restructures. That approach is part of the reason why the Saints’ highest 2021 cap hit is Drew Brees’ dead money. It is difficult to argue with the results, even if they haven’t included another trophy. Like Bill Belichick in New England, the Saints’ biggest test is just beginning as they navigate the post-Brees waters. Like Belichick, they have earned the benefit of the doubt after nearly two decades of using every tool at their disposal to build teams that consistently post double-digit victory totals.
5. Brandon Beane, Bills
Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott have gone hard in the paint since arriving in Buffalo. 2020 was no different, with the offseason bringing the acquisition of Stefon Diggs. It required surrendering a draft pick that turned into Justin Jefferson, but Diggs proved to be the rarest of all trade outcomes: The missing piece. Diggs mindmelded with breakout QB Josh Allen as he led the NFL in receiving by over 100 yards and brought the Bills within one game of the Super Bowl. In addition to being emblematic of the front office’s aggression, Diggs was also a continuation of the trend that lets McDermott handle his business on the defensive side of the ball as Beane stockpiles talent on offense. This spring had nothing to match Diggs’ addition, but the Bills defied expectations by re-signing defensive linchpin Matt Milano. A championship core has been assembling in Buffalo, and Beane has kept it together for 2021. Allen’s looming contract extension will change the math Beane has been working under. Bold and decisive, Beane is a front office leader who appears ready for the challenge.
6. Chris Ballard, Colts
When it comes to the biggest question of football team building — quarterback — it is easier to be wrong than right. Chris Ballard, who keeps coming home with incompletes, just wants an answer one way or the other. Trade acquisition Carson Wentz will be Ballard’s fourth starter in five years on the job, and the riskiest of the lot. If Wentz can rekindle his supposed early-career chemistry with ex-Eagles OC Frank Reich, Ballard can finally begin putting the finishing touches on a roster he’s generously provisioned on defense and along the offensive line. The skill corps has proven to be a tricky spot, though sophomores Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman are the Colts’ most exciting young playmakers since T.Y. Hilton. Ballard has not been perfect, even in the draft, where his classes have been spottier since his monster 2018. He simply continues to make more good moves than bad ones. It’s tempting to say that is more than half the battle for an NFL general manager, but that would be incorrect. It’s the whole ballgame in a profession where mistakes are a part of daily life.
7. Rick Spielman, Vikings
Two things that are never lacking in Rick Spielman’s front office: Dull days or creative solutions. The Vikings were coming off their second Divisional Round appearance in three years, but Spielman had a big problem on his hands: Stefon Diggs could no longer stand Kirk Cousins. Although Diggs’ contract was one of the best in the NFL, Spielman decided to accommodate Diggs’ trade request. Remember, no dull days. Then came the creative solution. Justin Jefferson had one of the best rookie seasons of all time in Diggs’ absence, making the move a win-win while highlighting Spielman’s penchant for escaping jams. He has another in a seven-win 2020 roster that is losing faith in its quarterback and looking highly ordinary on defense. Little of note was added to a bottom-five pass rush, though Dalvin Tomlinson was a powerful addition on the interior. Always a sucker for a big name, Spielman signed aging CB Patrick Peterson for Mike Zimmer to rehabilitate. Spielman thrives on getting out of tough spots. He’s seen tougher, but this is a group closer to imploding than taking the next step. Spielman’s latest balancing act will be in need of a full-blown rebuild if Zimmer fails to sort things out on defense.
8. Les Snead, Rams
The Rams’ second most recent first-round pick is unsigned free agent Todd Gurley. The most recent is now the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Les Snead emerged from Jeff Fisher’s shadow to become the league’s most audacious general manager alongside Sean McVay. McVay is undoubtedly driving the train on many of these moves, but Snead is the one executing them with flair. It’s a necessary skill considering how quickly McVay falls in and out of love with players. One day McVay is gushing about how you will take the lid off opposing defenses. The next, you are Brandin Cooks on the Texans. No breakup was more ruthless than McVay’s discarding of Jared Goff. No move required more finesse. Snead helped turn Goff into the latest player of McVay’s dreams, Matthew Stafford. This high-wire approach has yet to backfire. The Rams’ top-heavy roster produced the league’s No. 1 defense under Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey last season even after the offense teetered. There is just only so long you can keep withdrawing thousands from your weekly ATM visits. The Rams need to find a more sustainable approach. For now, Snead’s stars and not-quite-scrubs are getting the job done.
9. John Schneider, Seahawks
John Schneider did it again. What “it” is is open to interpretation. Is it making yet another polarizing, low-percentage choice to open the draft? Or is it assembling a roster good enough for Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll to once again win 10-plus games? 10 is the number Schneider and Carroll have cleared eight times in nine years since Wilson’s arrival. It is also in spite of moves like investing a first-round pick in Rashaad Penny and second in Malik McDowell. This year’s L.J. Collier memorial selection was D’Wayne Eskridge, a 5-foot-9, small-school receiver entering the NFL at the age of 24. Did we mention he never had a 1,000-yard season in the MAC? Groupthink is bad. It is the safe path too many NFL general managers tread. But would it kill Schneider and Carroll to do something normal for a change? That only applies to the front office, as the Seahawks have been too conventional on the field, to the point where Wilson is making something of an annual habit of hinting at his desire for a trade. The Seahawks took a step toward addressing their longstanding Sunday problems by hiring outside offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, a disciple of Sean McVay. The front office would be the next place to shake up the process, even though the results have featured just enough DK Metcalfs for Schneider to keep his roster from falling apart.
10. Jon Robinson, Titans
Jon Robinson has been on the job long enough to have some misses. For instance, his 2020 first-rounder, OT Isaiah Wilson, is no longer on the team. Whoops! As cataclysmic as a mistake like that is, it didn’t stop the Titans from posting their best record of the Robinson era, going 11-5 despite one of the league’s earliest and nastiest coronavirus outbreaks. The Titans have never posted a losing record with Robinson at the helm, winning nearly 60 percent of their games and making the playoffs three times in five seasons. Good stuff. For that to continue, Robinson is going to have to fix some not-too-good stuff with his roster. The Titans featured little in the way of high-end defensive talent last season, while the disastrous Wilson pick meant there was no one to replace departed RT Jack Conklin. That was before Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith left in free agency. Robinson hunted solutions wherever he could find them, signing Bud Dupree, Denico Autry and Janoris Jenkins, drafting OT Dillon Radunz in the second round, and acquiring Julio Jones. You are never going to fix every problem in one offseason. Robinson gave it a college try. The Titans are in good hands.
11. John Lynch, 49ers
As is the case with most hot-shot coaches, it can be hard to tell where Kyle Shanahan ends and his general manager begins. Handpicked by Shanahan, we know it’s not John Lynch making the final call on matters of receiving and quarterbacking. It might not even be Lynch on defense, where he was a Hall-of-Fame player. It is Lynch’s job to accommodate his coach. He has done so as the duo has slapped together a championship-caliber defensive core. It is on Shanahan’s side of the ball where the front office has foundered, putting too many eggs in the Jimmy Garoppolo basket while failing to find enduring solutions in the backfield or receiver corps. Injuries have played a part, especially at wideout. Deebo Samuel could still end up forming one of the league’s better 1-2 punches with Brandon Aiyuk as George Kittle dominates the seam. The Garoppolo matter has also been settled with Shanny’s biggest bet: FCS QB Trey Lance. Lance’s lone appearance since the end of the 2019 season was an Oct. 2020 exhibition against Central Arkansas. Whereas Garoppolo was a “safe” bet that failed, Lance is swinging for the fences. A front office partnership that has thus far gotten by on alibis and one 13-3 campaign is officially on the spot. If Lance fails, Shanahan and his personal chef general manager may no longer be allowed to pick the ingredients.
12. Jason Licht, Bucs
Who do you think is the last one laughing in this room? Pilloried for six seasons of sub-.360 ball, Jason Licht seemed as likely to walk on the moon as assemble a Super Bowl winner. Then Tom Brady became available. Licht went “all in” on the 42-year-old signal caller — an always-recommended method for team building in Football For Dummies — and found not only his quarterback, but the missing piece for a quietly-elite group. Super Bowl LV is not won without Brady. It’s not reached without Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield, Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, so on and so forth. Few outside the inner rings of Bucs fandom would have blinked had Licht been fired any of the past 2-3 Januarys. It’s also true that most general managers who suffer through six bad years of football aren’t suddenly going to find their Rosetta Stone in Year 7. It’s hard to say what it means other than no one ever really knows. While we were busy pondering the meaning of Jason Licht, he was busy keeping the band together. All 22 Lombardi-lifting starters are back for 2021. Jason Licht, a football life.
13. Eric DeCosta, Ravens
If you are going to replace a legend, you might as well have the luxury of being their right-hand man for the better part of two decades. It has been so far, so great for Eric DeCosta as he attempts to move out of Ozzie Newsome’s shadow, though it is Newsome’s imprint that remains all over this team. DeCosta has made mostly cosmetic changes to a group that has gone 25-7 under his stewardship, but he has been active on the trade front, adding Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell as well as unloading a disgruntled Orlando Brown for a first-round pick. In the draft, DeCosta has taken a quantity approach, making 18 selections in two years. We don’t know if it’s over quality, but 2020 first-rounder Patrick Queen had a lamentable rookie campaign. As was the case under Newsome, free agency has been mostly about who departed instead of who was added. So it goes when you load up your roster with so much cost-controlled young talent that they can’t all sign second contracts. DeCosta’s challenge will be restocking the cupboard as ably as Newsome. We are only now acquiring enough information to issue judgment. If 2021 goes as well as 2019-20, it will be kind.
14. Chris Grier, Dolphins
Ahead of schedule is a good place to be. That’s where Chris Grier’s Dolphins project has found itself each of the past two years. The only bad part is that the rebuilding curve he had been graded on is now out the window. Everything is “the hard part” in the NFL, but getting to .500 pales in comparison to the final step of consistently winning 10-11 games and competing for a playoff spot on an annual basis. Grier found that out the hard way in 2020 when the Dolphins became the rare 10-win squad not to make the postseason. Grier demonstrated he understood the stakes with a typically aggressive offseason, signing Will Fuller in free agency before a draft where he traded up on both Days 1 and 2. In addition to loading up on weapons for second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa, Grier also took steps to burnish what was already one of the league’s best pass defenses, using top-36 selections on an edge rusher and safety. No longer accumulating assets, Grier is putting the final flourishes on one of the NFL’s most impressive young rosters.
15. Tom Telesco, Chargers
After years in Philip Rivers nomadland, Tom Telesco finally ripped off the band-aid. Onlookers were not impressed with the replacement plan. Although a high-end athlete, Justin Herbert was billed as conservative underneath and erratic deep. Dolphins fans all but begged their team not to draft him. When the Chargers did, it was first guessed as much as any quarterback selection since Josh Allen. Six rookie passing records later, Telesco has been vindicated. Now that he has found his franchise player, Telesco has moved on to the sideline. If Rivers kept the Chargers in maddening uncertainty, there was never much mystery with the coaches. They were middle of the road with a nice floor but little ceiling. There is nothing milquetoast about Brandon Staley, a former quarterback turned defensive coordinator. Sean McVay’s latest apostle, Staley speaks the language of modern football. It wasn’t just talk in 2020, where he turned the Rams into the league’s No. 1 defense his lone year on the job. Staley has the feel of an obvious home run, but as Herbert proved, there is no such thing as obvious in the NFL. Telesco knows the feeling all too well after years of ballyhooed rosters producing mediocre results. If he can’t turn his pocket aces into something more than 8-9 victories, it might be someone else’s turn after Telesco’s nine years on the job.
16. Howie Roseman, Eagles
Really, what is there to say other than “that escalated quickly.” 2017 felt like the birth of a dynasty. Howie Roseman’s hand-picked quarterback Carson Wentz was on track to win MVP until he tore his ACL in Week 14. What should have been a season-ruining disaster turned out to be a speed bump as the Eagles won their first Super Bowl in franchise history. That’s how good the 53-man roster was. Until it was too good to be true. The skill corps got old in a blink, the offensive line was ravaged by injury and the secondary simply never came together. Roseman’s best-laid plans splintered apart in every imaginable fashion, right down to his would-be cornerstone piece in Wentz devolving into one of the worst players in the league by 2020. A team that should have been running roughshod over the worst division in football is now rebuilding for the third time in eight years since Andy Reid’s departure. Roseman has given himself options with 19 draft picks over the past two springs, but 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor is already looking shaky, to the point that Roseman went back to the Day 1 receiving well this April. Roseman also made the least inspiring head-coaching hire of his career, with Nick Sirianni in seemingly no danger of out-scheming Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson. That, of course, could be the point after the increasingly convoluted Pederson years, but that is the charitable interpretation. Roseman’s rise, fall, rise, fall career arc is a vivid illustration of the one speed at which the NFL comes at you: Fast.
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17. Andrew Berry, Browns
Andrew Berry hopes he passed the audition. Berry was merely putting the finishing touches on the foundation built before his arrival, but ask John Dorsey, Sashi Brown, Ray Farmer, etc. how easy that is in Cleveland. Berry made the correct free agent signing in RT Jack Conklin. He aced his first draft pick with LT Jedrick Wills. He avoided the emotional moves that crippled so many of his forebears. Berry simply did it all as he assembled a group that won the Browns’ first playoff game since Bill Belichick roamed the Ohio earth. Even as Berry kept things quieter this offseason, he found a zero-risk April free agent bargain in Jadeveon Clowney. First-year expectations were sky high for Berry. He somehow exceeded them. Cleveland is the toughest of NFL cities, but Berry has established a limitless ceiling in a franchise that has known only floor.
18. Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones, Cowboys
Mike McCarthy was not a silver bullet replacement for Jason Garrett. Besides everyone, who could have seen it coming? Perhaps even more obvious than McCarthy’s lack of transformational appeal was DC Mike Nolan’s. It was Nolan whom Jerry Jones scapegoated in the offseason, leaving McCarthy in place following a campaign where he at least had legitimate excuses for his 6-10 record. Jones’ top-heavy roster was obliterated by injuries, none more consequential than Dak Prescott’s. Prescott is back for 2021, but the same isn’t necessarily true of reinforcements on defense and along the offensive line. Hurting for cap space, the Cowboys had to stick to bargains in free agency. Jones’ front office did give itself options in the draft, where its 11 picks were its most since 2009. Many will argue the “coronavirus season” was the worst possible year to be flush on draft capital considering the dearth of scouting information. We would like to think more dart throws equals more potential diamonds in the rough. The Cowboys need them as they attempt to restore balance to what has become a stars-and-scrubs group. Never as bad as you would think or as brilliant as he would like, Jones’ typical roster outcome is “little margin for error.” This group can go places. It just needs the exact opposite injury luck than it had in 2020. That’s a low percentage approach in the National Football League.
19. Brian Gutekunst, Packers
So you are telling me Aaron Rodgers’ general manager using his first three draft picks on a running back, H-back, and yes, quarterback didn’t have a happy ending? The size of Rodgers’ ego isn’t exactly a secret. Now Brian Gutekunst’s self regard is known, too. Gutekunst handled his Rodgers replacement plan with the grace of an elephant on ice skates, motivating his quarterback to the point that he won an MVP award but enraging him to such a degree that he now wants out. The crux of Rodgers’ anger seems to be Gutekunst’s complete disregard of his opinion, all the way down to Gutekunst’s ruthless release of Rodgers’ favorite UDFA WR Jake Kumerow. It’s not hard to believe Gutekunst is keeping his franchise player out of the loop, as he reportedly failed to inform even coach Matt LaFleur of his Jordan Love plans. There is no easy path forward. To Gutekunst’s great fortune, Rodgers has no good options beyond returning. If Rodgers reports, the focus can finally shift to a roster that is in its completion phase. Strong along both lines, Gutekunst actually used this draft to address a few needs, making additions at corner, center and — can you believe it — receiver. Gutekunst could still come out alive from looking his gift horse in the mouth. But if Rodgers sits, Gutekunst will be remembered for only one thing, and it won’t be favorable.
20. Ron Rivera/Martin Mayhew, Washington Football Team
Ron Rivera’s biggest innovation in the Football Team’s front office? Hiring a general manager. Washington’s Shakespearean power structures have been at the core of what has ailed the franchise on the field this century. Of course, Martin Mayhew was not added until this January. Head coach Rivera was left to fend for himself in 2020, where he pressed the easy button on Chase Young at No. 2 overall before homering on the more exotic third-round selection of Antonio Gibson. Rivera received a poor return for franchise player LT Trent Williams, but that transaction was difficult to evaluate after owner Daniel Snyder and ex-de facto GM Bruce Allen poisoned Williams’ well many times over. Although typically not a boat rocker, Rivera made the difficult mid-season decision to cut 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins. Rivera returned to his conservative roots when he signed 38-year-old caretaker QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to handle 2021 starting duties. Although Rivera is still green in the executive suite, Mayhew is not. He will be an invaluable resource, while Rivera and Mayhew together will easily be the best front office tandem Snyder has ever employed. Despite Rivera and Mayhew’s retread status, there is room to grow here.
21. Steve Keim, Cardinals
Steve Keim has survived and advanced as a general manager, if not necessarily in the playoffs. Keim’s eight years in charge of the Cardinals’ roster have produced just one postseason victory. He has 16 total wins in three years since Bruce Arians briefly retired. Keim began the post-Arians era with one of the decade’s worst draft picks in Josh Rosen. Mercifully, he was given a reprieve and used it on Kyler Murray. Now he needs Kliff Kingsbury not to throw it all away. Even beyond Rosen, Keim’s first-round track record is hardly covered in glory. No NFL GM loves anything as much as Keim loves using Day 1 picks on ‘tweener linebacker/safeties. Keim has had few notable successes in free agency, a shortcoming he has helped rectify with trades. Carson Palmer, Chandler Jones, Kenyan Drake, DeAndre Hopkins and Rodney Hudson were all excellent acquisitions. Keim has done just enough to get by. That doesn’t seem like much until you remember how many general managers fail to do even that. If you hang around long enough, you might wake up one day and find yourself in the Super Bowl. Just ask Jason Licht.
22. Mike Brown/Duke Tobin, Bengals
The Bengals are now five years removed from their 21st century high point of losing five straight Wild Card contests. They have won 25 total games in that timespan. In any other organization, this would prompt a re-think. The Bengals just keep on truckin’. Owner Mike Brown presides over one of the most opaque power structures in North American sports, serving as de facto general manager even as his influence is believed to have waned over the past decade. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin has been the closest thing to a front office boss since coach Marvin Lewis was fired following the 2018 season. As is the case with coach Zac Taylor, Tobin’s post-Lewis returns are inconclusive. 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow had a solid rookie campaign even as he displayed a potential case of Pennington arm. That was also before he tore his ACL. Burrow’s shredded knee ligament came after a year of running for his life behind one of the league’s most undermanned offensive lines. Rather than get Burrow a blocker, the Bengals found him a weapon, choosing Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell at No. 5 overall. Elsewhere, a once deep defense can’t be counted on to carry the load even after a spring spending spree that netted CB Mike Hilton, CB Chidobe Awuzie, DE Trey Hendrickson and DT Larry Ogunjobi. Those moves were necessarily merely to keep the train on the tracks. Barring a string of unusually bountiful draft classes, “on the tracks” is about as good as this organization can hope for right now.
23. Ryan Pace, Bears
14-34 after three years on the job, Ryan Pace made two big bets beginning in 2017: Trading up for Mitchell Trubisky and acquiring Khalil Mack. The former failed, spectacularly. The latter left the club picks poor, an awful place to be when you don’t have a quarterback. The Bears have totaled just 31 total selections over the past five years. The Lombardi lifters in that timespan have made 41 (New England), 37 (Philadelphia), 30 (Kansas City) and 36 (Tampa Bay). The Chiefs’ gambles produced Patrick Mahomes and two Super Bowl appearances. The Bears’ gave us Trubisky and zero postseason victories. Despite that comprehensive lack of success, Pace has not only kept his job but made the Bears’ latest franchise-altering decision: Trading up for Justin Fields. Whereas Trubisky was first guessed by both the fans and media alike, Fields’ selection has won near universal praise. That means nothing other than Pace has probably earned more benefit of the doubt from an ownership group that has been all too eager to supply it. Perhaps Pace has been unfortunate and Fields is just the man to change his luck. More likely is that even if Fields ends up the proverbial nut for the blind squirrel, someone else will finish the job of assembling his roster.
24. Joe Douglas, Jets
Joe Douglas arrived in New York to rave reviews. Adam Gase took that personally. Although it was Gase who brought Douglas to the Big Apple, it was Gase who made success impossible. All Douglas has to show for two years on the job is three first-round picks. Thankfully the first one in LT Mekhi Becton is already looking like a home run. The jury could remain out on Zach Wilson and LG Alijah Vera-Tucker for several seasons, but drafting a quarterback and doing everything possible to keep him upright was the correct course of action. After Sam Darnold died on the weapons vine, Douglas has also tried to right that wrong, adding Elijah Moore and Michael Carter to a young skill core he supplemented with sensible veteran signing Corey Davis. The defense remains something of a dumpster fire, though Douglas seems to have found the right leader in Robert Saleh. Not only will Saleh scheme up his side of the ball, he appears to be a natural born leader for a team that suffered under Gase’s aloof management. There is a ways to go in New York. Douglas is trying to get them there as fast as he can.
25. Dave Gettleman, Giants
One way to look at the Dave Gettleman era is that it could be worse. As offense exploded league-wide last season, the Giants went the other direction, permitting 94 fewer points than the year prior. Arguably the team’s top four defensive contributors — James Bradberry, Dexter Lawrence, Blake Martinez and Leonard Williams — were Gettleman additions. The problem is that the G-Men really went the other way on offense. The Giants’ 280 points were the second fewest in the NFL and third fewest for the franchise this century. Gettleman’s big offensive gambits simply did not get the job done. Saquon Barkley was hobbled by injury for the second consecutive year while Daniel Jones barely improved on his red-flag filled rookie campaign. No. 4 overall pick Andrew Thomas was decent on the blindside. Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs and Jedrick Wills, who all went a few picks later, were better. Gettleman made another high risk offensive bet this spring, stunningly selecting Florida Swiss-army knife Kadarius Toney at No. 20 overall. This, after Gettleman traded down for the first time in his career. There is a Gettleman lesson in there. Too often, the process is bad, but even when it’s good, the results are questionable. This team would probably be a bully in the ‘80s. But it’s the ‘20s, and as Gettleman tries to stop the run and run the ball, too many other general managers are running circles around him.
26. Mike Mayock, Raiders
More than most general managers would care to admit, draft weekend often comes down to one question: Heads or tails? Then there is Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden, who feel ever more determined to get the coin to land on its edge. Although they follow a process known only to themselves, the results are always immediately evident: Bad. For Mayock’s first draft in 2019, the Raiders found themselves in possession of three first-round picks. To date, they have produced a defensive end with 6.5 career sacks, a safety who earned Pro Football Focus’ worst grade in 2020, and a running back who now has one of the highest-paid backups in the league. For 2020, when the Raiders had “only” two first-rounders, Mayock and Gruden took a 24-year-old cornerback with 4.56 speed and a 5-foot-11 receiver who never had an 800-yard campaign in college. It was not lesson learned for 2021, where Mayock was thrilled to land a “plug-and-play right tackle” in Alex Leatherwood, a pick he acknowledged would be “controversial.” Remember, these are just the first-round picks. We would need an entirely different article to discuss signings like giving Kenyan Drake $11 million guaranteed. General managers can’t be scared of criticism. They must also be their own toughest graders, something that could not appear further from reality in Las Vegas as the Raiders keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
New Hires (Alphabetical Order)
Nick Caserio, Texans
That’s what gets you out of New England? After 12 years as Bill Belichick’s right-hand man, and 20 in the Patriots’ front office, Nick Caserio seemed to leap at the first offer that was given to him in January. That, of course, is not what happened. Caserio’s Boston bolting came after a long Texans courtship, one that included successful Patriots tampering charges in 2019. By the time the deal was finally sealed, it came at a low ebb for the Texans, but it still made sense. Caserio wanted to run his own front office and no one wanted him more than Houston. Then the Deshaun Watson trade demand arrived. Then the Deshaun Watson sexual misconduct allegations surfaced. What was already a daunting assignment became a full-blown nightmare. It remains unclear what Caserio’s options are with his former franchise quarterback, but the endgame seems straightforward enough. Watson will never play another game for Houston. The only real selling point for Caserio’s big break is gone. He spent his first free agency period as a real, live GM consoling himself with one special teams signing after another. It was a strange, if inoffensive, first offseason. This team is going nowhere other than the top five picks in 2021. Caserio observed methodical team building up close from the best to ever do it for two decades in New England. Patience is the only virtue for this job right now.
Scott Fitterer, Panthers
No team likes to talk about analytics more than the Panthers. We’ll see how it is actually put into practice as the years unfold, but they took another important step in the process this offseason when they replaced the ultimate NFL insider Marty Hurney with Scott Fitterer. A two-decade survivor of the Seahawks’ front office, Fitterer spent the spring practicing one of Pete Carroll’s favorite activities: Punting. Rather than address quarterback, Fitterer found a stop-gap solution in Sam Darnold. Rather than take big swings in the draft, Fitterer accumulated picks, making 11 selections. The latter is what you are supposed to do in Carolina’s situation. The former? Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule better be right that Justin Fields wasn’t worth the investment at No. 8 overall. Elsewhere, Fitterer was cautious in free agency. Unless Darnold is the next Ryan Tannehill as an unheralded reclamation project, Fitterer’s project won’t gain momentum one way or the other until he places a more aggressive bet at quarterback.
Terry Fontenot, Falcons
A member of the Saints’ front office since 2003, Terry Fontenot probably learned a thing or two about bold, decisive actions. Wherever he learned it, it was put into practice this offseason. Not only did Fontenot make Kyle Pitts the first non-quarterback off the board, he made him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. With Pitts in tow, Fontenot unemotionally moved on from one of the greatest players in franchise history, Julio Jones. Jones’ trade could be spun as a cap necessity, but a more sentimental — or pressure sensitive — general manager would have found a way to keep him around. Fontenot knew he couldn’t as he turned the page on years of ineffective defensive and offensive line solutions under his predecessor. Thomas Dimitroff’s roster holes and salary cap mismanagement left Fontenot little room to maneuver beyond his two big bangs, but he showed us all we need to see his first six months on the job. Fontenot won’t let the past dictate his future, and he will think big as he ushers in the next era of Falcons football.
Brad Holmes, Lions
Brad, congratulations on the job. Now trade your franchise quarterback. Such was Brad Holmes’ introduction to Detroit. He got to work immediately, hammering out a highly-favorable agreement with his former employer the Rams before the playoffs were even through. In addition to securing Los Angeles’ 2022-23 first-round picks, Holmes also landed a credible stop-gap option in Jared Goff, someone who will make the Lions watchable as they embark on their 1,000th rebuild. That’s extra true because Holmes landed a legitimate building block with his first draft pick, Zeus-ian left tackle Penei Sewell. The Oregon product falling to No. 7 overall was a stroke of good fortune for a rookie general manager tasked with an olympian undertaking. Detroit is where Hall-of-Famers go to die. Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson. It doesn’t matter. Winning has been a literal impossibility. Winning was something Holmes got used to in L.A. Many good executives have failed to break the cycle in Detroit. A hammer-and-tongs first offseason offers hope that Holmes will finally be the man for the job.
Urban Meyer/Trent Baalke, Jaguars
For all the overthinking of the Jaguars’ offseason, both from Urban Meyer and the media, the only thing that really mattered was Trevor Lawrence’s selection at No. 1 overall. Lawrence’s presence as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck gives Meyer wide latitude as he tries to figure out what this NFL coaching thing is really all about. It’s not about disrespecting your players’ intelligence as you hire an accused racist and bully to be your strength coach. It’s not about giving out jobs to your old friends at positions they have never played in their life. It’s not about openly admitting your first-round running back was not your first choice. Meyer is used to complete control. If you don’t like his way, take the highway to Michigan. After one year of sitting out, of course. As soon as Meyer realizes you can count on one finger the number of people that approach works for in the NFL, the better. Meyer is smart enough. He is devoted enough. Despite this offseason’s unforced errors, he is even affable enough. Buy in was never a problem at his college stops. He just needs to be humble enough. If so, there isn’t much that can stop one of the brightest football minds in American history.
George Paton, Broncos
Plucked from the Vikings after former GM John Elway was “promoted” to president of football operations, George Paton arrives to a would-be quick fix with one big problem: Quarterback. Elway left behind an offense stocked with weapons and the right defensive boss in Vic Fangio, but it was his former position that vexed him out of the front office and into the boardroom. Situated at No. 9 in the draft, Paton punted on a long-term solution, pairing hard-capped veteran Teddy Bridgewater with bottomless-floor junior Drew Lock. It makes for a holding pattern 2021 with the Broncos having the talent to win 7-9 games but lacking the horses for any sort of a playoff run. In addition to finding a quarterback, Paton must also decide if Fangio is the right man to lead this team. Through two years, Fangio has still felt more like a defensive coordinator out of water than future Mike Zimmer. Paton has inherited a workable talent base, but there are no obvious paths forward as he hunts for the next step in a division that includes Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.