2018 NFL General Manager Candidate Study

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Recently, Albert Breer of MMQB released his annual list of GM candidates. He (or maybe the editors) labeled it “the definitive list of future NFL GMs”, which led a few people to ask me who my top candidates are.

I love studying the process of how owners decide who they want to lead their football operations, but I say again (in my annual tradition), I do not speak with owners (or agents for that matter) regarding the list below. This is NOT “my list.” This is the outcome of years of studying which candidates have actually interviewed for the position and my attempt to highlight what I have learned in that process. I have dear friends that I believe should be in consideration for GM opportunities that will be on the list below and others that will not. This is because this study is not about who I believe in, but who seems to have the attention of ownership groups.

I still believe we do not put enough time and attention into understanding all the things that can end up on the desk of the General Manager and the variations in organizational design that can allow for delegation of these tasks. The organizational structure of Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers does not look like the organizational structure of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and the same would be said for Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, New Orleans, or any other team that has won the Super Bowl in the last 15 years.

If you want to learn more about what the duties and responsibilities of the General Manager position include, or what the backgrounds have been of those who have held the role, I wrote my Masters thesis on the topics and that work can be found in the Villanova Law Journal.

What have I learned since we published last year’s list:

  • General Manager hiring cycles are shifting. While historically most teams fire their GMs immediately after the season (see San Francisco last year), we’ve seen Indianapolis, Washington, Buffalo, Kansas City, Carolina, the New York Giants, and Cleveland all relieve their GMs of their duties in a different part of the calendar. Indianapolis and Washington made their moves prior to the draft, forcing their new decision makers to operate with even less time. Buffalo announced their move immediately after the draft, giving their new GM the entire calendar year to prepare for his first draft. Kansas City and Carolina made their moves during the summer and New York and Cleveland made their moves in-season. The conclusion: owners are not waiting until the end of Week 17 to make a move.
  • The two biggest paths to GM are internal promotion or executive from a successful team with a college area scouting background. Those with a pro scouting background need not apply; dating back to 2010 only Dave Gettleman and Bob Quinn had a primarily pro scouting background. So, sorry Trent Kirchner, George Paton, and Louis Riddick. To try to understand this better, I offer the thoughts of former Seahawks and Panthers area scout Bucky Brooks:

  • There are more candidates labeled as a “good candidate for GM,” than there will ever be spots. In asking friends in the business and reading pieces from reporters like Breer, a few common names come up, but everyone has three or four names that do not overlap. These differences account for the great variance in the hiring process. Much like no two teams have the same draft boards, no two owners have the same top five list of GM candidates.

So, without further ado, I present a list of General Manager candidates, clustered by background, and ordered alphabetically. There are links to their bios and quick one-liners on them below:

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The guys on everyone’s list that no one thinks will move:

  • Nick Caserio – director of player personnel – New England Patriots
  • Eric DeCosta – assistant general manager – Baltimore Ravens
  • Will McClay – vice president of player personnel – Dallas Cowboys
  • Duke Tobin – director of player personnel – Cincinnati Bengals

The only name you hear might actually listen is Nick Caserio, who has interviewed for a GM position once (Miami – 2014) and pulled his name out of the mix. There are rumors of a Caserio/Josh McDaniels pairing as they share an agent.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The guys on everyone’s list that have been taking interviews:

  • Brian Gaine – vice president of player personnel – Buffalo Bills
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL / 2013: NYJ / 2014: MIA / 2015: CHI, PHI / 2017: BUF
  • Brian Gutekunst – director of player personnel – Green Bay Packers
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF, BUF
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • Known interviews: 2015: NYJ / 2016: DET / 2017:SF, IND
  • Terry McDonough – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF
  • George Paton – assistant general manager – Minnesota Vikings
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL / 2013: CAR / 2017: SF, IND
  • Eliot Wolf – director of football operations – Green Bay Packers
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF, IND

Last year, Paton and Wolf made the list of those who people did not expect to move on, but both were involved in the GM searches in SF and IND. The candidates above have worked the GM circuit, which only increases their chances.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The guys on everyone’s list who have yet to interview for a GM position:

  • Joe Douglas – vice president of player personnel – Philadelphia Eagles
  • Alonzo Highsmith – senior personnel executive – Green Bay Packers

The rise of the Eagles this year has made Joe Douglas a very popular name in connection with GM positions after his tenures in Chicago (where he worked as college scouting director) and Baltimore (where he was an area scout and then national scout). Alonzo Highsmith has an extensive playing and scouting career and made the finalist list for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity and equality in hiring.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The guys who have been taking interviews and clearly have ownership attention:

  • Kevin Abrams – interim general manager – New York Giants
    • Known interviews: 2007: NYG / 2016: DET / 2017: NYG
  • Joey Clinkscales – director of player personnel – Oakland Raiders
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL
  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF / IND / KC
  • Chris Grier – general manager – Miami Dolphins
    • Known interviews: 2015: NYJ, PHI / 2016: MIA*
  • Louis Riddick – nfl analyst – ESPN
    • Known interviews: 2010: PHI / 2017: SF, NYG
  • Marc Ross – vice president of player evaluation – New York Giants
    • Known interviews: 2010: SEA / 2012: IND, CHI / 2013: JAX, NYJ, SD, CAR / 2014: MIA, TB / 2016: TEN / 2017: NYG

This is not a group to dismiss offhand. They all have strong advocates and extensive interview histories. Chris Grier makes the list, despite the GM title, as he does not have final say over the roster and from reports, is very much a candidate for a full GM position elsewhere.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Previous General Managers who appear most likely to gain another opportunity this year:

  • Jeff Ireland – assistant general manager – New Orleans Saints
  • Martin Mayhew – senior personnel executive – San Francisco 49ers
  • Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
  • Chris Polian – director of player personnel – Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Los Angeles Rams

The NFL is the stingiest in professional sports at giving GMs a second chance, failing to take into account the potential for growth and development that comes with having done the job before. While head coaches like Bill Belichick got the opportunity to learn from mistakes and benefit from years of experience making tough decisions, GMs rarely get a second chance. Some HOF GMs like Ernie Accorsi and Bill Polian led multiple franchises, but that came off a platform of early success. While each candidate here is different in terms of coach selection, player selection, tenure in GM position, and even authority in said position, owners would be remiss to not consider those who have had the best learning opportunity— experience — when identifying candidates. As of this posting, the 2017/18 GM cycle has seen two former GMs in John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman be hired by a 2nd team as GM only months after parting from their previous organization.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Candidate One-liners

  • Kevin Abrams – interim general manager – New York Giants
    • 19-year veteran of NYG, including 16 years as Assistant GM and primary contract negotiator
  • Nick Caserio – director of player personnel – New England Patriots
    • 17-year NE staffer, including one year as WR coach and 10 years as Director of Player Personnel
  • Joey Clinkscales – director of player personnel – Oakland Raiders
    • 25-year NFL player and scout. Six years with OAK after 17 years with NYJ
  • Eric DeCosta – assistant general manager – Baltimore Ravens
    • 22-year NFL scout, all with BLT. Came up through the college area scouting ranks
  • Joe Douglas – vice president of player personnel – Philadelphia Eagles
    • 19-year NFL scout who spent 16 seasons with BLT, then a year with CHI before joining PHI
  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 20-year NFL scout, with 17 seasons in SEA and three with NYG. College QB and Pitcher (UCLA/LSU)
  • Brian Gaine – vice president of player personnel – Buffalo Bills
    • 19-year NFL player and scout. Has executive experience with DAL, MIA, HST, and now BUF
  • Chris Grier – general manager – Miami Dolphins
    • 23-year NFL scout, 18 with MIA and five with NE. Son of former Patriots exec Bobby Grier
  • Brian Gutekunst – director of player personnel – Green Bay Packers
    • 19-year GB scout and former CFB coach. Spent 13 years as a college area scout
  • Alonzo Highsmith – senior personnel executive – Green Bay Packers
    • Six-year NFL player with 19 years of experience in GB scouting department, primarily college
  • Jeff Ireland – assistant general manager – New Orleans Saints
    • Six-year MIA GM and 22-year scout for KC, DAL, MIA, and now NO. Former college coach
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 18-year NFL scout who has experience pro scouting for CAR and SEA
  • Martin Mayhew – senior personnel executive – San Francisco 49ers
    • Seven-year DET GM and nine-year NFL player with 17 years experience building rosters
  • Will McClay – vice president of player personnel – Dallas Cowboys
    • 15-year DAL scout, who spent 11 years as player/coach in the Arena Football league
  • Terry McDonough – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
    • 26-year NFL veteran, including time with SF, CLE/BLT, JAX, and ARZ, and in the World League
  • George Paton – assistant general manager – Minnesota Vikings
    • 21-year NFL veteran with experience in pro and college scouting for CHI, MIA, and MIN
  • Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
    • Four-year KC GM and 25-year NFL scout for CLE/BLT, NYJ, NE, KC, and ATL
  • Chris Polian – director of player personnel – Jacksonville Jaguars
    • Three-year IND GM and 22-year NFL scout for IND, ATL, and JAX. Son of HOF GM Bill Polian
  • Louis Riddick – nfl analyst – ESPN
    • 20-year NFL player and scout who has Pro Scouting Director experience with WAS and PHI
  • Marc Ross – vice president of player evaluation – New York Giants
    • 20-year NFL scout with PHI, BUF, and NYG, primarily on the college scouting side
  • Duke Tobin – director of player personnel – Cincinnati Bengals
    • Tenured CIN scout and former college QB, son of longtime scout Bill Tobin
  • Eliot Wolf – director of football operations – Green Bay Packers
    • 14-year NFL scout. Has worked on the pro and college sides for GB. Son of HOF GM Ron Wolf
  • Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Los Angeles Rams
    • Four-year DEN GM and 24-year NFL scout for ATL, DEN, DET, and LAR. Football systems specialist

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Buying the Groceries

One of the most desirable jobs in all of sports is undoubtedly that of the general manager. A GM is responsible for the overall control and direction of the organization, including, perhaps most importantly, the success of the team on the field. But the question for NFL owners, who make the hiring decisions on the GM, is: Who is qualified for the job? To answer that, you need to understand the job. NFL analyst Pat Kirwan aptly summarized the difficulties of the GM position:

“[r]unning an NFL franchise isn’t easy. Can you evaluate personnel, manage a salary cap, negotiate contracts, select a head coach, handle the media, make tough decisions, cooperate with an owner, deal with the league office and, most importantly, carry out a vision for a winning franchise? If so, then you qualify for the job.”

Depending on the organizational structure, a GM may have decision-making authority or advisory input in all or most aspects of the club. The job description will certainly include football operations such as coach and staff selection, management of scouting departments, contract negotiations, and most importantly, player personnel decisions. It may also include business operational items such as finance, marketing, stadium development, media and community relations. As the business of the NFL has grown, so too have the legal, financial and operational complications therein. NFL front offices have consequently grown to cover these many areas. GMs now not only oversee a large, complex network of individuals working in a variety of fields, but also must be experts or near-experts in those fields.

No matter the approach, an NFL GM clearly has a difficult job in terms of building a championship roster. He must balance the salary cap, determine when to pay veteran players and when to let them go, decide whom the club will select in the draft and what trades are necessary, and must also work with other GMs to see if trades are available to improve the roster. All these moves should build a roster of 90 players that provide the coaching staff with enough talent to install its game plans. The GM then must whittle that roster down to 53 players with enough talent to perform on a high level on offense, defense and special teams, while still providing depth at each position. All of this must occur while managing the personalities in the locker room and among the coaching staff. This is not possible alone; therefore, great GMs surround themselves with talented scouts and personnel executives who can aid the GM in making the best decisions for the team.

The GM is responsible for not only choosing the players but also the selection of the head coach who will develop those players. Owners need to make their decisions on who they want to run their football operation quickly, so they can be in position to maximize their head coach search. Over the last few years, teams have run simultaneous HC and GM searches for fear of losing candidates, something Steve Underwood of the Titans discussed this Tuesday in a press conference.

So in the aftermath of Black Monday and the pending changes to the top of many organizations, owners ask themselves: What type of leader do I want? An experienced personnel man that comes in with a proven plan? A younger executive with less experience but new and fresh ideas? Someone closer to the age of the owner who can relate to the boss? Someone who can recruit the best coach possible? A man who really knows the talent floating around the country in the draft and on the free agent market? How about a guy with a business-savvy approach?

There is no single right profile when it comes to hiring a GM. As with any human capital acquisition, the owner must decide what skills the organization has to have to be successful and ensure there is a plan to cover every aspect of running the organization. Teams have used many models and still made the playoffs; the owner model (Dallas and Cincinnati), the head coach model (New England, Seattle, New Orleans), and the traditional GM model (Baltimore, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Arizona). As Jim Collins says, you have to get the right people “on the bus” and “in the right seat” in order to move forward successfully. So for this wave of GM hires, that means the owner and interview committee need to have a strong plan on how to identify, vet, and acquire the right person.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

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