2020 NFL General Manager Candidate Study

Here we are in December, and the same statement I made one year ago is true today: While many fan bases and ownership groups are excited about the weeks to come, there are some who are closing the chapter on 2019 and looking into the future. We have already seen this with coaching moves in Washington and Carolina, and these seem like the tip of the iceberg on the “season of change” that is upon us.

For those of you who are new to this article: I write it annually after researching GM selection processes and candidate lists from NFL insiders like Albert Breer, Adam Caplan, Mike Garafolo, Conor Orr, Tom Pelissero, Ian Rapoport, Adam Schefter, Peter Schrager, and others.

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 present to you my research on 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.

A Look at History

Before we dive into names, we’re doing a “look back,” as is all the rage at the end of a decade, to see what trends emerge in the hiring and selection of NFL GMs. Over the last 10 years (2010 – 2019), we have seen 45 GM/decision maker changes across the NFL landscape. Removing owners like Jerry Jones (Dallas) and Mike Brown (Cincinnati) who function as the final decision makers, only five franchises have not changed GM/decision maker in the last 10 years (ordered by tenure).

  • New England – Bill Belichick – SB Champ (2015, 2017, 2019) / AFC Champ (2012, 2018)
  • Pittsburgh – Kevin Colbert – AFC Champ (2011)
  • New Orleans – Mickey Loomis – SB Champ (2010)
  • Minnesota – Rick Spielman
  • Atlanta – Thomas Dimitroff – NFC Champ (2018)

In addition to those seven franchises who have had stability in their decision making, here are the 10 teams who have made only one change this decade (ordered by tenure).

  • Seattle – John Schneider – SB Champ (2014) / NFC Champ (2015)
  • Denver – John Elway – SB Champ (2016) / AFC Champ (2014)
  • Los Angeles Rams – Les Snead – NFC Champ (2019)
  • Arizona – Steve Keim
  • Los Angeles Chargers – Tom Telesco
  • Tampa Bay – Jason Licht
  • Detroit – Bob Quinn
  • New York Giants – Dave Gettleman – SB Champ (2012)
  • Green Bay Packers – Brian Gutekunst – SB Champ (2011)
  • Baltimore Ravens – Eric Decosta – SB Champ (2013)

In total, that provides 15 NFL teams (just shy of half the league) that have separated final decision making from ownership, that we can classify as “stable” in their decision making for the purposes of discussion.

I shared the Super Bowl and Conference championship results for those 15 as they combine for nine of the 10 Super Bowl victories and 16 of the 20 Super Bowl participants in the last decade. For those that immediately want to jump to a conclusion that stability causes success, we have a causation/correlation issue. The argument should not be that simply leaving a decision maker in place for a decade will lead to the promised land, but that the proper identification and selection of a final decision maker is key. This is clearly not breaking new ground (there Copernicus) as having a quality decision maker, one you can entrust year in and year out to build a competitive team, should be a clear goal for every ownership group.

That said, for 15 NFL teams (listed below), the last decade has been anything but stable, as each of these teams executed multiple changes in their final decision maker. Some made changes during the last decade to return to a previous decision-maker (Bruce Allen – WAS, Marty Hurney – CAR, and Howie Roseman – PHI). Here is the complete list: (ordered by volume).

  • Cleveland (5 changes)
  • Miami (3 changes)
  • New York Jets (3 changes)
  • Philadelphia (3 changes) – SB Champ (2018)
  • Buffalo (2 changes)
  • Carolina (2 changes) – NFC Champ (2016)
  • Chicago (2 changes)
  • Houston (2 changes)
  • Indianapolis (2 changes) – AFC Champ (2010)
  • Jacksonville (2 changes)
  • Kansas City (2 changes)
  • Oakland (2 changes)
  • San Francisco (2 changes) – NFC Champ (2013)
  • Tennessee (2 changes)
  • Washington (2 changes)

Now you are not here for a history lesson on the last 10 years of GMs; most likely, you are reading this because you are interested in what may happen in 2020 and beyond. So let’s pivot to the research and see if there is any signal that can inform us moving forward. In the words of Peter King, here are a couple factoids from the last decade that may only be interesting to me:

  • 4 people have been a decision maker for multiple teams: Tom Coughlin, John Dorsey, Dave Gettleman, and Mike Tannenbaum
  • 2 were hired to GM titles without any full-time front office experience: John Lynch and Mike Mayock* (Not final decision maker – Jon Gruden)
  • The 46 GM/decision maker changes included 41 different personnel executives getting their opportunity to be the primary decision maker for an NFL franchise.

The last one is the most striking to me. Forty-one different people have had their shot at making the final calls for an NFL franchise in the last decade. The scale by which we are turning over these front office positions seems to indicate that ownership views the candidate pool as deep, never-ending, capable, and well-trained on the nuances of executing the position.

I am not in a place to deem a candidate “worthy” or “unworthy” for consideration as a General Manager, but I must admit that what teams have done in the last decade has not seemed to work. As of this writing (post Week 15 of the 2019 season), the AFC playoff teams are populated by the same names we see every year (NE, KC, PIT, HST, BAL), along with a BUF squad that looks built for the long haul. BAL, NE, and PIT are among the 15 “stable” organizations and KC/HST (Andy Reid/Bill O’Brien) maintained continuity at HC even during GM changes.

The NFC is historically a more volatile conference in terms of playoff participants, but five of the six NFC playoff teams if the season ended today (GB, MIN, NO, SEA, and DAL) are among the 15 “stable” teams, with SF being the “new kid on the block” who is set up for success. Of the 15 “stable” franchises, only Tampa Bay has not had a playoff appearance in the last five years.

Again, causation/correlation are critical here, but it would stand to reason that GM selection has been a strong suit of some organizations and a weak point for others, which consistently translates to the field and its ultimate prize, the Super Bowl.

So as we look at the next wave of candidates who hope to turn around the fortunes of organizations who have not had recent success, we have to hope that somewhere, someone is investing in the candidate pool. Ensuring that those who earn their shot at such a prestigious job are up to the task.

Candidates for 2020

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

  • This is a stock market: I’ve argued this before privately, but it seems like a good time to go public with this argument. Being a candidate is, in part, about being in a high ranking role with a playoff/Super Bowl contending team at the right time. Ability may get you in the ball game, but if you are a tremendous candidate on a team that is not winning, it is almost impossible to be a serious contender for a position. We have seen candidates go multiple years between rounds of GM interviews, in part because their teams were not strong for a period of time. For this reason, I would make sure to know all the names on the list below of playoff teams.
    • For example, here are a few names of candidates that made Breer’s 2019 list that may not be back for 2020 (list not published by the date of this article) due to their team’s 2019 performance: Kevin Abrams (NYG), Matt Russell (DEN), and Eliot Wolf (CLE). Again, this has nothing to do with their personal ability, more of a statement that environment around the candidate seems to have a great deal to do with their selection.
  • The current candidate pool is large and unknown: As stated before, 41 decision makers have been hired in the last 10 years. The churn at the highest levels of the organization is real and it has flattened the tiers on the candidate pool. The first few versions of this article would come with multiple tiers based on interviews and recommendations, but as so many of those that populated the early years of this research have now reached the apex of the profession, the quantity of names being mentioned is vast. It is easy to find 30-40 candidate names strewn across the space and hard to final signal in those who have the attention of the majority of the ownership groups. My belief is that this is due to the fact that there is a lack of candidates who are “sure things” in the eyes of ownership, creating a vast playing field of candidates.
  • Earning a big title in one organization generates to signal of candidacy to others: Candidates should build a coalition in their current organization that will back them as a viable candidate. This makes fit such a big piece of the puzzle. If your current team is not shining a spotlight on you, the optics seem like a large hurdle to overcome. The most common titles in 2 positions prior to GM are:
    • Director of Player Personnel/Director of Football Operations (Green Bay uses the Director of Football Operations title for personnel rather than traditional operations) (18)
    • Director of College Scouting (9)
    • Director of Pro Personnel (9)
    • Vice President of Player Personnel (8)
    • General Manager (5)
  • The market may finally be ready for more second chancers: Based on the points above, I believe this is the type of market force that may be needed for owners to go back to those who have held the position before, if they have worked themselves up in a new organization to good standing in the eyes of many.

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:

Oft-mentioned GM Candidates that tend to decline interviews:

  • Nick Caserio – director of player personnel – New England Patriots
  • Will McClay – vice president, player personnel – Dallas Cowboys
  • Duke Tobin – director of player personnel – Cincinnati Bengals

While there is no clear expectation of departure for McClay or Tobin, the narrative around Caserio has changed since the Texans requested permission to interview him for their vacant GM post in the Summer of 2019. This fall, a report from Mike Garafolo of NFL.com indicated his contract negotiations with the Patriots are not going well, and his contract is up after the 2020 NFL draft.

Candidates with multiple 2018 or 2019 interviews:

  • Trey Brown – director of player personnel – St. Louis Battlehawks (XFL)
    • 2017: BUF / 2018: OAK / 2019: NYJ
  • Jimmy Raye III – senior personnel executive – Detroit Lions
    • Known interviews: 2009: KC / 2010: SEA / 2012: CHI / 2013: SD / 2017: SF, IND / 2018: HST, CAR

Candidates with one 2018 or 2019 interview:

  • Lake Dawson – assistant director of college scouting – Buffalo Bills
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL / 2013: CAR / 2014: MIA, TB / 2015: CHI / 2018: CAR
  • Ray Farmer – former general manager
    • Known interviews: 2013: CLE / 2014: MIA, CLE* / 2019: HST
  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF / IND / KC / 2019: NYJ
  • Terry Fontenot – director of pro scouting – New Orleans Saints
    • Known interviews: 2019: NYJ
  • Brian Gaine – senior personnel executive – Buffalo Bills
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL / 2013: NYJ / 2014: MIA / 2015: CHI, PHI / 2017: BUF / 2018: HST*
  • Champ Kelly – assistant director of player personnel – Chicago Bears
    • Known interviews: 2019: NYJ
  • Martin Mayhew – vice president of player personnel – San Francisco 49ers
    • Known interviews: 2008: DET* / 2016: TEN / 2018: CAR / 2019: HST
  • Marc Ross – unknown – none known
    • Known interviews: 2010: SEA / 2012: IND, CHI / 2013: JAX, NYJ, SD, CAR / 2014: MIA, TB / 2016: TEN / 2017: NYG / 2018: OAK
  • Doug Whaley – senior vice president of football operations – XFL
    • Known interviews: 2013: BUF* / 2017: CLE / 2018: GB
  • Eliot Wolf – assistant general manager – Cleveland Browns
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF, IND / 2018: GB

This group presents a mix of candidates who have earned their first interview recently and others who are back in the mix after previously being on the “GM circuit,” including a few former General Managers.

Previous General Managers who appear most likely to gain another opportunity this year:

  • Jeff Ireland – assistant general manager – New Orleans Saints
  • Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Los Angeles Rams

As mentioned before, this market seems apt for second chances. John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman present recent examples of those who were given a second chance, and former GMs Ray Farmer, Martin Mayhew, and Doug Whaley were recently in the interview cycle. For Ireland and Xanders, their current teams’ successes could be a launching point for them.  

Candidates from the Insiders lists on teams in the playoff hunt:

  • Mike Borgonzi – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs
  • Ed Dodds – assistant general manager – Indianapolis Colts
  • Joe Hortiz – director of college scouting – Baltimore Ravens
  • Brandon Hunt – pro scouting coordinator – Pittsburgh Steelers
  • James Liipfert – director of college scouting – Houston Texans
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
  • Dan Morgan – director of player personnel – Buffalo Bills
  • Monti Ossenfort – director of college scouting – New England Patriots
  • George Paton – vice president of player personnel/assistant gm – Minnesota Vikings
  • Adam Peters – vice president of player personnel – San Francisco 49ers
  • Joe Schoen – assistant general manager – Buffalo Bills
  • Jamaal Stephenson – director of college scouting – Minnesota Vikings

This is the group I expect to see the most action in the GM cycle if jobs come open in January.

Candidates from recent research lists:

 Candidate One-liners

  • Kevin Abrams – vice president of football operations/assistant gm – New York Giants
    • 21-year veteran of NYG, including 18 years as Assistant GM and primary contract negotiator
  • Mike Borgonzi – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs
    • 11 year NFL scout. Has been promoted every year or two in Kansas City.
  • Trey Brown – director of player personnel – St. Louis Battlehawks (XFL)
    • 9 year NFL scout. Spent first 3 years with NE before being hired by PHI.
  • Dave Caldwell – general manager – Jacksonville Jaguars
    • 23 year NFL scout, hired as Jaguars GM in 2013. Available to other teams as GM if he has final say in personnel, which belongs to Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville.
  • Nick Caserio – director of player personnel – New England Patriots
    • 19-year NE staffer, including one year as WR coach and 12 years as Director of Player Personnel
  • Ryan Cowden – vice president of player personnel – Tennessee Titans
    • 19 year NFL scout, 16 in CAR. Was Assistant Director of College Scouting with CAR
  • Lake Dawson – assistant director of college scouting – Buffalo Bills
    • Former NFL player with 25 years of NFL experience. Held position of Vice President of Player Personnel with the Titans
  • Ed Dodds – assistant general manager – Indianapolis Colts
    • 17 year NFL scout. Spent 10 years with SEA, holding position of senior personnel executive. Has also worked for Raiders and Texas A&M-Kingsville.
  • Ray Farmer – former general manager
    • 18 year NFL scout and former GM of the Cleveland Browns. Came up with ATL and KC before holding the GM title for 2 years in CLE
  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 22-year NFL scout, with 19 seasons in SEA and three with NYG. College QB and Pitcher (UCLA/LSU)
  • Terry Fontenot – director of pro scouting – New Orleans Saints
    • 6 year director of pro scouting is a 16 year veteran of the Saints front office after a playing career as a DB at Tulane
  • Brian Gaine – senior personnel executive – Buffalo Bills
    • 20 year veteran scout who has been a director for 4 NFL teams including being the General Manager of the Houston Texans
  • Joe Hortiz – director of college scouting – Baltimore Ravens
    • 22 year NFL scout, all with Baltimore, with 11 as Director of College Scouting director
  • Brandon Hunt – pro scouting coordinator – Pittsburgh Steelers
    • 15 year NFL scout who has worked primarily in pro scouting with HST and now PIT.
  • Jeff Ireland – assistant general manager – New Orleans Saints
    • Six-year MIA GM and 24-year scout for KC, DAL, MIA, and now NO. Former college coach.
  • Champ Kelly – assistant director of player personnel – Chicago Bears
    • 13 year NFL scout began his career at IBM after earning his degree in computer science while playing DB for Kentucky. Spent 8 years with DEN prior to CHI.
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 20-year NFL scout who has experience in pro scouting with CAR/SEA and college scouting with the Seahawks
  • James Liipfert – director of college scouting – Houston Texans
    • Former Georgia Tech LB spent 9 years in the Patriots organization prior to being hired as the Director of College Scouting for HST.
  • Josh Lucas – director of player personnel – Chicago Bears
    • 17 year NFL scout. Began with JAX, then 10 years in NO, primarily in college scouting
  • Martin Mayhew – vice president of player personnel- San Francisco 49ers
    • Former NFL player and GM with a law degree from Georgetown. Spent 7 years as the Detroit Lions GM, before heading to the Giants and the 49ers.
  • Will McClay – vice president of player personnel – Dallas Cowboys
    • 17-year DAL scout, who has been promoted 3 times in the past 5 years. Spent 11 years as player/coach in the Arena Football league
  • Terry McDonough – senior personnel executive – Arizona Cardinals
    • 28-year NFL veteran, including time with SF, CLE/BLT, JAX, and ARZ, and in the World League
  • Dan Morgan – director of player personnel – Buffalo Bills
    • The former NFL standout was a 2004 All Pro before shifting to the personnel side during his 7 seasons with SEA. Promoted to DPP by BUF after 1 year as their Pro Director.
  • Randy Mueller – director of player personnel – Houston Roughnecks (XFL)
    • 30+ year veteran of the NFL who has held a GM position twice. NO (2000-01) and MIA (2005-07). Most recently held the position of Senior Executive with the Chargers.
  • Monti Ossenfort – director of college scouting – New England Patriots
    • 18 year NFL scout, with 15 in NE and the others in HST. Has been Director of College Scouting since 2014.
  • George Paton – vice president of player personnel/assistant gm – Minnesota Vikings
    • 23-year NFL veteran with experience in pro and college scouting for CHI, MIA, and MIN. Has been Assistant General Manager for MIN since 2012.
  • Adam Peters – vice president of player personnel – San Francisco 49ers
    • 17 year NFL veteran has spent 3 years as the SF VP of player personnel. Started his career with 6 years in NE before moving to DEN and climbing to College Director.
  • Scott Pioli – former general manager
    • Four-year KC GM and 26-year NFL scout for CLE/BLT, NYJ, NE, KC, and ATL. Hired as Assistant General Manager in ATL in 2014.
  • Jimmy Raye III – senior personnel executive – Detroit Lions
    • 25 year scouting veteran with stops in DET, HST, IND, SD, and KC. Former NFL player and son of NFL coach Jimmy Raye II. Has also worked in coaching.
  • Jerry Reese – former general manager
    • 23 year NFL veteran and 11 year GM of the New York Giants. Assistant coach at University of Tennessee Martin prior to getting into NFL scouting.
  • Louis Riddick – nfl analyst – ESPN
    • 20-year NFL player and scout who has Pro Scouting Director experience with WAS/PHI
  • Marc Ross – unknown – none known
    • 20-year NFL scout with PHI, BUF, and NYG, primarily on the college scouting side
  • Joe Schoen – assistant general manager – Buffalo Bills
    • The 19 year NFL veteran held the post of Director of Player Personnel for MIA prior to being hired by BUF. Began his career with 7 years in CAR before moving to MIA.
  • Jamaal Stephenson – director of college scouting – Minnesota Vikings
    • 21 year NFL scout, 18 of which with MIN, including 6 as Director of College Scouting. Has also worked for HST and WAS.
  • Duke Tobin – director of player personnel – Cincinnati Bengals
    • Tenured CIN team builder, scout and former college QB. Son of longtime scout Bill Tobin.
  • Doug Whaley – senior vice president of football operations – XFL
    • More than 20 years of scouting experience for SEA, PIT, and BUF. Held position of GM for the Bills from 2013-2017. Also prior Executive Director of NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
  • Doug Williams – senior vice president of player personnel – Washington Redskins
    • 22 year NFL veteran, with 9 as a player and 13 in scouting/personnel. Former Head Coach of Grambling State. 
  • Eliot Wolf – assistant general manager – Cleveland Browns
    • 16-year NFL scout. Has worked on the pro and college sides. Promoted to Assistant General Manager with CLE. Son of HOF GM Ron Wolf
  • Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Los Angeles Rams
    • Four-year DEN GM and 26-year NFL scout for ATL, DEN, DET, and LAR. Football systems specialist

Summing Up

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 Mickey Loomis and the New Orleans Saints does not look like the organizational structure of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and the same could be said for Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, Green Bay, 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 this topic, and that work can be found in the Villanova Law Journal

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 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.

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