Putting together a successful football team is a daunting task, and finding the right person for that task is crucial. The candidate must be capable of evaluating talent, managing the salary cap, and performing many other duties. Dan Hatman explains the NFL general manager position and reveals some of the potential GMs currently in the NFL.
The fans in Detroit, Nashville, and to some extent Cleveland are very interested in who will be the individuals leading their football clubs for the foreseeable future. In researching general manager hiring since 2006 and looking at the candidates year-in and year-out, a few groups emerge. It is critical to understand the position of the “general manager” and what it takes to put together a coaching staff and 53-man roster, but we can touch on those skills later in the piece. For now, let’s look at each group and this year’s candidates (listed alphabetically):
GMs-in-Waiting: These candidates have been discussed for various GM jobs the last few years, but have been incredibly selective in interviewing, with many observers assuming they are waiting to take control in their current organizations:
- Nick Caserio – director of player personnel – New England Patriots
- Eric DeCosta – assistant general manager – Baltimore Ravens
- Will McClay – senior director of college and pro scouting – Dallas Cowboys
- George Paton – assistant general manager – Minnesota Vikings
- Duke Tobin – director of player personnel – Cincinnati Bengals
- Eliot Wolf – director of player personnel – Green Bay Packers
Caserio (Miami, 2014) has interviewed only once, and consistently turns down interview requests. Both he and DaCosta are paid handsomely and are in great positions to take over excellent organizations. DaCosta, McClay and Wolf are sought after by many, but have never interviewed for a GM job and, like Caserio, have turned down interview requests. Paton interviewed for the Rams job in 2012 and with Carolina in 2013. He is close with current Minnesota GM Rick Spielman and the most likely to leave out of this group, but he turned down numerous interviews in 2014-15. Tobin is highly respected in league circles, but mainly unknown to fans, and is described as already having the job in Cincinnati.
Bridesmaids: These candidates recently entered the interview circuit and just missed on landing the big job:
- Chris Ballard – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs
- Brian Gaine – director of player personnel – Houston Texans
- Tom Gamble – senior personnel executive – San Francisco 49ers
- Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
- Jon Robinson – director of player personnel – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Marc Ross – director of player evaluation – New York Giants
This is the group that I expect to see the most action over the coming weeks with the Lions, Titans, and any other GM jobs that could come open. Each name on this list has interviewed in the past, with Gaine having participated in five interviews since 2012, but none have had the chance to lead a team. Gamble’s stock took a bit of a hit on his “poor interview” with the Jets and termination by Philadelphia, but many still believe he has the tools. Kirchner is reportedly interviewing with the Lions this week.
New on the Scene: These candidates have paid their dues, and most are expected to get their first GM interviews:
- Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
- Terry McDonough – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
- Bob Quinn – director of pro personnel – New England Patriots
- Louis Riddick – NFL analyst – ESPN
- Sheldon White – interim general manager – Detroit Lions
White has been doing the job since Detroit fired Mayhew and is being strongly considered for the job. Quinn is already on the Lions’ interview list as teams look to the next in the Patriots’ line with Caserio not moving. Guys like McDonough, Fitterer, and Riddick should be household names.
Former GMs: These candidates have held the job before and many believe they deserve another shot:
- Martin Mayhew – former general manager – Detroit Lions
- Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
- Chris Polian – director of player personnel – Jacksonville Jaguars
- Ted Sundquist – former general manager – Denver Broncos
- Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Detroit Lions
The NFL is the worst in professional sports in hiring GMs a second time, but that narrative fails to take into account the potential for growth and development that comes with having actually done the job before. Sundquist has Super Bowl rings, Polian and Xanders have made their way back into the interview circuit and Mayhew is on the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s list of candidates for teams to track.
On the Scene Soon: These candidates are starting to get their names out and will be hot candidates in the years to come:
- Brandon Beane – assistant general manager – Carolina Panthers
- Morocco Brown – vice president, player personnel – Cleveland Browns
- Brian Gutekunst – director of college scouting – Green Bay Packers
- Alonzo Highsmith – senior personnel executive – Green Bay Packers
- Rex Hogan – senior director of college scouting – New York Jets
- Jim Monos – director of player personnel – Buffalo Bills
- Vince Newsome – director of pro personnel – Baltimore Ravens
- Monti Ossenfort – director of college scouting – New England Patriots
- Eric Schaffer – vice president of football administration – Washington
- Kevin Abrams– assistant general manager – New York Giants
The first four categories get us to 21 candidates, but this time of year, many other names make their way around, and the names in this fifth group are some to watch both in this cycle and in years to come. These are very capable personnel people who have just not hit the spotlight, or may have been stuck behind someone who has not properly positioned them.
Buying the Groceries
One of the most desirable jobs in all of sports is undoubtedly that of the general manager. A GM is generally 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 GM’s surround themselves with talented scouts and personnel executives who can aid the GM in making the best decisions for the team.
The GM is generally responsible for not only choosing the players but also the selection of the head coach who will develop those players. So owners need to make their decisions on whom they want to run their football operation quickly as to 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, New York Giants, 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.
*Editor’s Note: This article incorrectly stated DaCosta interviewed in 2010. We apologize for the error and have removed it from the copy.