NFL General Manager Candidate Study

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Author’s Note: The title of this piece has been changed. This is not a list of my top candidate’s for the position of GM, but reflective of research into GM hiring dating back to 2006 and the clusters of candidates that Owners seemingly gravitate towards.

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As of this publication, all 32 General Managers are still running their teams and there is no clear indication about anyone who may be on the proverbial ‘hot seat’. That said, we have seen at least 2 changes at the highest level of the personnel department in each year since 2006 and history is telling us that some movement should be anticipated. You hear whispers this time of year, but we will not be focusing on that here.

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 in control or waiting to take control in their current organizations:

No member of this group was noted as interviewing for a GM opening in 2016. Caserio pulled his name out of the Dolphins (2014) GM search and consistently turns down interview requests. Both he and DeCosta are paid handsomely and are in great positions to take over excellent organizations. DeCosta, McClay, Tobin 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 2014-16. Tobin is highly respected in league circles, but mainly unknown to fans, and is described as already having the job in Cincinnati.

Circuit Trainers: These candidates have been on the GM interview circuit before and remain on short lists with the NFL Advisory Committee and team owners. Last year Jon Robinson earned his shot as the GM of the Tennessee Titans after working the circuit in 2015.

 Kevin Abrams – assistant general manager – New York Giants

  •    2 known interviews (NYG, 2007) and (DET, 2016)

Chris Ballard – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs

  •    2 known interviews (CHI, 2015), and (TEN, 2016)

 Brian Gaine – director of player personnel – Houston Texans

  •    5 known interviews (STL, 2012), (NYJ, 2013), (MIA, 2014), (CHI, 2015), (PHI, 2015)

Tom Gamble – assistant general manager – San Francisco 49ers

  •    4 known interviews (STL, 2012), (JAX, 2013), (NYJ, 2013), and (SD, 2013)

Chris Grier – general manager* – Miami Dolphins

  •    3 known interviews (NYJ, 2015), (PHI, 2015), and (MIA, 2016)

Omar Khan – vice president of football and business administration – Pittsburgh Steelers

  •    4 known interviews (SEA, 2010), (STL, 2012), (NYJ, 2013) and (MIA, 2014)

Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks

  •    2 known interviews (NYJ, 2015) and (DET, 2016)

Jimmy Raye III– vice president of football operations – Indianapolis Colts

  •    4 known interviews (KC, 2009), (SEA, 2010), (CHI, 2012), and (SD, 2013)

Marc Ross – director of player evaluation – New York Giants

  •    10 known interviews (SEA, 2010), (IND, 2012), (CHI, 2012), (JAX, 2013), (NYJ, 2013), (SD, 2013), (CAR, 2013), (MIA, 2014), (TB, 2014), (TEN, 2016)

This is an experienced group of candidates who are not strangers to the decision making process, executing critical elements of their team’s player acquisition processes and serving as trusted advisors. The outlier, by title, here is Grier who may have the title of General Manager with the Dolphins, but does not have final say over the roster (that sits with Head Coach Adam Gase with heavy influence from EVP of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum) furthermore, Grier is expected to be in the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel’s list of top GM candidates when it is released December 10th. NFL Owners are very aware of this group of candidates and those whose teams are having successful campaigns will be very likely to be back on the interview circuit again.

Former GMs: 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.

  •         Martin Mayhew – director of football operations/special projects – New York Giants
  •         Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
  •         Chris Polian – director of player personnel – Jacksonville Jaguars
  •         Brian Xanders – senior personnel executive – Detroit Lions

The problem with earning the role of NFL GM is that you get one chance. Unlike coaching examples like Bill Belichick, you rarely get the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and take years of experience making the tough decisions into a second chance. Some HOF GMs like Ernie Accorsi and Bill Polian led multiple franchises, but that came off the 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.

New on the Scene: These candidates have paid their dues and their names continue to come up in regards to the next wave of candidates who will be on the interview circuit. Bob Quinn went from this list to GM of the Detroit Lions last year.

  •         Joey Clinkscales – director of player personnel – Oakland Raiders
  •         Joe Douglas – vice president of player personnel – Philadelphia Eagles
  •         Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
  •         Brian Gutekunst – director of player personnel – Green Bay Packers
  •         Alonso Highsmith – senior personnel executive – Green Bay Packers
  •         Terry McDonough – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
  •         Louis Riddick – NFL analyst – ESPN

There is always an intrigue around a ‘dark horse’ candidate who was not a household name but earned their shot at the big chair. This group is not reflective of every name who has the ability to change an organization’s fortune, but those whose football acumen matches their stock. That stock can be reliant on the success of their present organization as owners place a premium on hiring from winning organizations. The long term success of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers raises the profile of key Lieutenants Fitterer, Gutekunst, and Highsmith respectively. Each have been promoted in recent years as their current teams try to keep them around. The recent success of the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders certainly helps veteran scouts Clinkscales and McDonough. Riddick has a unique path to this list as his platform at ESPN has allowed many to learn about his philosophies and the feedback has been positive.

On the Scene Soon: These candidates are starting to get their names out and will are expected to be hot candidates in the years to come:

  •         Brandon Beane – assistant general manager – Carolina Panthers
  •         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
  •         Matt Russell – director of player personnel – Denver Broncos
  •         Eric Schaffer – vice president of football administration/general counsel – Washington
  •         Lionel Vital – senior personnel executive – Dallas Cowboys

The first four categories get us to 26 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.

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.

Editors Note: The original title for this article read “2017 NFL General Manager Candidates” and was changed due to the feedback and reflection of the goal of the article. 

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’.