2019 NFL General Manager Candidate Study

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Here we are, December, and while many fan bases and ownership groups are excited about the weeks to come, there are some who are closing the chapter on 2018 and looking into the future. We have already seen this with coaching moves in Cleveland and Green Bay, which seem like the tip of the iceberg on the ‘season of change’ that is upon us.

In the last 22 months we have seen 10 of the 32 NFL franchises make a change at the General Manager (GM) position, and that does not include Baltimore who are executing their succession plan from Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta, previously Assistant GM. So when over a third of the NFL has recently changed leadership in their scouting department and five other franchises made moves as recently as 2015, it is hard to predict what may change in the landscape of GMs across the NFL.

That said, we can be sure of one thing in the NFL: change will come. After the 2016 season, one NFL franchise made a move at GM in the traditional post Week 17 window. As Albert Breer, now of MMQB, noted the other moves came on “Jan. 21, March 9, April 30, June 23, July 17, Dec. 3, Dec. 7”

So with some anticipation of potential changes at GM positions in the NFL in the coming weeks, 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.

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 do believe these types of lists are becoming predictive. As Breer noted in 2016, “As some evaluators explain it to me, the influx of search firms and veteran consultants has spawned a network connecting candidates to advocates and narrowing the process—making it easier for teams, and hard for everyone else.” So as we study candidate lists from insiders like Breer, Adam Schefter, Ian Rapoport, Mike Garofolo, Peter Schrager, Tom Pelissero, Conor Orr, Adam Caplan, among others and then study the candidates who are interviewing, those who decline interviews, and those who do not get permission to interview, we can really see the field of candidates take shape.

There were two GM openings after the 2017 season and both went to candidates included in the 2018 study, with Brian Gaine and Brian Gutekunst being hired in Houston and Green Bay respectively. In addition, Eric DeCosta will take over in Baltimore.

After the 2016 season, there were 3 GM openings that were not an internal promotion and two of the three were filed with candidates from the 2017 study. Chris Ballard earned his opportunity with Indianapolis and Brandon Beane earned his in Buffalo.

Two GM openings after the 2015 season were not internal promotions and both went to those on the 2016 study with Jon Robinson being selected in Tennessee and Bob Quinn in Detroit.

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

  • Timing matters. Okay, I knew this before, but it really stands out this year. Owners are drawn to executives from a successful team and as such, the team Win/Loss record and the recent draft results get attached to candidates as it is almost impossible to identify their individual contributions to the team building process. As such, candidates like Joe Douglas of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, may see a different market after the Eagles 2018 campaign than their 2017 one. The negative change in the Eagles Win/Loss record may have absolutely nothing to do with Douglas, but the stock of candidates is directly impacted by it. This can also work in a candidates favor. Last spring, the Chicago papers had GM Ryan Pace on the hot seat. Now, after an incredibly productive 2018 campaign, Pace looks locked in and his Director of Player Personnel, Josh Lucas, has been added to Schrager’s ‘One’s to watch’.
  • Teams are not conducting broad searches. This is a bit hyperbolic, but from a public facing standpoint, ownership groups and the consultants or search firms they hire seem to kept the candidate pool ‘in the family’ in the 2017 and 2018 cycles. The Packers and Chiefs ended up promoting from within. While the Texans, Giants, and Panthers hired former employees. The Browns hired John Dorsey the day after firing Sashi Brown and did so before the window to interview candidates from other teams. The Bills hired a GM who had a close relationship to their existing HC. Again, from an outside perspective, the 49ers hiring John Lynch and Colts hiring of Chris Ballard look like the only two of the nine GM moves where you cannot draw a direct line from the team to the candidate.

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

Someday we may see each of these team builders working for another team, but I’m not holding my breath.

Candidates with multiple 2017 or 2018 interviews:

  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF / IND / KC
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • Known interviews: 2015: NYJ / 2017:SF, IND
  • George Paton – vice president of player personnel/assistant gm – Minnesota Vikings
    • Known interviews: 2012: STL / 2013: CAR / 2017: SF, IND
  • Jimmy Raye III – senior personnel executive – Detroit Lions
    • Known interviews: 2009: KC / 2010: SEA / 2012: CHI / 2013: SD / 2017: SF, IND / 2018: HST, CAR
  • Louis Riddick – nfl analyst – ESPN
    • Known interviews: 2010: PHI / 2017: SF, NYG
  • Eliot Wolf – assistant general manager – Cleveland Browns
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF, IND / 2018: GB

The candidates above have worked the GM circuit, which only increases their chances, as it broadens their name recognition and clout with ownership. We have seen from the likes of Chris Ballard, Jon Robinson, Brian Gaine, Brian Gutekunst, Brandon Beane, and a host of others that candidates, that they often sit for two to four interviews with various organizations before earning their shot at the big chair.

Candidates with one 2017 or 2018 interview:

  • Kevin Abrams – vice president of football operations/assistant general manager – New York Giants
    • Known interviews: 2007: NYG / 2016: DET / 2017: NYG
  • Mike Borgonzi – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs
    • 2017: KC
  • Trey Brown – executive vp of football operations – Memphis Express (AAF)
    • 2017: BUF
  • Ryan Cowden – vice president of player personnel – Tennessee Titans
    • 2017: KC
  • Lake Dawson – assistant director of college scouting – Buffalo Bills
    • 2012: STL / 2013: CAR / 2014: MIA, TB / 2015: CHI / 2018: CAR
  • Terry McDonough – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
    • Known interviews: 2017: SF
  • Marc Ross – unknown – none known
    • Known interviews: 2010: SEA / 2012: IND, CHI / 2013: JAX, NYJ, SD, CAR / 2014: MIA, TB / 2016: TEN / 2017: NYG

McDonough was a finalist for the 49ers opening in 2017 and a favorite of legendary scout Gil Brandt. Abrams is widely respected and has been a part of a few searches led by Ernie Accorsi. Borgonzi has been promoted frequently in KC over the past few years and interviewed for their GM opening in 2017. Dawson was a frequent member of the GM circuit while the vice president of football operations for the Tennessee Titans from 2011-2015. Cowden was the first hire from Titans GM Jon Robinson after earning the role in 2016. Trey Brown and Marc Ross are not presently in the NFL (Brown has earned a role with the Memphis franchise of the Alliance of American Football) and we will have to see what impact this has on their candidacy for any upcoming openings.

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

  • Jeff Ireland – assistant general manager – New Orleans Saints
  • Reggie McKenzie – former general manager – previously Oakland Raiders
  • Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
  • 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 Hall of Fame 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. Recent history may be helpful here as John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman provide owners with recent examples.

Editor’s Note: After the news on Dec. 10th of the Raiders parting ways with Reggie McKenzie, we immediately added him to this list as he’ll be a serious candidate for opportunities

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

  • Ed Dodds – assistant general manager – Indianapolis Colts
  • Joe Douglas – vice president of player personnel – Philadelphia Eagles
  • Joe Hortiz – director of college scouting – Baltimore Ravens
  • Brandon Hunt – pro scouting coordinator – Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Josh Lucas – director of player personnel – Chicago Bears
  • Monti Ossenfort – director of college scouting – New England Patriots
  • Jamaal Stephenson – director of college scouting – Minnesota Vikings

Selecting individuals for this section is tricky as GM candidate lists from various NFL insiders over the past three seasons provide another 20 plus names that are not here. I did not truncate those names because they are undeserving, but because of the note I stated above on how the Win/Loss record of teams GM candidate ‘stock’. The candidates listed here check both the boxes of being in the pipeline for GM consideration and being a part of teams who are locked in or seriously competing for a playoff spot, which only makes them more attractive candidates.

Author’s Note: Since the release of this article, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk shared the list of General Manager candidates compiled by the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel. The Panel, started in 2013, is “a panel of former coaches, coordinators and general managers to compile a roster of top candidates for those positions“. The reported members of the current panel are John Madden; Charley Casserly; Dick Daniels; James “Shack” Harris; Bill Cowher; Bruce Arians; and Jimmy Raye III. Their list contains 5 names not previously mentioned here. They are as follows:

Additional candidates from the NFL Career Development Advisory Panel:

  • Jerry Reese – former general manager – New York Giants
  • Martin Mayhew – senior personnel executive – San Francisco 49ers
  • Dave Caldwell – general manager – Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Doug Williams – senior vice president of player personnel – Washington Redskins
  • Randy Mueller – general manager – Salt Lake City Stallions (AAF)

Candidate One-liners

  • Kevin Abrams – vice president of football operations/assistant gm – New York Giants
    • 20-year veteran of NYG, including 17 years as Assistant GM and primary contract negotiator
  • Mike Borgonzi – director of football operations – Kansas City Chiefs
    • 10 year NFL scout. Has been promoted every year or two in Kansas City.
  • Trey Brown – executive vice president of football operations – Memphis Express (AAF)
    • 8 year NFL scout. Spent first 3 years with NE before being hired by PHI.
  • Dave Caldwell – general manager – Jacksonville Jaguars
    • 22 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
    • 18-year NE staffer, including one year as WR coach and 11 years as Director of Player Personnel
  • Ryan Cowden – vice president of player personnel – Tennessee Titans
    • 18 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 24 years of NFL experience. Held position of Vice President of Player Personnel with the Titans.
  • Ed Dodds – assistant general manager – Indianapolis Colts
    • 16 year NFL scout. Spent 10 years with SEA, holding position of senior personnel executive. Has also worked for Raiders and Texas A&M-Kingsville.
  • Joe Douglas – vice president of player personnel – Philadelphia Eagles
    • 20-year NFL scout who spent 16 seasons with BLT, then a year with CHI as Director of College Scouting before joining PHI
  • Scott Fitterer – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 21-year NFL scout, with 18 seasons in SEA and three with NYG. College QB and Pitcher (UCLA/LSU)
  • Joe Hortiz – director of college scouting – Baltimore Ravens
    • 21 year NFL scout, all with Baltimore, with 10 as Director of College Scouting director
  • Brandon Hunt – pro scouting coordinator – Pittsburgh Steelers
    • 14 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 23-year scout for KC, DAL, MIA, and now NO. Former college coach.
  • Trent Kirchner – co-director of player personnel – Seattle Seahawks
    • 19-year NFL scout who has experience in pro scouting with CAR/SEA and college scouting with the Seahawks
  • Josh Lucas – director of player personnel – Chicago Bears
    • 16 year NFL scout. Began with JAX, then 10 years in NO, primarily in college scouting
  • Martin Mayhew – senior personnel executive – 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 now the 49ers.
  • Will McClay – vice president of player personnel – Dallas Cowboys
    • 16-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 – vice president of player personnel – Arizona Cardinals
    • 27-year NFL veteran, including time with SF, CLE/BLT, JAX, and ARZ, and in the World League
  • Randy Mueller – general manager – Salt Lake City Stallions (AAF)
    • 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
    • 17 year NFL scout, with 14 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
    • 22-year NFL veteran with experience in pro and college scouting for CHI, MIA, and MIN. Has been Assistant General Manager for MIN since 2012.
  • Scott Pioli – assistant general manager – Atlanta Falcons
    • 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
    • 24 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 – New York Giants
    • 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
  • Jamaal Stephenson – director of college scouting – Minnesota Vikings
    • 20 year NFL scout, 17 of which with MIN, including 5 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 Williams – senior vice president of player personnel – Washington Redskins
    • 21 year NFL veteran, with 9 as a player and 12 in scouting/personnel. Former Head Coach of Grambling State.
  • Eliot Wolf – assistant general manager – Cleveland Browns
    • 15-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 25-year NFL scout for ATL, DEN, DET, and LAR. Football systems specialist

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. The same would 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 the topics 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 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.

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