When the New York Jets parted ways with general manager Mike Maccagnan last week, interim GM Adam Gase wasted no time executing a trade of one of Maccagnan’s former first-round picks. Darron Lee was sent to the Kansas City Chiefs for nickels on the dollar, only getting back a sixth-round pick.
Lee wasn’t Maccagnan’s first first-rounder as Jets GM (that would be Leonard Williams), nor was Lee Mccagnan’s defining pick in his five-plus years at the helm. That dishonor belongs to the 51st pick of the 2016 NFL draft, Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg.
There was a certain irony in the choice given that Hackenberg had been on a two-year slide in college prior to entering the draft, a slump that coincided with the departure of Nittany Lions head coach Bill O’Brien. The Houston Texans made O’Brien their head coach in 2014, where he was teamed up with Maccagnan, then a member of the Texans’ scouting staff before the Jets made him their GM.
That Maccagnan drafted Hackenberg immediately following the Texans in Round 2 in 2016 feels fitting. The Texans actually traded up into that No. 50 spot, right ahead of the Jets, but took center Nick Martin.
“Obviously, he has a lot of physical ability in terms of arm strength, athletic ability and size,” Maccagnan said at the time about Hackenberg. “He’s a prototype from that standpoint. ... We think he has a lot of potential.”
When the Jets took Hackenberg, it was A.) Higher than most people expected; and B.) Quite telling that O’Brien and the Texans passed on him twice (even with the signing of Brock Osweiler a few months earlier). The Texans had an advantage over the other 31 teams in that their head coach knew what Hackenberg was made of.
The Jets decided that they knew better. Maccagnan’s fate in a lot of ways was decided with that pick, even if his firing happened far later with a new head coach coming in and usurping the turf war. Perhaps history will shine more kindly on Maccagnan if Sam Darnold turns out to be the franchise QB many feel he can become. But it’s not unfair to suggest that the Hackenburg pick was a crown of thorns the former Jets GM wore around for a few painful years while the team languished in the gutter.
Fair or not, every general manager has a single draft pick that defines his legacy more than others. More often than not, it’s a first-round pick. And more than other positions, quarterbacks often define a GM’s legacy – for good or bad. It’s tough to emboss any one player to any one decision maker’s head, but that’s often the way it goes. Perception is reality, and after all, someone is making the final call on the picks. Bottom line: That’s a GM’s job description.
Here are the defining picks of the other 31 teams’ general managers, although in some cases you’ll see that some teams operate with a different power structure – with different titles – than others:
General manager: Brandon Beane (hired May 2017)
Defining pick: QB Josh Allen – first round, seventh overall, 2018
This was Beane’s first pick running the Bills’ show, and it was a doozy. We still don’t know how Allen will turn out, but he was a roundly chided prospect with scattershot accuracy in college who flashed some fascinating ability last year as a rookie in Buffalo.
The Bills have put all their eggs in his basket. Not only did he handpick Allen at No. 7 (in a loaded QB draft), but Beane had to give up two second-round picks to move up five slots to get his man. The Bills probably needed to do so to land Allen, as other teams – such as the Arizona Cardinals – were rumored to be hot on his trail. (And yet the Bills could have had Patrick Mahomes the year before, in former GM Doug Whaley’s final draft, had they not traded the pick that would become Mahomes to the Kansas City Chiefs.)
This offseason, the Bills signed and drafted a slew of offensive linemen and pass catchers with the purpose of building around Allen. He’s Beane’s baby now, and we’ll see if it proved to be a wise choice.
General manager: Chris Grier (named GM January 2016)
Defining pick: The two picks traded for QB Josh Rosen
The Dolphins might have named Grier their GM more than three years ago, and he has been with the franchise since 2000, but the Dolphins’ crowded kitchen never really afforded him the chance to run a draft until this year. Prior to 2019, Grier was – at best – second or third in command in a muddled power structure that included Mike Tannenbaum and others before him.
Grier and new head coach Brian Flores are in a fascinating spot here following their first draft class. Their first selection together, DT Christian Wilkins (first round, 13th overall), could end up being a building block for years to come. But Grier’s legacy likely won’t be tethered to whether Wilkins becomes a star.
Instead, we’ll go – for now – with the decision to swap the No. 62 pick (second round) in 2019 and a 2020 fifth-round pick for Rosen, who was the 10th overall pick in 2018. It could turn out to be spectacular value in the long haul, and the level of investment is low enough where Grier and Co. could enter the 2020 QB draft fray if Rosen’s first-year results in Miami are not promising enough.
Perhaps whoever the Dolphins take in Round 1 next year could end up being Grier’s defining pick. After all, this is a team many believe to be the worst on paper in the NFL. But right now, this looks like a savvy move, sweating out the Arizona Cardinals on Rosen for a relative song.
General manager: Bill Belichick (hired January 2000)
Defining pick: QB Tom Brady – sixth round, 199th overall, 2000
The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL whose head coach holds autonomy over the draft. Belichick works hand in hand with director of personnel Nick Caserio, the de facto GM, but we all know who is making the final calls on the picks.
Caserio was still a graduate assistant at Saginaw Valley State when Belichick and the Patriots famously made Brady their second sixth-round pick in 2000. (Missouri’s Jeff Marriott, who never played an NFL game, was the first.) The Brady pick turned out better.
Enough ink has been spilled over this selection for the past two decades. It’s probably the biggest steal in draft history. The Patriots and Belichick have a high first-round hit rate, manipulate draft assets as well as any team ever has and have unearthed plenty of late gems, such as Julian Edelman. But it’s almost certain none of their picks can trump No. 199 in 2000.
New York Jets
General manager: Eric DeCosta (assumed position January 2019)
Defining pick: WR Marquise Brown – first round, 25th overall, 2019
This likely will change. DeCosta was a huge part of the Ravens’ scouting department before earning the GM title, serving as Ozzie Newsome’s right-hand man in many ways for years. In his first draft flying solo, DeCosta wasn’t afraid to go against the grain.
At 166 pounds, Brown is one of the smallest first-round picks in generations. But his game-breaking speed is something this Ravens offense could use a dose of as it continues to build around QB Lamar Jackson. Although Jackson is considered Newsome’s pick, DeCosta likely had a big say in that choice, which certainly was another against-the-grain pick.
DeCosta’s true legacy pick might be a year or two or three away. But for now, it’s his first one – and there is a lot riding on it.
General manager: n/a
Defining pick: ???
The Bengals truly don’t have a general manager, as team owner Mike Brown has refused to cede control of that final say since taking over the team following his father’s death in 1991. However, it has been known for years that director of player personnel Duke Tobin essentially has been running the Bengals’ drafts for years. Yes, things are run through the 83-year-old Brown, but Tobin is making the major calls and was said to have a big say in hiring Zac Taylor as the new head coach.
Choosing Tobin’s defining pick proves to be difficult given the murkiness over when he actually took over. He might have carried the same title since 2002, but Tobin often gave up pull to former head coach Marvin Lewis and had two of Brown’s family members, Troy and Katie Blackburn, carrying vice president titles and sitting ahead of him on the team’s masthead.
The Bengals have struck gold several times in the draft under Tobin’s watch (Carson Palmer, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Andrew Whitworth and others) and have struck out many times as well (Cedric Ogbuehi, Chris Perry, David Pollack and perhaps John Ross). It’s tricky to pin one pick on Tobin – or any other one person in this unique structure – and tie it to them. Just another way in which the Bengals are a bit different than everyone else.
General manager: John Dorsey (hired December 2017)
Defining pick: QB Baker Mayfield – first round, first overall, 2018
Dorsey walked into a fascinating situation in Cleveland, the likes of which we might not see for some time. Cloaked with two decades of debilitating losses, the Browns appeared to be a giant estate sale where there were uncashed checks lying around in a cluttered old mansion. Dorsey took that paper straight to the bank upon taking over and has already seen some terrific ROI.
None might ever trump what he earned on Mayfield, his first pick with the Browns. It’s easy to see now that Dorsey might have been onto something with the Oklahoma quarterback, but this was far from a slam-dunk first overall pick. Many felt Mayfield’s short, stocky build and Air Raid-steeped production – along with a fiery personality and an arrest to his name – didn’t add up to the safest selection.
But Dorsey was undeterred in his pick, even with some other fine QB options such as Allen, Rosen, Jackson and Darnold. The Browns also had the fourth overall pick last year, so Dorsey could have attempted to get cute with how he chose his quarterback. But he did not, and now it looks to be a stroke of genius if Mayfield’s first 13 starts were any indication of how his career arc is shaping.
Think about this: Dorsey’s past two first-round picks were Mahomes and Mayfield. Most general managers hope to unearth a QB talent of that level once in a career if they’re lucky. Dorsey might have drafted two generational passers in back-to-back years for two different franchises. It’s a fascinating element to his legacy.
General manager: Kevin Colbert (named director of football operations, February 2000; named GM, 2011)
Defining pick: QB Ben Roethlisberger — first round, 11th overall, 2004
The funny thing about Colbert in Pittsburgh is that he has essentially been running the Steelers’ draft for 20 years now, and when he was elevated to GM – the first man in franchise history to hold that title – local media found out when it was merely slipped into the Steelers’ media guide. It’s unclear if the promotion occurred before or after the 2011 NFL draft, but we assume that it happened sometime in the summer of 2011.
So if you want to pick nits and restrict his draft window to 2012 and beyond, you’d be left to choose from a few really good picks (David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Ryan Shazier, JuJu Smith-Schuster) and some less-than-great ones (Artie Burns, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Senquez Golson).
Picking Roethlisberger is very tricky. Dan Rooney has said that Colbert and former head coach Bill Cowher wanted to draft guard Shawn Andrews over Roethlisberger, and there certainly was some luck that a potential franchise QB was still on the board at No. 11 overall. We’ll still give Colbert credit for that one.
It’s also tricky to weigh everything relatively, as Colbert also was the author of perhaps the second-best sixth-round pick in NFL history. Say what you will about Antonio Brown’s exit from the team, the contract the Steelers gave him or how little they got in return – there’s little doubt that Brown is special. Only two former sixth-rounders have ever made the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Dave Wilcox and Terrell Davis). Brown and Tom Brady figure to be the next two in line for that distinction.
General manager: Brian Gaine (hired January 2018)
Defining pick: OT Tytus Howard – first round, 23rd overall, 2019
Another relatively new GM, Gaine’s defining pick might not have been made yet. And with his first- and second-round selections having been traded away prior to his arrival, Gaine didn’t make a Round 1 pick until his second draft. Part of that pick dearth happened because his predecessor, Rick Smith, traded up for Deshaun Watson, making Gaine’s focus clear: protect Watson at all costs.
That’s why the Howard pick is critical now. Viewed as a Day 2 or 3 prospect earlier in the draft process, Howard’s stock rose steadily because of his tantalizing athletic traits and high character. But if he’s not at least on par with OT Andre Dillard, who was taken the pick prior, there are going to be questions about Gaine’s lack of aggressiveness. The Eagles traded up in front of Houston to take Dillard, who was roundly viewed as a premier pass protector and a safer selection than Howard.
Gaine’s legacy draft choice might not be cast in stone yet, but right now it’s his surprising first-round pick. If it works out and Watson is protected well, all will be well. But if not and the team struggles, it might not be surprising to see Bill O’Brien and Gaine – viewed as tethered at the hip – shown the door at some point for a team whose ownership situation is a bit murky following the death of Bob McNair.
General manager: Chris Ballard (hired January 2017)
Defining pick: LB Darius Leonard – second round, 36th overall, 2018
Others will disagree, and that’s perfectly fine. It demonstrates that tattooing one draft pick to a GM who has been on the job for a little more than 800 days is a fool’s errand more often than not.
If you want to argue that Quenton Nelson should be Ballard’s defining pick to date, I’d have no major arguments. After all, Ballard executed a beautiful trade down three slots and picked up heavy draft artillery in the process, not to mention picking a guard with All-Pro potential in the process. It was a relatively safe choice, all things considered, and until Nelson starts for a decade, it’s hard to brand a guard as a culture-changing draft choice.
For me, it’s Leonard because it showed the conviction Ballard has in his and his staff’s scouting work and vision, and to be willing to go against the grain for a player who fits exactly what they wanted, draft position be damned. A pick that was widely panned by media pundits as being a reach, Leonard turned in an incredible rookie season and cast a mold for exactly the type of rangy, athletic, smart, instinctive and tough defender the Colts likely will be seeking to draft for the next decade.
General manager: David Caldwell (hired January 2013)
Defining pick: QB Blake Bortles – first round, third overall, 2014
This is tricky here, as Caldwell is the GM in name only. Executive vice president Tom Coughlin moved in on Caldwell’s turf when he was named to his post in January of 2017, and Coughlin’s influence over team-building decisions has only grown since then. So the first instinct is to look only at Caldwell’s draft picks in the drafts from 2013-2017.
And it’s not as if there aren’t enough legacy-defining choices in that range to assign to Caldwell. To be fair, we must give him and his scouts credit for building the core of a team that currently is one year removed from an AFC championship game appearance. The selections of Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and others helped for a formidable defense in 2017, and the team could be primed for a bounce-back season with new QB Nick Foles.
But the Jaguars lost double-digit games in four of Caldwell’s five seasons, and the Bortles selection will always go down as one of his worst. Now the backup to Jared Goff in L.A., Bortles put up some big fantasy numbers and was the QB who helped beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs two years ago. But his lack of development and repeated mistakes led the Jaguars to move on – after the team gave him a hindering contract extension, of course.
General manager: Jon Robinson (hired January 2016)
Defining pick: 2016 draft trade
It’s not one single pick, but Robinson’s biggest – and boldest – draft maneuver was to trade out of the No. 1 spot of the 2016 NFL draft after he’d been on the job for a mere three months. Armed with second-year QB Marcus Mariota, the Titans felt confident enough in their situation at the position to pass on taking either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz first overall. (It would have been stunning had they stood pat and taken either at the time.)
Here’s the final tally on that trade with the Rams, who took Goff: The Titans landed the No. 15 overall pick in 2016 (later traded), the No. 43 pick (DL Austin Johnson), the No. 45 pick (RB Derrick Henry) and the No. 76 pick (also traded), as well as a 2017 first-round pick (WR Corey Davis) and a 2017 third-round pick (TE Jonnu Smith). The Titans also surrendered a 2016 fourth-rounder (which later was traded to the Chicago Bears) and a 2016 sixth-rounder (TE Temarrick Hemingway), and they moved up from that No. 15 spot to land OT Jack Conklin.
In moving up to draft Conklin at No. 8 that year, the Titans got back a sixth-rounder (Andy Janovich) but surrendered the Nos. 15 and 76 picks in 2016, plus a 2017 second-round pick (that ended up being QB DeShone Kizer).
The net results on the trade? Inconclusive. In fact, it’s a thorny web to untangle to figure out whether the Titans did the right thing.
Comparing Mariota to Goff or Wentz feels fruitless since neither realistically were going to be Titans. But the team did trade out of the range to draft either Jalen Ramsey or Joey Bosa, and the recent declining of Conklin’s fifth-year option muddles the matter, even if he has been a solid player, albeit one with injury concerns. On the surface, the Conklin pick isn’t awful at all, but it’s uninspiring.
Essentially, the trade comes down to whether the Titans can keep Henry running at a high level and develop Davis into being a front-line receiver. If that happens and Conklin remains with the team long term, the trade can be deemed a rousing success. But that isn’t clear at this moment.
Robinson has done some good things as GM, as well as some shaky moves. His overall reputation remains solid because of the work he has done moving the Titans up from the basement to the middle class. If the players they landed with that bonanza draft trade continue to develop, Robinson’s defining draft move will look good.
If Mariota slips and he’s not retained long term, Robinson’s defining draft pick might end up being the next quarterback the Titans select. It could be relatively high if that happens.
General manager: John Elway (named GM and executive vice president of football operations January 2011)
Defining pick: LB Von Miller – first round, second overall, 2011
When it comes to Elway’s legacy as a decision maker, it’s complicated.
Let’s put a positive spin on this here, although there is room for interpretation with this exercise. The myopic view might be that Elway hasn’t had the easiest time picking his quarterbacks, especially in the draft. There’s little doubting his track record there, and quarterback – as Elway himself knows best – is the defining position in football. And if you want to pin it down to one pick, trading up for Paxton Lynch is about as bad as it gets for a first-rounder.
If that’s your choice, so be it. Elway went from running an Arena League team and his car dealerships to drafting a future Hall of Famer in a span of about six months. Granted, that 2011 NFL draft class was loaded, and you might argue that J.J. Watt has been a better player when he has been healthy. But Elway got the Miller pick right – when some felt he was too light to be taken that high – and it helped build the foundation of a defense that reached one Super Bowl and won another.
If that’s not a legacy pick, I don’t know what that term means.
General manager: Brett Veach (hired July 2017)
Defining pick: The Frank Clark trade
With ties to Andy Reid going back to Philadelphia, Veach and Reid could maybe be called co-GMs. Reid and John Dorsey reshaped the Chiefs’ roster upon arriving in Kansas City in 2013, along with Veach, who was a member of the scouting department. (Veach even played a pivotal role in landing MVP Patrick Mahomes.) When Dorsey was let go in 2017, Veach assumed the role, although Reid has more say over personnel than most head coaches do.
That’s why this is a tough call here. Veach hasn’t had enough time to cast his own legacy as GM, and the divvying up of personnel duties makes it trickier. I almost chose WR Mecole Hardman, the team’s second-round pick (56th overall) in this most recent draft. The assumption was that Hardman was the team’s Tyreek Hill insurance if he was to be released following another off-field incident, although Hill remains on the team.
Instead, we’ll go with Clark. Afford us the latitude, if you will, to go with a veteran player who was acquired with draft picks. The Chiefs felt that Clark was better than any defensive player they could have found with the 29th overall selection, so Veach traded it, the No. 92 overall pick and a 2020 second-rounder to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for Clark and the 84th overall pick. That, along with Clark’s contract extension, felt like a steep price to pay, especially after sending Dee Ford to the 49ers for a 2020 second-rounder.
Will Clark be that big an upgrade over Ford? If so, the move will be a success. Certainly winning a Super Bowl will keep critics at bay as well. What Veach and Reid learned last season was that Mahomes is special but that even he might not be able to compensate for a faulty defense. That has been the thrust of this offseason and will be the prevailing theme of this season’s title chase.
General manager: Tom Telesco (hired January 2013)
Defining pick: EDGE Joey Bosa – first round, third overall, 2016
We could have gone in a few directions here with Telesco, who has quietly compiled an excellent record as GM in the draft.
It would be easy to pick a special talent such as Derwin James here, but he fell to No. 17 overall, which is laughable now; the Chargers pretty much admitted they had no idea James would still be on the board, making it a no-brainer, best-available pick. We could have gone with a later-round steal such as Keenan Allen (No. 76 overall in Telesco’s first draft in 2013) or Desmond King II (No. 151 in 2017). All of those feel like worthy selections.
And yet we’re going with Bosa, who was a Defensive Player of the Year favorite prior to missing a major chunk of last season and who is a full-fledged star – 28.5 sacks in 35 career games – before he has turned 24 years old. The fact that Telesco kept quiet his team’s desire to take Bosa third overall also earns him extra credit. Go back and look through the mock-draft database from that year and count the number that had Bosa going to the Chargers … it’s a small group.
The Chargers have one of the most talented rosters in football, and even if they’ve underachieved in Philip Rivers’ final years, it’s hard to put much of that on Telesco. His picks have been much more good than bad, and his Bosa selection stands as a game-changer.
General manager: Mike Mayock (hired December 2018)
Defining pick: EDGE Clelin Ferrell – first round, fourth overall, 2019
With apologies to Mayock, we know who ultimately is making the decisions in Oakland. That would be the Hundred Million Dollar Man. When Jon Gruden earned the largest contract in coaching to return to the Raiders, it came with the assumption that all calls ultimately fall on his head. Again, not taking anything away from Mayock, but let’s be real here.
Still, I am sure Gruden leaned on Mayock’s eye when it came to making the unexpected call on Ferrell at pick No. 4 back in April. How he performs in the coming years as compared to the other defensive talent in this draft will be parsed and hashed and rehashed. It didn’t hurt that the Raiders had two other first-rounders to fall back on, but they got those at the expense of trading Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. That’s a big reason how they got to 4-12 in Gruden’s second tenure as head coach.
Even with the Ferrell pick under the microscope, it likely will be pushed aside at some point. The Raiders will be picking Derek Carr’s possible replacement eventually, we suspect, and they’ll have two first-rounders next year. There is plenty of time to shape the legacies – in either direction – of Gruden and Mayock.
General manager: Jerry Jones (bought team and took over in February 1989)
Defining pick: QB Troy Aikman – first round, first overall, 1989
The only man in the NFL to officially carry the titles of owner, president and GM, Jones certainly has worn a lot of hats in his 30 years running the show in Dallas. But when it comes to personnel and the draft, Jones has ceded a lot of that control over to his well-stocked front office, including son Stephen Jones and personnel guru Will McClay. So while there’s a temptation to go with a recent selection, we went to the past.
Aikman was Jerry Jones’ first draft pick, and it’s hard to do better than taking a future Hall of Famer who led the Boys to three Super Bowl titles. Sure, there were better value picks, such as unearthing Larry Allen in Round 2 tin 1994 or landing Jason Witten in Round 3 nine years later. There were perhaps even better talents than Aikman that Jones drafted, such as the future NFL all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, in 1990.
But Aikman was uniquely qualified to quarterback the Cowboys’ comeback efforts, and he was the perfect leader for a team loaded with alpha personalities. The Cowboys couldn’t have gone wrong with taking Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas or Deion Sanders – the other top-five picks who also ended up in Canton. But it’s hard to argue what Aikman and his 1989 Cowboys draft-class mates (Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert) were able to accomplish.
General manager: Dave Gettelman (named GM December 2017)
Defining pick: QB Daniel Jones – first round, sixth overall, 2019
Gettleman has been a busy man, albeit a controversial one, since returning to the Giants as GM 17 months ago. You could argue that his selection of Saquon Barkley at No. 2 was the most hotly debated pick in the 2018 draft, bypassing QB options for the gifted runner. And Gettleman’s legacy ultimately will be tied to the largely unpopular Odell Beckham Jr. trade.
Jones certainly can prove his new GM sage by playing well and succeeding Eli Manning through the next generation of Giants football. When that will begin is anyone’s guess – Gettleman has talked in terms of how many “years” (plural) Eli might have left. And so even if the Barkley pick essentially backed the Giants into the corner of having to taking Jones that high this year, all of that talk can be dispelled if Jones ends up a success.
If not? Gettleman might get his gold watch sooner than he had hoped.
General manager: Howie Roseman (named GM January 2010; named executive vice president of football operations January 2015)
Defining pick: QB Carson Wentz – first round, second overall, 2016
Roseman’s tenure can be split up into three phases. He was the general manager under Andy Reid from 2010-2014; Roseman then received a nominal promotion in 2015 when Chip Kelly was given GM duties; and then Roseman recaptured his personnel oversight role as de facto GM after Kelly was let go late in the 2015 season.
So it’s clear that Roseman’s power has grown in the wake of having two previous head coaches with personnel say. After bringing in head coach Doug Pederson in the 2016 offseason, the team set out to find its next franchise QB – and Roseman made perhaps his boldest move to date. Trading up twice to land at No. 2 overall in 2016 to take Wentz who was considered a huge risk at the time given the price the Eagles paid to climb up that high and that Wentz was an FCS player with a history of injuries.
Winning a Super Bowl – with Nick Foles replacing an injured Wentz – has bought Roseman a ton of credibility and rightfully so. After all he was at the center of the roster reshaping that made the Eagles one of the best teams in football that season. But the legacy of the Wentz pick has yet to be written, as injuries have continued to plague the QB.
So far, the move looks like a net win. Wentz was playing at an MVP level late into the Super Bowl-winning season, and he has many years left in his prime to prove himself again. The Eagles also figure to reward him with a major contract befitting of a relatively young franchise QB. That said, Wentz still needs to play up to that level and stay healthy to make Roseman’s signature pick hold up over the test of time.
General manager: Bruce Allen (hired as GM December 2009; named team president May 2014)
Defining pick: QB Robert Griffin III – first round, second overall, 2012
Trading two future first-rounders, plus the Nos. 6 and 39 overall picks in 2012, Allen executed a bold move up to the second slot to take Griffin. It felt like a home run for a QB-starved team that too often went the used-up-veteran route to find its passers. Griffin was the 2012 AP Rookie of the Year – over Andrew Luck, the first overall pick – and looked to be a star in the making before a late-season knee injury changed Griffin’s career forever.
That’s part of what makes this operation tricky. Would Griffin have continued on his ascent had he not gotten hurt? We might never know. The gut feeling here is that Allen had the right idea of moving up for a unique talent such as Griffin, even at a high cost. Ultimately, quarterbacks and the executives who draft them are judged based on hard results, and the ugly turn of Griffin with the Redskins rendered that pick a net loss.
Perhaps one day Allen will be vindicated if his selection of Dwayne Haskins pans out as hoped. Allen’s popularity had been at an all-time low among Redskins fans before this past draft and has nowhere to go but up if he can convince team owner Daniel Snyder to keep him in his post. After all, Allen was previously forced to abdicate his GM duties when the team brought in Scot McCloughan to run the draft.
General manager: Ryan Pace (hired January 2015)
Defining pick: QB Mitchell Trubisky – first round, second overall, 2017
After failing to land a QB in the 2016 draft, Pace was not about to be out-jockeyed the following year. He paid a steep price to move up one slot and ensure he got his man in Trubisky, a one-year starter at North Carolina. The move was widely panned at the time, with many suggesting that Pace was fleeced in the trade assets he surrendered.
Since then, the narrative has changed. The success of QBs Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes from that same draft class has added a new dimension to the debate; essentially, Pace could have even traded down and still nabbed better individual talents at the position than Trubisky.
We’ll be talking about this pick for many years. If the Bears win a Super Bowl with Trubisky, Pace will be vindicated. If not, critics will point to that pick as being the reason the team couldn’t take the next step, despite having the makings of what could be a special defense for the next few seasons. Pace has found some gems outside of Round 1, and the boldness he showed in executing the Khalil Mack trade has given Pace the reputation of being one of the most aggressive dealers in the game.
But it’s also hard not to think that his Trubisky decision will be the one that weighs heaviest on his lasting mark in Chicago.
General manager: Bob Quinn (hired January 2016)
Defining pick: WR Kenny Golladay – third round, 96th overall, 2017
It’s very interesting taking a step back and looking at Quinn’s four drafts at the helm of the Lions. He has played things relatively safely in Round 1, which likely comes from his New England influence, as does his penchant for drafting SEC players and Senior Bowl participants. Typically, his Round 1 choices fill a clear, immediate need, and his picks thereafter have been more of the swing-for-the-fences variety.
There have been a few missteps in that middle-round range, such as Teez Tabor and Michael Roberts. But there also have been gems, such as Golladay and D’Shawn Hand. In fact, you could argue that Golladay was a pick that went against the Patriots-ish grain. New England had a hell of a time trying to find receivers in that Round 2-4 range when Quinn was in New England. You might understand if Quinn had feared Golladay might become the next Aaron Dobson, but he hasn’t. He’s one of the best young receivers in the game.
It’s clear that Quinn has followed a patterned team-building method through the draft in Detroit, and it’s possible we’ll point to the T.J. Hockenson pick at the more career-defining move, as it was controversial among Lions fans. So was 2019 second-round LB Jahlani Tavai, who has a boom-bust quality to him. For now we’re picking Golladay as a sign that Quinn has developed some of his own drafting methods over the past few years.
General manager: Brian Gutekunst (named GM January 2018)
Defining pick: EDGE Rashan Gary – first round, 12th overall, 2019
In his 17 months as GM, the Packers have been busy. Gutekunst wasted no time making an aggressive but deft move to trade for an additional first-round pick in his first draft and still land a top talent in Jaire Alexander. That would have been our choice for this had we conducted this exercise a year ago. But everything has changed.
Fairly or not, Gary has become the pick that many in Packersdom have glommed onto, and perhaps not in the most endearing way. With the Packers holding three of the first 44 picks in the 2019 draft, fans’ visions danced over the ways that ammo could help build the defense and give Aaron Rodgers more weaponry and protection on offense. Maybe it will end up working out that way. But Gary’s inconsistent production at Michigan has some worried.
Entering the 2018 season, Gary looked like a potential top-10 or even top-5 pick. Hindered by a shoulder injury, his play fell off. Gary also was asked to play a role where he beat up tight ends and set hard edges more than he screamed off the edge to get sacks. But it’s easy to wonder if there’s a bit of overlap in the three edge players the Packers added this offseason in Gary, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. They favored power over edge speed.
If Gary turns out to be a star, all will be forgiven. If he fails to live up to expectations and some of the defensive players drafted after him – Christian Wilkins, Brian Burns, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, to name a few – become standouts, then Gutekunst will be questioned.
General manager: Rick Spielman (promoted May 2012)
Defining pick: OT Matt Kalil – first round, fourth overall, 2012
Spielman has done more good than bad since being promoted from the role of vice president of player personnel, helping build one of the league’s best defenses and assembling some firepower on offense from some interesting sources. Spielman hasn’t had as much success with his higher draft picks on the offensive side of the ball. Just look up and down the Vikings’ offensive depth chart: Most of the standouts were drafted in the middle and lower rounds.
Kalil felt like a strong pick at No. 4 at the time, but it didn’t work out that way. He suffered through some growing pains in Minnesota and was allowed to walk via free agency. That was a good decision to let him go by the Vikings, as Kalil flamed out in Carolina as well. It’s a reminder that the team still has an offensive line that remains incomplete until proven otherwise.
If we extend Spielman’s draft legacy to his time of arrival in 2006, then his legacy pick might be Adrian Peterson on the good end of the spectrum and Christian Ponder on the bad side. If we’re assuming he didn’t make a final call on either during that six-year period when the Vikings used a more collaborative draft approach, then we’re left with Kalil.
You easily could argue that Spielman landing Harrison Smith at the bottom of Round 1, Danielle Hunter in Round 3, Stefon Diggs in Round 5 or Adam Thielen from the undrafted ranks all strike as tremendous moves for a club that has been .500 or better four straight seasons. But missing on Kalil at No. 4 rings as a tough miss.
General manager: Thomas Dimitroff (hired January 2008)
Defining pick: QB Matt Ryan – first round, third overall, 2008
Dimitroff has drafted 87 players since taking over the Falcons’ front office, including four selections in the top 10. None have meant more overall to the health of the franchise than his first selection. Upon taking over in 2008, the Falcons owned the third pick and were in a situation with former franchise savior Michael Vick in prison and the QB spot in serious question. Dimitroff didn’t doubt his judgment on Ryan and didn’t hesitate handing him the keys to the operation.
Despite the Falcons not winning a Super Bowl, the move unquestionably was the right one. Ryan hasn’t always reached an elite level of play, but he was the league’s MVP in 2016, hasn’t missed a game since the 2009 season and will be seeking his ninth straight 4,000-yard season in 2019.
There’s a fascinating argument to be made that Julio Jones actually is Dimtroff’s legacy pick, and it’s one we should give credence. When the Falcons were picking 26th overall, Dimitroff rightfully determined that Jones was a rare prospect – and one worth trading up for. It has been well documented that Dimitroff called up his old boss, Bill Belichick, to get his thoughts on the wisdom of trading up for Jones. Belichick told Dimitroff he felt it wouldn’t be worth the picks it would cost and that the Falcons could land a slightly lesser talent late in Round 1 such as Jon Baldwin for much cheaper.
Dimitroff was more than right, it turned out. He dealt the Nos. 26, 59 and 124 picks in 2011, plus first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 to land Jones. No one thinks now it was not worth it.
“[I have a] great deal of respect for Bill,” Dimitroff said prior to Super Bowl LI. “At the end of that conversation, when I thought to myself I’d hit a crossroads, three years into the league that I was not necessarily going the same direction that he was advising. I thought, ‘I guess I’ve really kind of grown up here,’ because that’s not an easy thing to do, is listen to someone as football intelligent and rounded as Bill [and go against it]. So that was a really interesting point in my career.”
So Jones easily could be Dimitroff’s legacy pick if you want to pinpoint the moment he shed his old skin. But we still believe none of that is possible if they first don’t land Ryan.
General manager: Marty Hurney (named GM January 2002; fired October 2012; renamed GM February 2018)
Defining pick: QB Cam Newton – first round, first overall, 2011
Hurney has had a strange but strangely successful run as Panthers GM. His first-round hit slugging percentage might lead the league, as he found way more big hits (Newton, Luke Kuechly, Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross, Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart) than misses (is Jeff Otah the only one?) during the early years.
None was a bigger risk than Newton, who entered the NFL with a mere 292 major-college pass attempts in 14 starts. On top of that, controversy surrounded Newton in his college career, making him a leap of faith with the top overall selection. Don’t forget, too, that the Panthers had used a mid-second-round pick on Jimmy Clausen the year prior, and a weaker GM might have balked at taking quarterbacks so high in back-to-back drafts.
Hurney saw through all of that. He and Ron Rivera viewed Newton as a transcendent talent, and history has proven them right on that. The fact that Hurney was fired a year and a half after making the Newton pick (and drafting Kuechly the next year) feels like an absurd move by former owner Jerry Richardson in retrospect.
The Panthers brought back Hurney after a strange spell with Dave Gettleman as GM, and Hurney might have landed some nice players the past two drafts. But none of those selections are likely to knock the Newton choice off his personal perch.
General manager: Mickey Loomis (promoted to GM 2002)
Defining pick: WR Marques Colston – seventh round, 252nd overall, 2006
Even though Sean Payton’s influence on the draft has grown, and some say assistant GM Jeff Ireland has become the true architect of the Saints’ more recent draft classes, it’s hard not to give Loomis credit for his overall body of work in this department. For years, the Saints had drafted the most Pro Bowl players during Loomis’ run overseeing the draft.
Amazingly, one of those Pro Bowlers is not Colston. I was shocked to realize he never had earned that honor in his 10-year career, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark six of those seasons and currently 39th on the all-time touchdown list with 72. Only two players over the past 40 years drafted at No. 252 or later have more receiving yards all time than Colston’s 9,759 – Keenan McCardell and Drew Hill, both 12th-rounders back when such a thing existed.
Colston was a very good player for a long time, and an insane value that late in the draft. The Saints have drafted better players under Loomis’ watch, but not many. We’ll say that Jahri Evans and Cam Jordan qualify, and maybe Jermon Bushrod will pass him in time. But getting Colston where the Saints did was one of the all-time thefts.
General manager: Jason Licht (hired January 2014)
Defining pick: QB Jameis Winston – first round, first overall, 2015
If you want to get cute and say trading down for Vita Vea – and passing up Derwin James twice in the process – is Licht’s legacy move, have at it. It was still a bigger franchise-shifting move when the Bucs used the top pick on Winston in 2015. Winston had regressed on the field in his final season at Florida State and was cloaked with character questions following allegations of sexual assault and a few bizarre incidents that occurred on campus.
The Bucs said they interviewed more than 75 people to attest to Winston’s character before making the pick, and yet his character concerns arose following an incident with an Uber driver that led to Winston being suspended for three games to start the 2018 season. He now enters a pivotal 2019 with new head coach Bruce Arians needing to prove his worth and his trust with the franchise.
How it turns out with Winston will go a long way toward determining Licht’s legacy with the team. It has been a mixed bag from a draft perspective the past six years so far, but Winston having his best season to date this coming year and earning a contract extension might change the narrative a bit.
General manager: Steve Keim (promoted to GM January 2013)
Defining pick: QB Kyler Murray – first round, first overall, 2019
It’s almost impossible to envision a scenario where Murray isn’t the make-or-break selection in Keim’s tenure – as well as the Cardinals’ success over the coming years. After working hand in glove with former head coach Bruce Arians to construct a viable annual contender, that working relationship dissolved and the team was left to scramble to find Carson Palmer’s long-term replacement.
After failing to land Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and Josh Allen in 2018 (quarterbacks the Cardinals were believed to be high on), Keim traded up to take Josh Rosen last year with the No. 10 overall pick, trading third- and fifth-rounders to land there. We know how that ended up, with Rosen dealt for dimes on the dollar this offseason for two draft picks.
The reason that move was made was because the team changed gears and picked Murray first overall this spring. If you want to argue that team owner Bill Bidwill was the driving force behind taking Murray at 1 (and the team jacking up ticket prices the following week), I certainly am not going to talk you out of that. But we know how it goes with draft picks: The owner will take credit if Murray pans out and will can Keim if not. It’s just as simple as that.
General manager: Les Snead (hired February 2012)
Defining pick: QB Jared Goff – first round, first overall, 2016
Snead has overseen the Rams’ personnel department since the St. Louis days, and exactly 30 days after taking the GM title there he and the team executed a blockbuster trade down from the No. 2 overall slot with the Washington Redskins for the pick that ended up becoming Robert Griffin III. That the Rams received a haul in draft picks in return – but that few turned out as transcendent talents – might have served as an interesting litmus test for Snead in later years.
With the Rams needing to move on from Sam Bradford, they were unafraid of moving up boldly to the top pick of the 2016 draft to land Goff. Sure, it cost them a lot of picks. But the Griffin trade (even though he ended up not panning out) was a good reminder that almost no cost is too prohibitive to land a franchise QB. Goff has made huge strides under head coach Sean McVay; even if Goff never becomes special, he already has shown enough in leading the Rams to a Super Bowl to suggest Snead got this one right.
The only other possible legacy pick here would be Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick in 2014. That could go down as one of the great all-time steals, landing a generational disruptor outside the top 10. (Of course, the Rams also took Greg Robinson second overall that same year, which stings a bit.)
General manager: John Lynch (hired January 2017)
Defining pick: Round 1, 2017
Lynch’s first move was hailed as a colossal fleecing of Bears GM Ryan Pace, landing three additional draft choices to move down one spot and take DL Solomon Thomas (whom they likely would have taken at two). Lynch then used one of those Bears picks to trade up from the top of the second round to the 31st overall pick to take LB Reuben Foster.
At the time, pundits gushed over Lynch’s aggression, landing two top-10 talents and future picks in his first draft. Only a few months earlier, Lynch was working for Fox as a TV analyst and had no prior personnel experience after playing in the league for 15 years as an excellent safety.
Now that first draft haul tells a different story. Thomas reportedly was on the trade block prior to last month’s draft, and Foster – cut from the 49ers after a series of off-field incidents – has seen his career go sideways since then. Lynch might have landed one of the great steals of the past few years with TE George Kittle in Round 5 that year, but the high missteps have outweighed the positives.
General manager: John Schneider (hired January 2010)
Defining pick: QB Russell Wilson – third round, 75th overall, 2012
Schneider could run the Seahawks’ personnel department for the next 20 years and not ever have a pick quite like that of Wilson. It was widely panned at the time because Wilson was not quite 6 feet tall and because the Seahawks had just signed free-agent QB Matt Flynn to a contract. Imagine that. But the Seahawks saw something special in Wilson and were undeterred. We think they might have nailed that.
The Wilson pick is proof that sometimes luck mixed with a willingness to go against the grain can yield brilliant results. The latter has been the mode for success in Seattle, even as the majority of the Seahawks’ championship defense has been broken up over the past few seasons.
The Seahawks have mined some great talent outside of Round 1 under Schneider’s watch – Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Golden Tate, Tyler Lockett and Justin Britt immediately come to mind. Many of those picks also were panned as reaches, too. The Seahawks have always been willing to tack against the wind in the draft, critics be damned. Sometimes they’ve struck out, but their big hits prove they have a reason not to care what outsiders think about their scouting methods.
And yet there will never be a pick more tied to Schneider’s legacy than the Wilson one – then, now or years down the road. When they write Schneider’s obit, Wilson’s name will be right up at the top.
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