The dam has broken. The most analytically-minded front offices are not only winning, they are putting distance between themselves and the rest of the league. It’s how a team like the Eagles can win playoff games with a No. 2 quarterback in back-to-back years. It’s how Bill Belichick keeps hoisting Lombardis even though he’s let his left tackle walk each of the past two springs. They are adapting. The others will die if they don’t follow suit.
For the purposes of this article, I consider the “general manager” to be whomever is believed to have the biggest role in shaping the roster, irrespective of who has the official title. The criteria is the same as always. All front office activity — from players and coaches to draft picks and contracts — is taken into consideration. Past achievements are not written off, but recent history is given greater emphasis. Even in a results-based business, the process is vital. Last year’s list can be found here. 2017’s is here.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
How did Bill Belichick celebrate his sixth Super Bowl victory as head coach? By letting his left tackle and top pass rusher walk in free agency. Neither time nor winning have softened Belichick’s heart. He continues to do the things no other coach or general manager will do. Belichick found Trey Flowers in the fourth round, but he does not overpay for sacks. He pulled Trent Brown off the scrap heap, but he refuses to let bargains become boondoggles. He lets someone else spend the money. If it proves worth it — like Chandler Jones in Arizona — then so be it. There is always another find to be made. Whether it is the restricted free agent market or compensatory pick process, Belichick scours all available avenues for talent, playing the longest, most patient game. He is completely unbeholden to sentiment. This may not be a recommended personality trait in a normal human being, but Belichick has never pretended to be normal. The only game he plays is on the field. The rest is unrelenting logic. Perhaps that leaves you cold. It also keeps the trophy case warm.
2. Howie Roseman, Eagles
One of the league’s youngest general managers is also one of its most impressive survivors — and winners. Still only 43, Roseman was barely two years removed from outlasting Chip Kelly when he assembled the Eagles’ first championship squad. Roseman has built such a deep roster that it managed to win at least one playoff game each of the past two seasons with its backup quarterback. He has stockpiled so much talent in the trenches that elite skill players have not been necessary. 2018 was arguably as impressive as the Eagles’ Lombardi-lifting 2017 considering the team’s injury issues. A forward thinker who is both willing to trade draft picks and stockpile them via the compensatory process, Roseman has taken on a Belichick-ian air as a team builder. Market inefficiencies — expiring contracts — will be identified. Edges — like a rookie quarterback deal — will be ruthlessly exploited. No one, either as a coach or executive, is in Belichick’s tier. Roseman leads the “best of the rest.”
3. Kevin Colbert, Steelers
Kevin Colbert has been the Steelers’ general manager since 2000. His rosters have won 65.2 percent of their games, second to only Bill Belichick’s Patriots Death Star. The last time Pittsburgh finished below .500 was 2003. Impressive, unassailable. Keeping it going will require overcoming some heady issues. Head coach Mike Tomlin finally lost control of an ever-volatile locker room in 2018, with Antonio Brown going rogue after one Ben Roethlisberger slight too many. Which brings us to Big Ben. If Tomlin failed to put out the fire, it was Roethlisberger who started it. Colbert responded by extending his quarterback through 2021. Roethlisberger’s blank check complicates Colbert’s most pressing question — is Tomlin still the right man to lead this group of players? Never regarded as an in-game maestro, Tomlin is paid for what he does in the locker room. In 2018, it wasn’t enough. For his part, Colbert must do a better job on the defensive side of the ball. The team was caught flat-footed at linebacker following Ryan Shazier’s injury, while cornerback is a recurring trouble spot. Colbert showed some urgency in the draft with his uncharacteristic trade up for Devin Bush. Colbert has lasted this long by answering the big questions and getting the little details right. Both are currently threatening to derail what has been an underappreciated front office run.
4. Les Snead, Rams
Apparently a general manager takes on the character of his head coach. When Jeff Fisher running the Rams, Les Snead was busy doing things like extending Tavon Austin. On Sean McVay’s watch, it has been one excellent move after another, with an unusual focus on the non-draft avenues of team building. After signing LT Andrew Whitworth in 2017, McVay and Snead added Nickell Robey-Coleman and Ndamukong Suh in 2018. They then went on an unprecedented trading spree, acquiring each of Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Although Suh is now gone, all six players were core members of last season’s Super Bowl squad. The M.O. remained the same this spring, with mid-season acquisition Dante Fowler being re-signed and Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews coming aboard in free agency. There is a reason teams do not usually build through the veteran market: It is expensive as sin. For now, the Rams can afford it with Jared Goff on his rookie deal. Although Goff’s extension is a looming conundrum — just how good is Goff, really? — Snead and McVay have two more years to figure it out. Despite all the moves, the Rams do not yet have a future salary cap crisis on their hands. Goff could change that, but it stands to reason Snead and McVay would then adjust their approach. Through three offseasons, it has been nearly flawless.
5. Chris Ballard, Colts
Having quickly gutted and rebuilt ex-GM Ryan Grigson’s defective roster, Chris Ballard has moved on to loading up. Although judicious in free agency, Ballard hits home runs, pulling Pierre Desir off the scrap heap and transforming Eric Ebron from a bust into a touchdown-scoring force. If you were searching for the “next Ebron” this offseason, Ballard might have found him with his well-reasoned Devin Funchess signing. Later on, Ballard waited patiently to land aging-but-still-potent pass rusher Justin Houston 11 days after the market opened. In the draft, Ballard has stockpiled and spent 21 picks over the past two years, including an absurd 2018 haul that featured first-team All-Pros with each of his first two selections. This spring, Ballard snagged a 2020 second-rounder for agreeing to move down 20 spots from No. 26 and still landed the No. 1 cornerback on his board, Rock Ya-Sin. Aside from his roster building, Ballard turned an embarrassment in Josh McDaniels’ about-face at head coach into the best hire of 2018 in Frank Reich. No hot streak lasts forever, but the right process makes the next one inevitable. Ballard’s approach has been immaculate through two-plus seasons on the job.
6. Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons
Thomas Dimitroff has had two runs of excellence in 11 years as Falcons general manager. Is the second coming to a premature end? This is still a talented roster, but it slumped to 7-9 last season following back-to-back campaigns with a playoff victory, including 2016’s Super Bowl appearance. Like all GMs, Dimitroff has been far from perfect from a personnel standpoint, but his biggest failings have come on the sideline. After finally moving on from on outdated Mike Smith, Dimitroff has saddled himself with an equally outmoded Dan Quinn. Quinn did such a poor job in 2018 that he fired all three of his coordinators. If your coach is firing each of his top lieutenants, why not just fire the coach? You can’t blame it all on Quinn, but every roster is going to have failings. Quinn does not seem equipped to coach around them. A Bill Belichick acolyte, Dimitroff understandably values stability. He would do well to heed another Belichick lesson: Move on from weak links/sunk costs, even if they are on the sideline.
7. Rick Spielman, Vikings
If you ever end up at a poker table with Rick Spielman, you won’t have to worry about him slow playing. He only makes big bets. His latest, Kirk Cousins’ fully guaranteed $84 million deal, was a pre-flop raise that turned into a check. After a hot September, Cousins was shakier the rest of the way, leading to one of Spielman’s patented valleys after a peak. The Vikings’ general manager since 2006, Spielman’s teams have made the playoffs five times. Four times, they failed to return the following season. The bigger the bet, the greater the consequences, and Spielman’s aggression has arguably made for inconsistent results. It could also simply be bad beats for a general manager who has typically drafted well and not tended to throw money away in free agency, Matt Kalil notwithstanding. Never static, perhaps Spielman should rest on his laurels a little more often. But then he wouldn’t be Rick Spielman. One of these days, an all-in Spielman is going to hit a full house on the river, and the dealer will slide a Lombardi his way.
8. Andy Reid/Brett Veach, Chiefs
Andy Reid is reaping the rewards of one of the greatest draft trade ups in recent memory, Patrick Mahomes. In true Andy Reid fashion, he is also making things unnecessarily difficult for himself and front office. Firing DC Bob Sutton should have been a straightforward transaction. He was one of the worst coordinators in the league and had to go. Reid turned the easy into a Rubik’s Cube, recycling Steve Spagnuolo, a move that necessitated a switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive front, which itself required all manner of roster machinations. “Required” used loosely in this instance, as many teams now regard the 3-4/4-3 distinction as what it is: An artificially-constraining label. Reid treated the transition with its traditional pomp and circumstance, however, moving on from 3-4ers Dee Ford and Justin Houston and acquiring 4-3er Frank Clark for an almost Khalil Mack-esque draft bounty. Maybe the pieces will now fit better on Spagnuolo’s board, but why limit yourself to such a board to begin with? We will spend the offseason complaining about it, but Reid will likely end up winning all the same. In many ways, that is Reid defined. Even when he insists on tying one hand behind his back, almost no one is better at the job.
9. John Schneider, Seahawks
On the one hand, John Schneider’s rosters have made the playoffs 7-of-9 years and won at least nine games each of the past seven seasons. On the other, it has been a really long time since Schneider and coach Pete Carroll added an impact player. It would be too simple to say Schneider and Carroll are riding Russell Wilson’s coattails. Carroll is still coaching like a Hall-of-Famer. But just as some of Carroll’s success feels in spite of himself — truly, what was that offense in 2018? — the same can be said of Schneider. With Schneider, it is important to remember that Carroll wields immense power. It’s possible Schneider did not want Rashaad Penny with the No. 27 overall pick of last year’s draft. But Penny is who Schneider got, and he proceeded to operate as a change-of-pace back who touched the ball 94 times. That is not how you use the precious resource of a first-round pick in modern football, especially when you have one of the game’s most gifted passers. Despite the glaring mistakes, Schneider has some things cooking under the radar. As analytics ace Warren Sharp points out, Schneider might be adopting a new method of winning with an expensive quarterback. Schneider is cashing in his expensive veterans for draft picks to replenish the roster on the cheap. It’s smart. It also won’t be enough if Schneider and Carroll can’t shed some of their antiquated instincts.
10. Mickey Loomis, Saints
There are worse places to live than the now. That’s where Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton are firmly entrenched as the last bit of air comes through Drew Brees’ championship window. Emboldened by 2017’s return to form after three years in 7-9 Fisherville, Loomis and Payton went all in on 2018 and came within a future rule change of the Super Bowl. They are not about to stay on 16 now. With only one pick in the top 167 after last spring’s brash Marcus Davenport maneuver, the Saints were limited to the free agent and trade markets as they looked to improve their roster. They dabbled in the former and were absent from the latter. The big addition was playmaking tight end Jared Cook, something the Saints have lacked since Jimmy Graham’s trade. Elsewhere, both lines were solidified with a series of workmanlike moves. Plan A is win the Super Bowl. There is no Plan B. Even though Brees is not signed for next season, he already counts an astronomical $21.3 million against the salary cap. The high risk is evident. The high reward is within reach. Most modern general managers aim for sustainability. Loomis and Payton’s old school teaches one thing: There is no time like the present.
11. Tom Telesco, Chargers
There are two ways to look at Tom Telesco’s six years on the job. The first is that he’s had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback to build around and has only two playoff wins to show for it. The other is, he has produced four winning campaigns and now boasts one of the league’s deepest rosters. Telesco has drafted at least one Pro Bowler or All-Pro six straight seasons, including defensive linchpins Joey Bosa and Derwin James. Even first-round running back Melvin Gordon has proven worth his selection, while Day 2/3 picks Hunter Henry and Desmond King are helping to fuel the Chargers’ renaissance. Largely quiet in free agency, Telesco has focused on extending his own draft finds. He has done all this for an adrift organization that will soon be playing in its third stadium in five years. Although he is as anonymous as his franchise, Telesco’s work deserves recognition.
12. John Dorsey, Browns
We can talk all day about how Sashi Brown died for the Browns’ sins. That does not change the fact that it has been John Dorsey overseeing the resurrection. Dorsey has been a precision-guided missile as he’s completed his franchise’s transformation from laughingstock to budding colossus. After making the analytically-approved selection of Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall, Dorsey dispatched all-time bad coach Hue Jackson in favor of complete unknown Freddie Kitchens. Whereas other “old school” general managers might have opted for a ProvenLeader™ — say, perhaps Gregg Williams, who did a commendable with the interim tag — Dorsey went with an obscure former running backs coach, one who said “you need to be able to pass the ball and stop the pass.” Dorsey has a boldness that belies his crotchety “real football” persona. Now doing things like acquiring Odell Beckham and trading up for a sliding Greedy Williams, Dorsey wants to go straight from rebuild to imperial phase, skipping the 9-7 interim. It’s the grandest of plans, something that got Dorsey into trouble in Kansas City as he ran up too much debt on the team’s salary cap credit card. It certainly looks like that could happen again in Cleveland. Dorsey hopes the difference this time is that the price tag comes attached to a Lombardi Trophy, the first in Browns history.
13. Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones, Cowboys
Has such a powerful man ever been such an easy target? Jerry Jones jokes have long written themselves. While you were laughing, you might not have noticed Jones’ teams posting a .600 winning percentage (48-32) since 2014. How did this happen? It’s a good question, especially as Jones does things like use a top-five pick on a running back and stick by a feckless Jason Garrett. Shockingly disciplined on the open market, the Cowboys’ most expensive outside free agent over the past five years was Cedric Thornton’s four-year, $17 million deal in 2016. Jones has been convinced to build from within, and he has been rewarded with his most successful five-year stretch since Jimmy Johnson was in town. Jones is still capping his ceiling by tethering himself to Garrett and his arch-conservative style. Jones has finally come around on the best team-building practices. Perhaps coach hiring is next.
14. Jon Robinson, Titans
Jon Robinson has yet to break through, but he is holding steady. The heir to a team that went 5-27 in 2014-15, Robinson quickly whipped the Titans into 9-7 respectability. That is where they have stayed, posting the same record each of the past three seasons. Robinson believes his roster is ready for more. After stockpiling draft picks his first two years on the job, Robinson has had back-to-back eventful free agencies, spending big money on both sides of the ball. His project might be further along if not for annual injury and inconsistency from Marcus Mariota. As such, Robinson has finally gotten serious about the backup quarterback spot, acquiring Ryan Tannehill. On the sideline, Robinson seems to have found the right partner in coach Mike Vrabel, who transformed the Titans’ defense from a bottom-half unit to top-five bully in 2018. Striking the right balance between aggression and pragmatism, Robinson is a general manager whose arrow is pointing upward.
15. Ryan Pace, Bears
Having only ever known last place as a general manager, Ryan Pace embarked on a survival mode 2018 offseason, hiring John Fox’s polar opposite in Matt Nagy before splurging on Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. For the grand finale, Pace included a pair of first-round picks in a package for Oakland’s Khalil Mack. The moves had the desired effect, sending the Bears to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Nagy won Coach of the Year honors, while Mack was a DPOY contender. The good feelings came to an abrupt halt thanks to an earlier Pace mistake, his 2016 release of Robbie Gould. As Gould remained one of the league’s best kickers, Pace made Cody Parkey one of the most overpaid. In the wake of Parkey’s walkoff shank in the Wild Card Round was a reality check. Pace’s franchise player, Mitchell Trubisky, made only lurching progress as a sophomore, while not-so-secret weapon DC Vic Fangio departed to coach the Broncos. Mack’s acquisition left Pace short on both cap space and draft resources. With the limited picks he had, he made a curious third-round trade up for a running back. Pace desperately needed a big year. He got it. Whether or not it came at too great a cost will depend on Nagy’s adjustments and Trubisky’s improvement.
16. John Lynch, 49ers
Handpicked by his coach, John Lynch has gotten the broad strokes right while showing creativity with some of the finer details. The 49ers’ acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo on the cheap has yet to pay dividends, but it remains the centerpiece of Lynch and Kyle Shanahan’s plan. As they wait for Garoppolo to get healthy and take his expected place as franchise quarterback, the 49ers have reached team-friendly agreements with players like Richard Sherman and Dee Ford. Even seeming overpays like Kwon Alexander can turn into easy team opt-outs. In the draft, the jury remains out on first-rounders Solomon Thomas and Mike McGlinchey, though George Kittle is one of the best day-three selections of recent vintage. Reuben Foster was an upside gamble whose risk caught up with his reward. Lynch and Shanahan have gotten their house in order rather quickly. Mantlepiece Garoppolo will determine whether it turns into a mansion or model home.
17. Dave Caldwell/Tom Coughlin, Jaguars
2018 was a season of humbling setbacks for a front office that saw only ascendancy in its surprise 2017 run to the AFC Championship Game. On offense, Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell doubled down on their zero-margin-for-error formula of pounding the rock and hiding Blake Bortles. Predictably, the center could not hold, as Leonard Fournette once again struggled with injury and Bortles suffered his final exposure. On defense, Coughlin’s crew believed 2017’s dominance was the new normal, passing on enhancements in free agency after years of profligate spending. With the offense in ruins, an overstressed D surrendered 48 more points than the year prior. This offseason’s solutions were not particularly encouraging. Although no longer overpaying Bortles, the Jags are now overpaying Nick Foles, a league-average player whose reputation rests on well-timed postseason heroics. Nothing has been added in the way of weapons, though the Jags have found themselves feuding with supposed focal point Fournette. There is enough defensive talent here that the modest switch from Bortles to Foles could be enough to get the Jags back on the up and up, but Foles is merely a hope, not an answered prayer.
18. Duke Tobin/Mike Brown, Bengals
The league’s most opaque front office made its biggest change in decades when it finally fired Marvin Lewis. Accustomed to January one-and-dones, owner Mike Brown and director of player personnel Duke Tobin’s roster was no longer even making the tournament, going 19-28-1 from 2016-18. As always in Cincinnati, the rebuilding plan hinges on the draft. Tobin and company have made 32 picks over the past three years, restocking a roster that has been slowly depleted by age and free agency. Of course, 2017 first-rounder John Ross is already a bust, while 2018 first-rounder Billy Price did not look far behind as a rookie. That, coupled with Andy Dalton’s slow erosion from an already-low baseline makes for a low-ceiling situation. Much is riding on new coach Zac Taylor, who had immense difficulty assembling his staff. OC Brian Callahan is an unproven product of nepotism while DC Lou Anarumo is a 52-year-old journeyman who has three months of interim coordinator experience in between 20-plus years of coaching defensive backs. With Brown sill pinching pennies like it’s the Depression, Tobin can ill afford any more misses as he tries to prevent the Bengals from slipping back into obscurity.
19. John Elway, Broncos
Peyton Manning was a long time ago. John Elway looked like a genius for as long as Manning was setting new standards under center. Since? Let’s just say Elway’s get rich quick schemes at quarterback have left him wins poor. Elway’s rosters have only 11 combined victories over the past two seasons after clearing at least 12 every year from 2012-15. It’s not just Elway missing Manning. On an unruly hot streak when he first took over the front office — Elway found gems in the draft, free agency and UDFA market — his Midas touch has disappeared. Signings have gone nowhere. First-round picks have busted. Phillip Lindsay was a sensational find after last year’s draft but hardly a suture for a roster that has continued to bleed talent. Anything that has happened once can happen twice. Elway could begin another run of excellence. It’s not terribly likely to start in a year where Joe Flacco will be the Week 1 quarterback. Elway deserves life-long credit for mastering both the playing field and front office. That doesn’t mean he gets carte blanche. Players retire and general managers get fired. Elway could soon add the latter experience to the former.
20. Brian Gutekunst, Packers
Under ex-Packers GM Ted Thompson, signing a single free agent constituted a miraculous act. Brian Gutekunst has committed well north of $200 million to them in barely 16 months on the job. That includes more than $25 million to each of OLB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos, OLB Za'Darius Smith and OG Billy Turner this offseason. Gutekunst has taken nearly the exact opposite approach of his predecessor. “Nearly” because, active though Gutekunst is on the open market, he has still provisioned Thompson’s annual cache of draft picks, including 11 last year and 10 last month. Young, cost-controlled talent remains a priority in Green Bay, but it is no longer the only thing. It is the right approach for a traditionally-conservative organization that has not re-stocked its trophy case as much as it should have with Aaron Rodgers. If Gutekunst goes down, it will be swinging.
21. Marty Hurney, Panthers
Marty Hurney was an unlikely comeback candidate. At the time of his firing in 2012, he had become a punchline for overpaying running backs in an age of passing. But as he departed, he left behind the seeds of a roster that germinated into three-straight division championships, blooming with a 15-1 Super Bowl squad in 2015. Following Dave Gettleman’s stunning summer firing in 2017, Hurney received his second chance, quickly turning an interim tag into a permanent gig. Largely quiet in free agency, Hurney has made just two big expenditures, Dontari Poe and C Matt Paradis. Always above average at making first-round selections, Hurney seems to have hit on D.J. Moore. No. 16 pick Brian Burns comes with monstrous upside as a 21-year-old three-year college starter. Hurney is probably not the GM of the future for an owner in David Tepper who made his name in the analytically-obsessed field of hedge fund management, but he seems surprisingly fine for the present in a hyper-competitive NFC South.
22. Brandon Beane, Bills
The situation in Buffalo is pretty simple: Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane are hitched to Josh Allen's wagon. They traded up two separate times to land Allen in last year’s draft and have oriented the entire roster around both the skills he has and those he lacks. In free agency, the focus was the offensive line and running game. The draft? The offensive line and running game. John Brown was signed to supplement Robert Foster as a deep threat while Cole Beasley was added to feign interest in the short game. A low percentage passer with a mammoth arm for as long as he’s been on the NFL map, Allen figures to ignore Beasley but benefit from the other new additions. Beane and McDermott are clear eyed about the quarterback they’re building around. The franchise-defining question is whether he should have been the pillar in the first place. Allen’s game is of another era. Like the days of Terry Bradshaw and John Elway, Beane and McDermott will find themselves bygone if Allen busts.
23. Brian Gaine, Texans
Brian Gaine was hired to be coach Bill O’Brien’s friend as much as anything else. The Texans had grown weary of O’Brien butting heads with ex-GM Rick Smith. It was mission accomplished in Year 1, with Gaine nabbing Tyrann Mathieu in free agency before overseeing a picks-poor draft. Despite having zero selections across the first 67 slots, Gaine still managed to come away with starting safety Justin Reid at No. 68. Some of Gaine’s other gambits — like throwing money at the second tier of free agent offensive linemen and hoping something sticks — were less successful. None of Zach Fulton, Senio Kelemete and Seantrel Henderson were an asset. Gaine had more to work with this spring, using top-55 picks on a pair of tackles and a cornerback. Still mostly anonymous, it could be another year or two before Gaine establishes a real identity working alongside the domineering O’Brien.
24. Bob Quinn, Lions
It has never been easy to discern what Bob Quinn stands for as a general manager. It’s been nearly impossible since he hired Matt Patricia as head coach. There is no mystery as to Patricia’s approach. Eschewing the “multiple” ways of his mentor Bill Belichick, Patricia is trying to turn back the clock to stone-age football as the rest of the league goes all in on passing pyrotechnics. This would be an interesting hedge for some teams to make, but not the Lions, who have a durable, efficient and prolific quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Stafford had finally settled into an identity before Patricia gutted the offense in 2018. Now the Lions are all in on implementing his vision, loading up on former Patriots in free agency, including Trey Flowers, Justin Coleman and Danny Amendola. “Patriots West” is an approach that has failed almost everywhere it has been attempted, and Patricia’s brand feels particularly uninspired. No longer in control of his own destiny, Quinn is tied to someone else’s vision. In 2018, it did not appear to be any good.
25. Steve Keim, Cardinals
Steve Keim is lucky to still have a job. Headed into his seventh season, Keim has never made a good first-round pick. No. 1 overall selection Kyler Murray seems like the perfect player to snap the streak, but Murray’s presence in the desert only speaks to how awful Keim’s recent work has been. 2018 was a staggering nadir. Adrift following the loss of partner-in-crime Bruce Arians, Keim made the low-wattage hire of Steve Wilks. Paired with overwhelmed rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, Wilks’ undermanned roster finished 3-13, getting outscored 425-225. By point differential, they were the worst team since the 2013 Jaguars. This was not by design, but it was no accident. Terrible drafts and poor free agent decisions left Keim’s squad without an identity on either side of the ball. Instead of taking the fall, Keim was allowed to one-and-done Wilks and throw a Hail Mary for his replacement. Kliff Kingsbury’s teams had a special trait at Texas Tech: Scoring points. Specifically, 38 per game. Unfortunately, they allowed a weekly 37 and never won more than four games in Big 12 play. Now Kingsbury, who has zero previous NFL coaching experience, is tasked with resurrecting the worst situation in the league. Perhaps he will. He could also easily end up the overly aggressive yin to Wilks’ too conservative yang. Out of second chances, Keim’s fate rests on his rookie head coach’s connection with his rookie quarterback.
26. Dave Gettleman, Giants
Dave Gettleman has taken a bad situation and made it worse. You could argue it’s not all his fault. Maybe owner John Mara really is an incorrigible meddler. Perhaps afternoon nap taker Mike Francesca really does wield undue influence over the organization. We can’t know those things for sure. We can go on only what we’ve seen, and what we’ve seen is not good. In less than 1.5 years on the job Gettleman has doubled down on a mummified Eli Manning, traded Odell Beckham for a safety and defensive tackle, and passed up potential franchise quarterbacks in the 2018 draft in favor of a running back. Saquon Barkley helped improve the Giants’ record from 3-13 to … 5-11. That earned them the No. 6 overall pick, which Gettleman belatedly used on a signal caller. It was a generational reach in Duke’s Daniel Jones, a Dalton-ian prospect who averaged 6.4 yards per attempt as a three-year starter in the ACC. Gettleman said he made this franchise-altering decision after seeing Jones play three series in the Senior Bowl, falling “full bloom in love” as he watched Jones take reps in an exhibition. Elsewhere in the draft, Gettleman once again declined to trade down and accumulate more picks, doing so for the seventh time in seven years. Gettleman doesn’t always choose bad players, but he values the wrong positions and has zero interest in maximizing his assets. He infamously did not even listen to offers for the No. 2 pick in 2018. Gettleman’s process is that of a blind squirrel hunting for nuts. There has been zero indication he is about to stumble upon an oak tree.
27. Jason Licht, Bucs
We said earlier that Steve Keim is lucky to still have a job. Jason Licht is even luckier he got the opportunity to hire Keim’s former coach. Bruce Arians is Licht’s third sideline boss in six seasons. Licht was not responsible for bringing in Lovie Smith, whom he fired. That was a good idea. A bad idea was replacing him with Dirk Koetter, a man whose previous head-coaching stint included a 21-28 record in the PAC-12. Now Licht is on to 66-year-old Arians, who has “retired” twice since 2012. Arians can coach, but it won’t be for long. That means it is up to Licht to make the most of his third lease on life. He started by re-signing one of the league’s worst left tackles, Donovan Smith, to a new three-year contract. Licht was otherwise quiet in free agency, staking his career on Arians’ ability to get the most out of Jameis Winston. If Year 1 of the experiment is anything other than a rousing success, Licht will likely be forced to walk the plank, perhaps in favor of a handpicked Arians candidate. Considering how little talent Licht has accrued on the defensive side of the ball, Arians probably won’t be working any 2019 miracles on his behalf.
28. Bruce Allen, Redskins
There isn’t much that needs to be said about the Redskins’ front office. It’s self-evident to anyone capable of cognitive reasoning. Since owner Daniel Snyder purchased the team in 1999, he and his various executives have produced two playoff wins, one of which came Snyder’s first year on the job with a roster he did not assemble. For the past decade, his right-hand man has been Bruce Allen. It’s a partnership that’s produced a .409 winning percentage. Three times in nine seasons have Allen and Snyder’s squads finished above .500. The high-water mark for victories was 2012’s 10. This year, the duo commandeered the Redskins’ draft room and lucked into Dwayne Haskins. Haskins will serve as a corrective to 2018’s looney tunes decision to give 34-year-old Alex Smith $71 million guaranteed. Entirely bereft of vision or patience, Allen and Snyder will almost certainly squander Haskins’ ability should he prove to be a star. That may sound harsh, but it is the only honest takeaway from the past two decades of Redskins football. Change will require … change. That’s something — whether it’s his team name or front office tactics — Snyder has proven anathema to.
Chris Grier, Dolphins
Technically the Dolphins’ general manager since 2016, Chris Grier is functionally a new hire. His title was in name only until Adam Gase was fired and EVP Mike Tannenbaum was “reassigned.” Although he finally has the power, Grier has been tasked with the most thankless of jobs: A top-to-bottom rebuild. He will be doing so under famously impatient owner Stephen Ross, who let Tannenbaum talk him into one half-baked “reload” after another. Ross is one year shy of becoming an octogenarian, but he has insisted he will give Grier the time and space needed to remold one of the league’s least-talented rosters. Although it is far too early to grade the results, Grier’s early process has been promising. In free agency, Grier checked all his tanking boxes, cutting deadweight veterans like Danny Amendola, Andre Branch and Ted Larsen while unloading Ryan Tannehill and Robert Quinn via trade. Grier was methodical in his head-coaching search. Whereas every other team hired the first Sean McVay disciple it could find, Grier took his time and settled on Bill Belichick acolyte Brian Flores. Grier has paired his rookie head coach with a textbook rebuilding tandem of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen at quarterback. 2019 will be long, but 2020 could already be the beginning of a turnaround if Rosen makes the most of his second chance. Grier will only go as far as his aging owner and young quarterback allow, but his road to relevance has thus far been paved with sound decisions.
New Hires (Alphabetical Order)
Eric DeCosta, Ravens
Eric DeCosta has the unenviable task of taking over for one of the greatest decision makers in NFL history. Odds are, he will be no Ozzie Newsome. Thankfully for DeCosta, he is not coming in cold. A Ravens executive since the franchise’s founding in 1996, DeCosta logged years of service as Newsome’s right-hand man. This is not a reboot so much as a hand off. It still ended up a winter of transition, as DeCosta traded Joe Flacco, cut Eric Weddle, and let Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith depart. DeCosta has inherited a roster tethered to Lamar Jackson, a quarterback who has already been to the playoffs but struggled to complete passes in the process. DeCosta faces the twin tasks of keeping the defense stocked while building around Jackson’s unique skills. Aside from signing Earl Thomas, DeCosta had a quiet free agency. The draft was focused on acquiring weapons for Jackson. DeCosta’s initial plan is to fall back on Newsome’s depth and wait for Jackson to improve. That’s what Newsome would have done. Let’s see how it’s perceived when it’s DeCosta.
Adam Gase, Jets
Adam Gase knows a thing or two about power struggles. He arrived in New York via a Dolphins front office that was essentially a three-year Mexican standoff between himself, Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier. Although Gase lost in Miami, he applied what he learned in New York, quickly kneecapping Mike Maccagnan while “strategically detaching” himself from Gang Green’s draft and the Le’Veon Bell signing. Masterful. In less than six months, Gase has secured both absolute power and plausible deniability. So Gase can win a boardroom knife fight. Can he assemble a roster? The evidence from his time in Miami is scant. Gase’s teams did have a penchant for overachieving relative to low expectations, though he was also famous for feuding with his players. Gase’s executive career has thus far been one of someone who doesn’t get along with anybody. That might work if you’re as talented as Bill Belichick. If not, you better find some pretty good credit to claim. Gase will get that opportunity with a handpicked GM.
Mike Mayock, Raiders
The year is 1997. Reggie McKenzie is in the early days of what will eventually be more than a quarter century in NFL front offices. Mike Mayock? Working as a sideline reporter … for the NCAA tournament. Mayock played professional football … in 1983. Whereas McKenzie is an NFL lifer in every sense of the term, Mayock is a television personality, albeit one who reinvented himself as a respected draft guru. When it comes to basic cable mocks and player evaluation, Mayock was at the head of the pack. Will that translate to the wild world of real life GMing, a landscape dominated by sharks like Bill Belichick and growing increasingly sophisticated amidst the NFL’s numbers revolution? There are nine seasons left on Jon Gruden’s contract to find out. Which brings us to Gruden. Mayock is merely his bag man. Gruden is being paid $90 million through 2027 to dominate every facet of the Raiders’ organization. That he did in Year 1, except on the field, where his roster allowed the most points in the league while scoring the fifth fewest. Even if 60-year-old Mayock proves preternaturally gifted at his job, Gruden could still snuff out his potential. Whatever Mayock’s results, the process that resulted in his hiring was a Hail Mary from a perennially dysfunctional organization.
Mike Maccagnan, Jets
Mike Maccagnan won 10 games his first year on the job. He has picked in the top six ever since. Gang Green is 24-40 (.375) on Maccagnan’s watch, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maccagnan needs it to become a fire if he’s to keep his job. He approached free agency as such, handing out huge contracts to C.J. Mosley, Le'Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder. It was a throwback to Maccagnan’s bank-breaking 2015 spending spree. The difference this time is, he has Sam Darnold at quarterback instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Maccagnan has assembled just enough building blocks on defense that Darnold might not have to carry all of the load as he tries to take a step forward in 2019. Maccagnan has been neither excellent nor terrible. He has been replacement level. That was enough to keep his job as the Jets tried to solve quarterback. It will be his undoing if Darnold’s rising tide doesn’t lift enough boats.