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The General Manager Short List for 2017

As market for GMs is about to heat up, here’s my list of some candidates who deserve a look—and who could bring a fresh approach to turning around a struggling team. Plus, players to watch in Week 15, notes on the Rams, Jim Harbaugh, the surging Bucs and more

In searches for general managers and coaches, every team looking to fill a corner office in January will publicly talk about casting a wide net and keeping an open mind. Whether they really mean that is a matter of opinion.

And while there are often coaching searches that quickly focus on one candidate, and become more pursuit than process, the problem has proven worse on the personnel side. 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.

“There’s an absolute conflict of interest with those people,” said one veteran executive. “One-hundred percent. If you’re in with those people, forget about it.”

Another exec explained it like this: “If you spoke to most people, the consensus is there are front-runners in every one of those situations, depending on who’s running the search. You can just connect the dots. … What you hope for is the opportunity to go in front of people with an open mind, and hopefully that opens a door.”

Future GMs? Player personnel directors Chris Ballard of the Chiefs and Nick Caserio of the Patriots.

Future GMs? Player personnel directors Chris Ballard of the Chiefs and Nick Caserio of the Patriots.

A third personnel man was more specific: “It’s all full of nepotism. It’s a joke. And it starts with Charley Casserly.” So I called Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans GM, to try to figure where the flaws are in a process that’s turned off a lot of people lately, and one that’ll get going in earnest again here in just three weeks’ time.

Elsewhere in this week’s notes, we’ll look at the Rams’ situation post-Jeff Fisher, the future of Jim Harbaugh, the present of Sam Bradford, the Bucs’ rebirth, a couple lesser-know college quarterbacks to watch, and 2017’s franchise-tag figures.

But we start with my eighth annual future general managers list. It was born at the Boston Globe, went with me to NFL Media, and now I’m bringing it here to The MMQB for the first time. The idea was presented to me in 2009 by a young GM who wanted young guys on the personnel side (who were far less visible to owners than young coaches) to get recognition for their work and potential.

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And when I started hearing the complaints the past few weeks about searches being rigged for certain candidates, it got me thinking back to the original idea for this. It was not only to help scouts, but also to give the public and even teams an idea of who was well-regarded in the talent-acquisition community. So all of this brought me to my former NFL Network colleague Casserly on Tuesday night.

Casserly, Ron Wolf, Bill Polian, Ernie Accorsi, John Madden, Tony Dungy and Carl Peterson make up the NFL’s career development advisory panel, and the first five have figured prominently in consulting roles during GM searches over the past two or three years. Those guys compile candidate lists and handle invites for the symposium they hold in June.

Without question, they have sway. And as I detailed, in many corners, the belief is that an old boys’ network has been formed. But Casserly, who led the Jets’ 2015 search—which ended with his former co-workers Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles as GM and coach—takes exceptions to the idea that the process is cooked.

He said the search he ran in New York was open, and points out that the team gave Jon Robinson (whom he didn’t know) and Chris Grier (whom he says he only knew through Chris’s father, Bobby) their first GM interviews, and that he left the room for Maccagnan’s interview. That said, Casserly acknowledged that connections help.

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“It’s so different than it is with coaches,” Casserly said. “Coaches are so clearly defined. You know who calls the plays, you see them on TV, coordinators have press conferences. It’s just not like that in scouting. Are they pro? College? None of them are making big decisions. What you need is networking. It’s not politicking.”

He continued with some advice: “Every time you’re at workout, do your job, because people are watching. You need to show everyone you’re a hard worker. But meet people, too. Ask a GM questions. Be the guy with the clicker. By doing that, you connect with people. That’s how you market yourself. You need advocates. Someone needs to pick up the phone for you. If they aren’t doing that, you’re in a tough spot.”

That won’t quell the frustrations of candidates who believe that Polian delivered his protégés to San Diego and Jacksonville, or that Casserly made sure Maccagnan was front and center for the Jets, or that Wolf got Reggie McKenzie to Oakland. All this is, of course, complex, and these are big decisions that, in many cases, owners would rather have someone else make for them, which fuels the suspicion.

The truth? Every situation is different. And my belief is that this list, as I present it in two parts, does a little to open the minds of people who may think they already know who they want. So here’s this year’s group …

READY TO ROLL

Chiefs VP of player personnel Chris Ballard: Kansas City’s continued success only enhanced the candidacy of an exec who’s been on the cusp for some time. Bonus to hiring him: Widely held belief he’d swiftly assemble a robust scouting staff.

Patriots VP of player personnel Nick Caserio: He interviewed in Miami a few years back, and there was a feeling then that he was ready to take his shot. He hasn’t interviewed elsewhere since, leading to a growing sense that it’d be tough to pry him away.

Ravens assistant GMEric DeCosta: Good luck pursuing him. He’s almost certainly going nowhere. If anything were to lure him, my sense is it would have to be full control and either a major market or an historic franchise.

Seahawks co-director of player personnel Scott Fitterer: The former college director was promoted last year. And while he’s still on the road plenty, the change has given him experience in pro scouting and an office setting. His résumé = Seattle’s roster.

Texans director of player personnel Brian Gaine: In many ways, Gaine has been the bridge between scouting and coaching, with his background speaking Bill O’Brien’s language. And the Texans’ resiliency this year speaks to the depth he’s helped build.

Packers director of player personnelBrian Gutekunst: As the team’s former college director, he’s vital in how Ted Thompson builds the roster. And while Eliot Wolf is a bigger name, I’ve heard too many good things about Gutekunst to leave him off.

Seahawks co-director of player personnel Trent Kirchner: He was promoted from pro director when Fitterer was, and has since gotten more experience on the college side. He’s interviewed with the Jets and Lions the last two years.

Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay: The Cowboys’ offensive talent speaks for itself, but Dallas has been equally resourceful in stocking the defense. And in that regard, the team’s top scout has been a difference-maker.

Cardinals VP of player personnel Terry McDonough: Part of the Ozzie Newsome tree, McDonough helped Steve Keim pull off a difficult rebuild-on-the-fly the past four years. The success of Tampa’s Jason Licht coming from Arizona won’t hurt either.

Vikings assistant GMGeorge Paton: Like Ballard, he’s been in the mix for a number of jobs—he was one of two finalists for the Rams post in 2012—and has helped build a proven winner. Minnesota’s rash of injuries has only highlighted that.

Falcons assistant GMScott Pioli: By all accounts, he’s learned from his experience in Kansas City, and he left the cupboard far from bare. His impact in Atlanta can be seen in the recent influx of talent on defense and along the offensive line.

Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin: Most road scouts have an enormous amount of respect for the stoic Tobin, who has strong football roots, plus a deep, sturdy roster to show for his nearly two decades in Cincinnati.

Packers director of football operationsEliot Wolf: Once Seattle’s John Schneider signed his extension, the assumption became that Wolf would succeed Thompson in Green Bay, maybe very soon. The rumor mill has also tied him to the Niners.

ON DECK

Brandon Beane, Carolina; Joey Clinkscales, Oakland; Joe Douglas, Philadelphia; Brian Heimerdinger, NY Jets; Chris Grier, Miami; Alonzo Highsmith, Green Bay; Brandon Hunt, Pittsburgh; Joe Hortiz, Baltimore; Jeff Ireland, New Orleans; Dan Morgan, Seattle; Kyle O’Brien, Detroit; Monti Ossenfort, New England; Chris Polian, Jacksonville; Jimmy Raye, Indianapolis; Matt Russell, Denver; John Spytek, Tampa Bay; Jamaal Stephenson, Minnesota.

* * *

FIVE NAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND

• I know one thing other teams feared about Seattle was the chance it’d get a healthy Thomas Rawls back. That’s happened. He has 27 carries for 173 yards the past two weeks. He’s capable of changing the Seahawks offense. And you can see him try tonight.

• Speaking of that game, I’m fascinated to see what we get from Jared Goff against Seattle. You have a lot of offensive coaches who have shouldered a lot of blame for the Rams’ struggles. Now, all those guys are fighting for the next step in their careers.

• I’ve been one of the biggest champions for Andrew Luck’s ability to carry the team, but he threw a couple unsightly picks last week. It’s on him now to right all of that with the Colts’ season on the line, and a tough Viking D on deck.

The Boys will be looking for a bounceback from Dak.

The Boys will be looking for a bounceback from Dak.

• I don’t think I need to explain why Dak Prescott is one to watch. Based on who I’ve talked to, there’s no feeling in the building that the Cowboys are close to turning to No. 9. We’ll see if Jerry Jones, Tony Romo’s biggest fan, can resist getting antsy.

• The Bills get the Browns this week. I’m not saying Rex Ryan is coaching for his job. But taking care of business here would go a long way towards saving it.

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* * *

FOUR DOWNS

1. Rams search starts with research. Maybe the most pivotal piece of the impending Los Angeles search, once the Rams figure out who else stays and who else goes—and primarily what becomes of GM Les Snead and his staff—will be the franchise picking an organizational structure. Five years ago the team dangled control over the 53-man roster as a carrot to convince Jeff Fisher to pick St. Louis over Miami. And in the time since, that type of circumstance hasn’t been scarce—Adam Gase got it in Miami, as did Dan Quinn in Atlanta, Lovie Smith in Tampa and Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. In each of those three cases, it was largely the result of competition for the coach’s services. Accordingly, in recent years, many of those types of structures have been modeled after how Seattle makes it work with GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll, the idea being that the GM controls the offseason (and the 90-man roster, free agency and the draft), and then hands the reins of the team and decisions on the 53- and 46-man (game day) rosters over to the coach during camp. If you can make it work, it’s ideal, because it broadens the pool of coaches you can realistically pursue, and head coaching candidates are generally more sought-after than GM candidates, plus there are usually more coaching openings than GM openings.

The John Schneider-Pete Carroll arrangement could be a model for the Rams.

The John Schneider-Pete Carroll arrangement could be a model for the Rams.

The caveat here? If you’re going to make that division of power work, you need to have not just the right people, but the right mix of people. Here’s how Schneider explained it to me a couple years ago: “We do have a collaborative effort. I never give Pete a player he wouldn’t want, and that works both ways. We’re constantly talking about what makes sense in the draft, free agency and with the 53. And we never run into situations where we can’t work it out. ... The important thing is he respects me and I respect him. And I respect him as an evaluator, and he respects me as a team-builder, which is the really important thing.” So as I see it, that first decision—charting the organizational structure—is just as important for the Rams as the more newsworthy hires that’ll follow that.

2. Harbaugh’s future. How Jim Harbaugh will spend 2017 came up this week. And if he’s still in Ann Arbor then—and I think he will be—this will come up again in 2018, then in 2019, and you get the idea. That’s the (really easy to understand) price of admission for Michigan in employing its celebrity coach: Harbaugh’s NFL success means that NFL teams will continue to try and lure him back to the pros.

So what’s the endgame here? I don’t think anyone but Harbaugh could know, and I wouldn’t bet even he knows. What I do know is the widespread feeling in NFL circles is that he’ll be back in pro football eventually. Could be in a year or two. Could be in 10 years. NFL teams will inquire between now and whenever that happens. But considering that the firestorm we witnessed, his classic response, and that this will come up again, I figured I’d go back to a conversation I had with him a few months ago. And specifically, the direct question I asked him: Do you miss the NFL?

“It’s not like I ‘miss’ the NFL, because it didn’t go anywhere,” he responded. “I get great enjoyment watching, and I’m a diehard watching my brother, his team and what they’re doing. There are things not coaching in the NFL that you do miss, those relationships with the players themselves, who are playing at the highest level. But I have those relationships with the players here, the NFL is still there, and getting them in a position to get to experience that is a very worthwhile thing, and I attack that every single day. Bottom line, it’s not something to miss. It’s still there. … I’m happy and challenged every day with what I’m doing right now.”