For 11 years, I’ve written a list of the NFL’s future GMs, and every year the feedback from people on that side of the industry varies. Sometimes there’s a recurring theme; other times, there isn’t. Last year, the resounding question was, Why is the list all scouts?
It’s a fair criticism. We’ve been very scout-heavy here over the last decade, partially because most general managers have that background, some as on-the-road college scouts, others as in-the-office pro scouts. Another reason is that their proficiency is easier to ascertain than that of someone on the cap/analytics side. And there’s no question that most fans want their teams to find the next Ron Wolf.
But focus on that too much, and maybe you miss the next Mickey Loomis or Howie Roseman, who both came up on the cap side and have built title-winning teams.
“Isn’t Howie the great example?” one rival team president said this week. “It’s about combining intellectual power with hiring a great group of scouts. And it’s not like [scouts] solely have a great track record. The analytics boom is getting stronger in the NFL and the guys who will have a shot from cap/analytics standpoint will be those that use that tool, but also built a great scouting staff.”
And man, does that hold up here. Over the last few years, scouting-side GMs have emerged from the staffs of Roseman (Jets GM Joe Douglas, ex-Colts GM Ryan Grigson) and Loomis (Bears GM Ryan Pace), and both have replenished their ranks to the point where you’ll see multiple names from both the Eagles and Saints scouting departments this year.
We’re going to have the traditional names on this year’s list. But it’s definitely worth mentioning guys like Omar Khan and Samir Suleiman in Pittsburgh, Jake Rosenberg and Alec Halaby in Philly, Rob Brzezinski in Minnesota, Russ Ball in Green Bay, Mike Greenberg in Tampa and Mike Disner in Detroit.
Philadelphia’s Andrew Berry, with a hybrid background, should also be considered. He’s Harvard-educated, he’s scouted for a decade and he’s worked with Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown in Cleveland, giving him unique perspective on balancing different sides of team building. He could be ideal for a team like Jacksonville, with the expectation that analytically-minded EVP Tony Khan will be more influential going forward.
But some owners are more comfortable with candidates who have a business background, because so many owners have a similar background. That isn’t a driving force when a team is looking for a GM, but it also isn’t irrelevant.
After all, if a candidate can speak the same language as the owner, he is probably going to be a little more comfortable with that candidate.
That was quick. The end of the regular season is here, and we are here to get you ready for Week 17. This week, you’ll find …
• Our watch list, featuring guys from pivotal games between the Niners and Seahawks, Saints and Panthers, Texans and Titans, and Cowboys and Redskins.
• Two top 100 draft prospects to watch in this weekend’s college playoffs, plus links to what we’ve said about some of the other guys in those games over the season.
• What the 2007 Giants have to do with the ’19 playoffs.
• My power rankings ballot.
But we’re starting with our annual Future GMs list.
The list becomes tougher and more complex to compile each year for a couple reasons. We covered the first reason above, and I expect the GM search process to become less clear-cut based on that in the years to come. Second, there aren’t seven or eight GMs jobs opening up every year, as is the case on the coaching side, so the pool hasn’t been depleted. Third, I do think these guys continue to get better training for the big jobs than they used to.
If that’s my preamble to telling you good names will be left off here, then so be it. There will be names left off, in interest of keeping the list to a manageable number.
Mike Borgonzi, director of football operations, Chiefs: Borgonzi hold Chris Ballard’s former job in Kansas City, and was co-director of player personnel with current GM Brett Veach before John Dorsey was fired in 2017. The rebuilding of the defense there should put another notch on the belt of a deserving candidate.
Nick Caserio, director of player personnel, Patriots: Caserio is among the NFL’s best, and there’s no question he’s ready for a GM poisition. The question is whether he’ll leave New England. His deal is up in May, so he could walk (I wouldn’t totally close the book on him joining his close friend Bill O’Brien in Houston) without needing permission too then. Whether the Patriots would let him leave before then is an open question. Or maybe he does a new deal and stays.
Ed Dodds, assistant GM, Colts: Dodds was long among Seahawks GM John Schneider’s most trusted confidants in Seattle, and he’s done nothing but validate that standing in three seasons in Indianapolis, earning the promotion to assistant GM. He’s been a rock for Ballard in assembling a number of impressive draft hauls.
Scott Fitterer, co-director of player personnel, Seahawks: Fitterer’s been close to landing a GM position for a few years now—he was runner-up for the Jets job in May. He combines a strong personality with vast knowledge and an impressive network on the college side, and he’s gathered more in-office experience the last few years.
Joe Hortiz, director of player personnel, Ravens: Hortiz and Douglas worked hand-in-hand for years with Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta to give Baltimore perhaps the NFL’s strongest college-scouting infrastructure. Of those four, Hortiz is the only guy who hasn’t gotten his shot as a GM—and those who know him believe he’s richly deserving. The Ravens’ big 2019 season should help.
Trent Kirchner, co-director of player personnel, Seahawks: I had one GM call Kirchner “the guy who should be a GM and I can’t believe he’s not.” So some are hot on him, others aren’t as much (in part, because Seattle’s had so many candidates over the years), but there’s no question the resume is there. The Seattle exec’s background is on the pro side, but Schneider has him out on the college scouting trail plenty now.
Jeff Ireland, assistant GM, Saints: If you’re paying attention, you’ll see how Ireland has transformed New Orleans over the last four draft cycles, from a Brees/Payton-centric operation into a well-rounded team that can win a ton of different ways (as evidenced by the team’s 6-1 mark when Brees went down this year). His rocky run as Miami GM has hurt, of course, but smart NFL people should be past that by now.
Will McClay, assistant director of player personnel, Cowboys: If this list was in ranking order, rather than in alphabetical order, McClay might be No. 1. He’s coached, he’s scouted, he’s worked in analytics and he’s helped put together one of the NFL’s best rosters. I don’t know if he’d leave Dallas, but if I were another team, I would make the effort to find out.
George Paton, assistant GM, Vikings: Paton is where DeCosta was and Caserio has been for years—more-than-ready to be a GM, with some questioning whether he’ll actually leave his good situation in Minnesota. I do think he’d be willing to consider jobs elsewhere this offseason, if the right team came along.
Adam Peters, VP of player personnel, 49ers: Peters was GM John Lynch’s top personnel-side hire when he got to San Francisco in 2017, and the 49ers have built one of the NFL’s best rosters in the three years since. Peters is still young, but now has that rebuild, plus being a part of the Peyton Manning Broncos team build, on his ledger.
Ray Agnew, director of pro personnel, Rams; Ryan Cowden, VP of player personnel, Titans; Ian Cunningham, assistant director of player personnel, Eagles; Terry Fontenot, director of pro scouting, Saints; Brad Holmes, director of college scouting, Rams; Brandon Hunt, director of pro scouting, Steelers; Champ Kelly, assistant director of player personnel, Bears; James Liipfert, director of college scouting, Texans; Dan Morgan, director of player personnel, Bills; Monti Ossenfort, director of college scouting, Patriots; Matt Russell, director of player personnel, Broncos; Joe Schoen, assistant GM, Bills; Andy Weidl, VP of player personnel, Eagles; Eliot Wolf, assistant GM, Browns; Dave Ziegler, director of pro scouting, Patriots.
Ryan Grigson, Seahawks; Reggie McKenzie, Dolphins; Scott Pioli, free agent; Rick Smith, free agent.
And as you guys know, there is rhyme and reason to certain names being on these lists, which I’ll get into in a special one-off Friday column (how’s that for a tease?).
TWO FOR SATURDAY
LSU DE K’Lavon Chaisson (vs. Oklahoma, Peach Bowl, ESPN, 4 p.m.): The redshirt sophomore, who lost the 2018 season to a torn ACL, has come back with a vengeance—the edge rusher’s 4.5 sacks belie how impactful he’s been coming off the edge in 11 games (he missed games against Vandy and Northwestern State due to injury.
“Very talented,” one NFC college scouting director said. “Outstanding looking on the hoof and he plays like he looks. The numbers don’t jump off the page in terms of production but he gets consistent pressure and has all the tools to be an elite rusher at the next level. People point to the sack number without studying him. (Ex-LSU DE) Danielle Hunter only had 1.5 sacks when he came out.”
Another NFC exec affirmed that, calling Chaisson a “very active edge rusher, good hand use and burst to close. Best getting upfield and attacking in the run and pass game. Plays with great effort. SOLB/Edge rusher depending on your defense. He has the ability to be disruptive off the edge.”
Expect Chaisson to rise through the draft process; he has room to grow athletically, has that premium skill of being able to get to the quarterback, and checks the boxes on intangibles (team captain, wears the storied 18 jersey for LSU). As it stands, he’s probably a back-half-of-the-first-rounder already.
Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins (vs. Clemson, Fiesta Bowl, ESPN, 8 p.m.): The junior enters the College Football Playoff third in the country with 1829 yards rushing, and in the mix with a number of other backs (Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard and the other back in the Fiesta Bowl, Clemson’s Travis Etienne) to go in the first few rounds in April. Dobbins is compact, powerful and quick, and he’s second in school history, having just passed Ezekiel Elliott and Eddie George, sitting behind only two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin.
“He’s really, really good,” said one NFC scout. “Really instinctive. Great contact balance and great body control. Not real elusive but he can make a guy miss in the hole and he’s at the second level RIGHT NOW. He’s got enough speed for me, but that’s the knock on him.”
While the Tigers are certainly the best team the Buckeyes have faced, a rebuilt defensive line is where, on paper, the defensive champs could be susceptible. Dobbins should get a steady diet of work on Saturday night.
POWER RANKINGS BALLOT
1. Ravens (13-2): This one’s easy, and won’t change now that we know Baltimore will go less-than-full bore Sunday against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 11 in a row, and seven of the last nine have come by double-digits, a run that includes blowouts of the Patriots, Texans and Rams.
2. Saints (12-3): They’re probably not getting a first-round bye, but I still think they may have the league’s most well-rounded roster. If the team does have to go through the wild-card round, that experience in Nashville on Sunday—coming from behind on the road, on grass, outdoors against a good team—should be valuable.
3. Packers (12-3): The win over the Vikings was impressive, and now we get to see what Aaron Rodgers can do in the playoffs with, for the first time in a while, a defense with high-end potential. Interesting side note: If the Packers win and Niners lose, Green Bay gets home-field, and the Saints, a dome team, would be No. 2.
4. 49ers (12-3): The two third-and-16s against the Rams showed this team’s resiliency; they were coming off a tough loss on a short week, were fighting off a defending conference champ playing to stay in the playoff hunt and dealing with, on a more serious note, a teammate’s tragic circumstance. The Niners have slowly become more battle-tested through December.
5. Chiefs (11-4): I had a tough time leaving the Patriots out of the top five, based on how they looked Saturday night against the Bills. But the Chiefs haven’t done anything this month to merit dropping them, and they’ve got the head-to-head over New England, which serves as a nice tie-breaker. The good news? These two can settle that on the field in two weeks.
THE ONE THING NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The parallels between the 2019 Chiefs defense and what its coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, did in New York in 2007. Everyone remembers how the Giants finished that season—the team led the league in sacks during the regular season, then bludgeoned Tony Romo, Brett Favre and Tom Brady on the way to a championship. Fewer people recall the road they took to get there. Spagnuolo, then a first-time coordinator, was openly questioned as the defense allowed a league-high 80 points through two weeks, and had its issues right into November.
Then, New York got hot and the rest is history. Similarly, these Chiefs allowed opponents to get into the 30s four times through 10 weeks, and then something clicked. Since then? The Chiefs have allowed 17, 9, 16, 3 and 3 points.
Now, those Giants had Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka up front, and while Kansas City has good players up front (Chris Jones, Frank Clark), they aren’t that. But those Giants also didn’t have the offense these Chiefs do.
Line all this up, and the idea of Kansas City getting hot in January is pretty conceivable. And that’s even though they’ll likely have to take the long road through the wild card round—just like those Giants once did.
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