Future NFL GMs: Our Annual List of Names to Watch

Albert Breer's 12th annual list includes scouts, personnel experts, assistants, former GMs, cap wizards and rising names to watch. Plus, DeAndre Hopkins is talking about practice, some appreciation for the Saints, power rankings and more.
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Look at the title: general manager.

That was the plea of one NFC executive this week as I was assembling my 12th annual future GMs list, originally the brainchild of a general manager who came to me asking about the lack of a good accounting of candidates out there, over a decade ago. And this particular plea was one I’d actually heard repeatedly over the last few days.

A big part of that is the year we’re in. Twenty-twenty has proven a lot of things in the NFL, and one without question is how pro football is a people business, which drives to the heart of this executive’s point. Every GM and head coach’s job this year was more about that than it was finding right edge rusher to fill out the roster or replacing a tight end on the fly. The saying that you’re only as good as your weakest link has never applied more.

On the GM side, for many, it’s meant keeping the organization upright in a most unusual circumstance—no one’s got more pandemic experience than the next guy—and making sure protocols are being followed. It’s meant guiding training staffs overworked with their new responsibilities. It’s meant, in some cases, physically pulling seats bolted to the floor out of meeting rooms to adhere to spacing regulations.

In a different year, being a GM has meant different things. All of which have highlighted how the title itself quite literally transcends the idea most people have of what a GM does.

“This year more than ever, experience matters,” one AFC GM texted on Wednesday. “I spend 15% of my time on scouting, and 85% on the team, and in-house stuff—coaching, logistics, wellness, cap, etc. I think the job has changed a lot. That’s why I personally would stay away from anyone who has not been at least a No. 2 for a team.”

So it is that you hear rumblings out there that Atlanta’s taking serious looks at ex-Giants GM Jerry Reese and ex-Texans GM Rick Smith. It’s also where rumors match up on ex-Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey’s connections to Korn Ferry, the firm running the Texans’ search, and how Dorsey and Kansas City OC Eric Bieniemy could be reunited in Houston to try and build a winner around Deshaun Watson.

It’s why, as the most active market for GM jobs in years gets churning, teams are going to be looking at hiring a general manager in a more layered way than ever before.

It also made putting this year’s list together and culling it to a manageable number tough.

But we did eventually get there.

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We’ve made it to Week 16, and my annual GM list tops the GamePlan. Here’s what else you’ll find …

• Some appreciation for what the Saints did, in a loss, on Sunday.

• How much does practice really matter?

• Power rankings!

***

The truth is most of the names you’ll see on this list have been on it in the past, and will be this year, scouts. That’s rooted in the reality is that they’re most often the guys owners pursue for these jobs. And that makes sense because ultimately, GMs are judged on the rosters they put together.

You don’t win Executive of the Year because you got the right nutritionist to make the protein shakes. Nor are you fired from that job solely because the grass wasn’t cut right.

But how each guy gets to the right roster can vary. Seattle’s John Schneider, for example, is involved in his team’s roster-building in a different way than, say, New Orleans’s Mickey Loomis, and both have a massive amount of success. That’s why kicking tires on guys with different backgrounds makes sense. The plan from there is what matters, because just as important as what a guy does well is how he’ll make up for what he doesn’t do well.

“It can be the head of personnel if you have other people help manage you through the other stuff,” said one NFC exec. “Look at the openings this year. In Atlanta and Detroit, between Rich McKay and Nick Polk in Atlanta, and Mike Disner in Detroit, you have people to round things out, so you could go heavy on scouting. Then you go to Jacksonville, and it’s a complete rebuild. You need someone with better management skills.

“And whatever someone starts as, that doesn’t mean they can’t grow past that, or build a good staff. There are so many models that work. The pendulum has kind of shifted. The world is so complicated now, it’s hard to be a head coach that does everything, or a GM that does everything.”

With all that accounted for, there is one thing each candidate has to have, and that’s a vision. And it can’t be if you’re, say, a disciple or Schneider or Loomis, taking the Seahawks or Saints model, giving it a paint job, and importing it somewhere else.

“Everyone is different, so at the end of day it’s being yourself,” said a second AFC GM. “If you try and replicate the bosses you worked for or places that you have been, the organization will never get to see the real you. Sure, you take things you liked and processes you know work. But you should have your own spin on things and be who you are and not what others think you should be.”

So with that in mind, here’s my 12th crack at this. Because there haven’t been many openings the last few years, there’s a backlog of worthy candidates. Because there are five and counting this year (Atlanta, Carolina, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville), and because much of the interview process will happen over Zoom, this will be a wide-open year with more guys meeting with more teams than maybe ever before.

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To organize this, we’re starting with our traditional list—a list I’ve been trying to keep shorter (under 20)—and then coming back with some more names in subcategories. Here we go …

future-general-managers-mcclay-dorsey-reese

Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay (left), former Chiefs/Browns GM John Dorsey (center), former Giants GM Jerry Reese (right).

Mike Borgonzi, Chiefs director of football operations: Brett Veach’s No. 2, Borgonzi is a former Ivy League star who has worked both in a Patriots-styled system, under Scott Pioli, and in Andy Reid’s system—and there’s potential that he’ll go with Bieniemy if Bieniemy gets a job elsewhere. It’s also worth noting he was working for Pioli in K.C. when Texans EVP of football operations Jack Easterby was there (Bills OC Brian Daboll was also on that staff).

Nick Caserio, Patriots director of player personnel: Caserio signed a multi-year deal with the Patriots in February, but I’m told it was shorter-term than some may have thought. The question here is similar to one that hovered around Eric DeCosta in Baltimore for a lot of years—many believe he won’t leave where he is. But some of his actions would indicate he’s open to it. And though neither situation seems to be what he’s been waiting for, he does have connections to people in Houston and Carolina.

Ryan Cowden, Titans VP of player personnel: Cowden’s been GM Jon Robinson’s top lieutenant for five years—and Tennessee’s going to finish this year with its fourth winning season in that stretch, and is very much ascending. He’s now got those five years of in-the-office experience, and was a road scout in Carolina before then. The expectation is he’ll be a very real candidate for the Washington GM job, given his five years of experience having worked with Ron Rivera with the Panthers.

Ed Dodds, Colts assistant GM: A high-end evaluator who’s been Chris Ballard’s right-hand man in building one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, Dodds was considered Schneider’s secret weapon for years—years he spent as a road scout. Since, in Indianapolis, he’s gotten in-the-office experience. And he’s got the respect of coaches, too, but doesn’t need to be the front man. He turned down an interview in Cleveland last year after 49ers DC Robert Saleh gave the Browns his name. It might not be the last you hear of the Saleh/Dodds pairing.

Scott Fitterer, Seahawks co-director of player personnel: Fitterer was a strong candidate for the Jets’ job two years ago, and has been in the mix for most GM openings over the last half-decade or so. Fitterer’s background is on the college side, but as Schneider’s done with a lot of guys, he’s been cross-trained to learn other aspects of the job. And he’s like Dodds in that his knowledge of the scouting community would allow him to build a strong staff.

Terry Fontenot, Saints VP/assistant GM of pro personnel: Another candidate for the Jets’ job in 2018, Fontenot has steadily risen through the New Orleans organization—and has helped the Saints find the right fits in free agency in captaining the pro side, bringing aboard pieces like Demario Davis and Jared Cook. I’m told he’s got a good shot in Atlanta, and have even heard the idea that he could be paired with Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett there.

Brad Holmes, Rams director of college scouting: This is a new name to list, and another guy I’d expect will get interviews in multiple places. The Rams are third in the NFL in wins (tied with the Patriots, and behind only the Chiefs and Saints) since 2017, and Holmes’s department has had to work without the benefit of a first-round pick since 2016. Holmes also impressed in his NFL interview—the league does those at its annual meeting and makes video available to teams—which helped to put him on the GM radar.

Joe Hortiz, Ravens director of player personnel: No team has pivoted from one style of quarterback to the next better than Baltimore did, and the Ravens have proven themselves a player development machine over and over. And Hortiz has been at the heart of that his whole career, now in his 23rd season in the organization, working as a road scout, college scouting director and now DeCosta’s No. 2. The Rams tried to poach him a couple years back, before he got promoted, and for good reason.

Jeff Ireland, Saints VP/assistant GM of college personnel: Simply put, there may not be a better evaluator of talent in the sport—a loaded Saints roster is stocked with his draft picks. And he’s shown great ability to work with strong head coaches, having done it with Bill Parcells in Dallas and now Sean Payton in New Orleans. I’d expect the ex-Dolphins GM will be under strong consideration for the majority of the GM openings out there.

Omar Khan, Steelers VP of football and business administration: Earlier in his career, Khan was earmarked as Bill Cowher’s GM whenever Bill Cowher returned. Cowher never came back (maybe he will someday), but in the meantime Khan’s influence in the Steelers organization grew. If Kevin Colbert retires this year or next, Khan could become GM there (or maybe split the role with a personnel man like pro director Brandon Hunt). And he’s also got a relationship with Panthers owner David Tepper, who had his eyes on Andrew Berry last year and may seen Khan as a similar outside-the-box idea.

Trent Kirchner, Seahawks co-director of player personnel: Like Fitterer, Kirchner’s been under consideration for GM jobs for years now, and Seattle’s kept winning, which keeps him in the mix. And like Fitterer, he’s been cross-trained with the Seahawks. Kirchner’s background is as a pro scout, but he’s done school calls and worked the college side for years now.

Will McClay, Cowboys VP of player personnel: Dallas, for all its faults, always seems to have really good players on its roster. There’s a reason why. McClay’s a best-of-this-list guy (right there with Caserio, Dodds, George Paton and Ireland), and probably would be a GM now if the Joneses didn’t do everything they could to keep him. He’s got background as a coach, in analytics, and of course on both sides of the scouting business. Someone would do well to pry him. (If I was Houston or Jacksonville, I’d definitely be making that call.)

Monti Ossenfort, Titans director of player personnel: Ossenfort won three rings as Bill Belichick’s college scouting director, and made the move to Nashville last year after having an interview with the Texans blocked two years ago and interviewing in Cleveland last January. His path might wind up being similar to his boss’s—Jon Robinson was Patriots college scouting director (Ossenfort actually replaced him there), left for Tampa in 2014, spent two years there, then became Titans GM.

George Paton, Vikings assistant GM: Minnesota’s ability to transition to a younger group of players gradually over the last year (Justin Jefferson, Jeff Gladney, etc.) is another feather in Paton’s cap, and he’s another regular on this list who I’d expect to be in the running in multiple spots. One nugget we’ve pointed to the last couple weeks: Were Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald to make the jump to the NFL, I think Paton would be who he’d want as GM.

Adam Peters, 49ers VP of player personnel: Peters has been to the Super Bowl with three different organizations, and is part of a very forward-thinking group in San Francisco now, while having cut his teeth on the college-scouting trail. We noted his connection to Matt Rhule earlier in the week—Rhule was his position coach when he was a player at UCLA. So Carolina could be a possibility, as could a team that Saleh lands with.

Jerry Reese, ex-Giants GM: A pretty easy place to start here: Reese has two Super Bowl rings, and his teams beat Belichick on the big stage twice. Yes, the Giants slumped badly draft-wise at the end of this tenure, but he’s had a lot of good experience as an executive, and knows how to navigate relationships and build a staff. I believe he’ll be under consideration in Atlanta, among other places, and I’m told the league office has given him strong backing when teams with openings have called.

Joe Schoen, Bills assistant GM: You’ll be hearing more on Schoen. He and director of player personnel Dan Morgan have been integral to how GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have built the Bills and, for his part, Schoen made his mark as a communicator and with his experience on the college side. Expect Washington to be in on Schoen. Beane and Rivera know each other well, and Schoen has a Carolina background having started with the Panthers before Rivera was there. Beane will give him a strong recommendation.

Dave Ziegler, Patriots assistant director of player personnel: Ziegler would’ve been Josh McDaniels’s GM in Cleveland last year, and those in the industry took notice of how Belichick and Caserio basically created a new position in order to promote him earlier this year. The promotion extended Ziegler’s focus past pro scouting, which is where his background is (he was previously pro scouting director), and positions him as Caserio’s successor, should Caserio bolt. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see his name pop up for GM openings this year.

Five second-chance candidates: John Dorsey (Eagles), Brian Gaine (Bills), Ryan Grigson (Browns), Martin Mayhew (49ers), Rick Smith.

Five cap/analytics side names: Kevin Abrams (Giants), Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Browns), Khai Harley (Saints), Samir Suleiman (Panthers), Brandt Tilis (Chiefs).

Five wild-cards: Daniel Jeremiah (NFL Network), Peyton Manning, Terry McDonough (Cardinals), Scott Pioli (NFL Network), Louis Riddick (ESPN).

Twelve rising names to watch: Glenn Cook (Browns) Ian Cunningham (Eagles), DuJuan Daniels (Raiders), Dru Grigson (Cardinals), Quentin Harris (Cardinals), Champ Kelly (Bears), James Liipfert (Texans), Dan Morgan (Bills), Ryan Poles (Chiefs), John Spytek (Bucs), Jamaal Stephenson (Vikings), Pat Stewart (Panthers).

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Kansas City Chiefs (13–1): Duh.

2) Buffalo Bills (11–3): The thing that gets you about the Bills is they were good to begin with and they, and especially their quarterback, have continued to improve. That’s a scary young core they’ve got, and it sure seems to be setting up for Buffalo to be the top foil to the powerhouse Chiefs in the AFC for years to come.

3) Green Bay Packers (11–3): They’re chugging along, and one win away from locking up the top seed and home-field through the NFC playoffs. I don’t know about you, but a cold, dark and empty Lambeau is not where I’d want to be playing a playoff game if I was another team.

4) New Orleans Saints (10–4): We’ll have more on them in a minute. But for now, I’d just say I was even more encouraged about where this team is going at the end of Sunday’s loss to K.C. than at the start of it.

5) Pittsburgh Steelers (11–3): I was tempted to put the Colts here. You have to respect the Steelers’ record. But man are they headed in the wrong direction.

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deandre-hopkins-hail-mary

THE BIG QUESTION

Does practice really matter?

I picked this question mostly because I found the rant we saw from DeAndre Hopkins—who’s normally fairly quiet with the media—this week to be a fascinating window into his past, and where he goes from here.

The backdrop is, per the accounting of reporters covering the team, Hopkins has missed 18 of the Cardinals’ 41 practices this season. He’s missed 13 Wednesdays (Wednesday’s generally the heaviest practice day), and 10 of those were marked by the team as veteran’s days off. Yet, he’s got 103 catches for 1,324 yards (second and first in the NFL, respectively) and six touchdowns, and is tracking to be first-team All-Pro for the fourth straight year.

Which is probably why being asked about how he and the team manage his weekly workload struck a nerve when he was asked about it.

“Yeah, man, I’ve heard a lot of a lot of negativity about me not practicing when I first came to Arizona,” he told reporters. “I don’t watch the Arizona local news and channels and the sports station. But my grandfather, he’s an avid listener to everything, every single one. I think, if one of you guys say something bad about me, my grandfather, he’s told me. So, I’ve seen all the blogs and all this stuff, I’m pretty sure some of you guys might have been in there egging it on.

“I’m not gonna say any names, but there’s a reason that I play football and they watch. And people are in positions for a reason. So, I really didn’t listen to it. I don’t listen to it. I listen to my grandfather, and he was saying, ‘Man, Arizona, they really kind of on you right now because you’re not practicing and all the critics in the sports people.’ But, my grandfather knows who I am, also, and he knows how productive I am on that football field.

“And he knew what I was going through, and the people who are giving me stuff, they don’t know what I was going through or dealing with, and I don’t let my news, or really what’s going on with me, be publicized for the future. … And tell those people who say I don’t practice to come watch me play the game.”

First of all, that’s a pretty good line.

Second, the reason this touched off that rant, I’d suspect, is because the origins of the narrative aren’t in Arizona. They’re in Houston. Part of the reason why Hopkins was traded was because of the work that EVP of football operations Jack Easterby did with then coach Bill O’Brien to examine the entire outfit from a culture standpoint. And a big part of that was how they wanted the team to practice and to work.

Hopkins’s practice schedule in Houston had been similar to his practice schedule in Arizona, and that wasn’t changing—which was part of why some in the Texans’ organization felt like Hopkins was operating outside of the team. Which would’ve been manageable, if Hopkins wasn’t asking for a big raise with three years left on his deal. Which led to the thought on how hard it would be to sell a revised culture, while then going out of their way to reward their best player while exempting him from it.

You know the rest. The Texans dealt Hopkins as a result, didn’t get great value for him, then the team got off to a horrible start, tensions rose through that start, and O’Brien was fired.

So if you’re wondering why Hopkins got so worked up, my guess is that that answer is right there for you. And on the surface, there’s logic to what Easterby and O’Brien were trying to do, particularly based on the program they both came from (New England).

But pro football is a results business. And the Cardinals reasoned, in this case, that accommodating and paying Hopkins would be worth the freight, given the level he’s produced at in the pros. Thus far, their gamble has paid off handsomely.

Which is to say if Hopkins wants to go Allen Iverson on people, he’s earned the right.

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WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT

Just how impressive what the Saints did Sunday was.

This was Drew Brees’s stat line at the half: 5-of-16 for 87 yards and a pick.

This was Brees’s final stat line: 15-of-34 for 234 yards, three TDs and a pick.

The Saints trailed just 14-9 at the break, and were in this one until the end, eventually falling 32-29. And look, New Orleans is not in the business of moral victories, for obvious reasons. But that New Orleans was able to do what it did, with Brees playing like that, with reigning OPOY Michael Thomas out, and with defensive cornerstone Cam Jordan ejected midgame, against that particular team is freaking incredible.

And while a big part of it is Sean Payton, Dennis Allen, Pete Carmichael, Darren Rizzi, and the rest of that coaching staff, another reason for it is explained in why two Saints execs made the GM list above—New Orleans has an incredibly talented, well-rounded and well-conceived roster.

Which, in a way, puts the Saints very close to where the Broncos were in 2015, with a roster that was coalescing just as an older quarterback’s descent was kicking into high gear.

“He’s definitely on the decline,” said one exec who studied the Saints recently. “It does remind me of where Peyton [Manning] was towards the end. He throws some that just die in midair.”

The good news is that Brees doesn’t need to be great for the Saints to win. He just needs to be good enough, because the team around him is great, and playing with a sense of urgency that brings us to the second element here, which is that it’ll be borderline impossible for Loomis, Payton & Co. to keep the band together in 2021.

New Orleans has around $275 million in cap commitments for next year already, and only one member of its star-studded 2017 draft class (Alvin Kamara) paid for (Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramcyzk are going into option years; Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Williams are set to be free agents). With the cap potentially diving as far down as $175 million, and probably being no better than flat to what this year’s is ($198 million), some tough decisions are going to have to be made.

And again, part of this is a result of the outstanding job the Saints have done—you don’t have this problem if you don’t have a lot of mouths to feed. But it’s a problem nonetheless.

That puts a group of players that, again, is undeniably great, in a really interesting spot coming out of the Chiefs loss. This, it appears, and for those fiscal reasons, will be their last run at it as the team is presently constituted. They have a Hall of Fame quarterback who’s likely in his final weeks as an NFL player, looking for one last spark to fuel a playoff run. They have, without question, the best coach in their franchise history.

I can’t remember a team being in this much of a Super Bowl-or-bust spot in my 16 seasons covering the NFL. So it’s a good thing they’re playing like it.

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THE FINAL WORD

I understand why the NFL won’t move games for competitive reasons—it was basically going to have to be that way for the league to have a shot at playing all 256 games this year. But, please, let’s not pretend that’s what’s happening with the Lions on Saturday.

The league could easily move the game to Sunday. It isn’t because of TV. Period.

And that really sucks for guys like Darrell Bevell, who are coaching for their futures now, and players that’ll be at a big disadvantage going in, and maybe lose another shot to put something good on tape for the rest of the league to see.