As we turn to the fourth quarter of the 2020 NFL season, speculation is beginning to build about who the next head coaches and general managers will be for a growing list of teams across the league. So far, there are five general manager vacancies: Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions and the Washington Football Team (who elected to wait until after the 2020 season to replace Bruce Allen, with Ron Rivera possibly having final say over the 53-man roster even after a new hire occurs).
Some other potential openings include the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and perhaps the Philadelphia Eagles (with current general manager Howie Roseman being reassigned to more of a football administration role as opposed to an outright firing).
With a minimum of five spots up for grabs in an offseason that will be unlike any other in NFL history, getting these decisions right will be paramount for every franchise. Resources will be severely limited in places like Houston and Atlanta, which could either be viewed as a negative by candidates or potentially as a security net because expectations may not exist at the outset. On the other end of the spectrum, Jacksonville has extra first-, second-, fourth- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft, in addition to the most cap space of any team in the NFL.
However, the goal of this article is not just to identify general manager candidates for the 2021 offseason and play the matchmaker game — it's more so to explore what qualities to look for in a prospective general manager. To that end, we spoke to a half-dozen current and former NFL football operations personnel, scouts and coaches to gain their perspective on what makes a great team builder. Through the lens of their answers, we then narrowed down some of the top candidates to keep an eye on.
To kick things off, we consulted the preeminent source on identifying general manager candidates: former NFL scout and current Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy, Dan Hatman.
Even before Hatman’s annual General Manager Candidate Study became appointment reading each offseason, he co-authored a comprehensive research paper titled, “National Football League General Managers: An Analysis of the Responsibilities, Qualifications and Characteristics.”
This was where we wanted to begin.
Hatman was kind enough to share some of the insights he’s gained over the years, and one of his quotes will be our first tenet.
1. Work smarter, not harder
“There isn’t a ton of variance with scouting. It’s a relatively uniform process for the most part, so you can’t just outwork everyone else.” — Dan Hatman
While it may seem inconsequential, it is important to understand that the nature of your profession requires you to find creative edges to distance yourself from the pack. Every team has a group of highly qualified and motivated scouts who visit the same schools and evaluate the same players.
Everyone we spoke with agreed that general managers need a vast network across the league, and a few mentioned having strong connections with college programs, as well. When you see a franchise continue to draft out of a particular school or specifically target players who played for a certain college coach, it may not be a coincidence. Information is king, and any small insight a team can gain that isn’t publicly available can give it a leg up on the competition.
A strong network within the league is just as important, but not only for football reasons. The most common concern cited for a new general manager is that the thing they did to earn the position — watch film for 14-plus hours a day — is not what they’re tasked with once they reach the pinnacle. A strong network helps to eliminate blind spots once they assume that new role, which leads us to our next bullet.
2. Have to see it to achieve it
This quote is the amalgamation of sentiments expressed by many of the people we spoke with.
“There’s no blueprint for how to become a GM, no set path. Experience matters in every profession, but it matters even more when there’s no manual for the job. Often, some of the most qualified candidates are those who have seen how things operate under multiple ideologies/philosophies. If you only know one way, you may have blind spots/deficiencies.”
One such example would be the Detroit Lions and the duo of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia. Quinn worked for the Patriots from 2000-2015 before becoming the Lions' general manager. Matt Patricia worked for the Patriots from 2004-2017 before reuniting with Quinn. The two witnessed — and were a major part of — one of the greatest runs in sports history. Nevertheless, the full extent of their NFL experience prior to Detroit came in one building, and they worked under the greatest coach and team builder in sports history in Bill Belichick.
“When I first came here with Scott (Pioli), it was Bill Belichick's way of scouting, and now learning from John (Dorsey) and the Ron Wolf philosophy, I couldn't be more fortunate than to have learned both ways.”
Borgonzi recognized and appreciated the value of two different methodologies with proven success. Shortly thereafter, the Chiefs moved on from John Dorsey for current general manager Brett Veach, who at that point had experience working under Howie Roseman in Philadelphia as well as Dorsey.
Roseman’s path to general manager in Philadelphia was through the football administration department, focusing on contracts and salary cap-related matters. On the other hand, Dorsey is a classic “football guy,” beginning his front office career after five seasons with the Green Bay Packers. He almost immediately became a scout with Green Bay after his playing career was over and worked his way up the ladder that way.
Veach undoubtedly took different lessons from Roseman and Dorsey, and at 41 years old, he became the second-youngest general manager to ever win a Super Bowl. He started out in coaching, too, providing another unique perspective. While the value of learning under different styles is apparent, the belief that an individual will automatically be a better candidate as a result was not uniformly held.
One individual pushed back on the idea a bit, and funnily enough, with zero provocation, said something along the lines of: “You find a guy who's been under (longtime Baltimore Ravens executive) Ozzie Newsome, who's only been there his whole career… cool, fine with me. Hire that guy.”
This would describe another top candidate for the 2021 cycle, Baltimore Ravens Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz.
Hortiz is a member of the Baltimore Ravens' “20/20 Club,” as described below:
The man one spot above Hortiz on the above list, Eric DeCosta, is now the Ravens' acting general manager following Ozzie Newsome’s decision to step down after the 2018 season. DeCosta has gotten off to an impressive start in his own right, and spending all of his time in one building doesn’t appear to be a problem whatsoever.
This gets us to our final bullet point.
3. Have to be a good poker player
“They have to be a great reader of people. Not just players they interview, but even more so for their own staff. Sometimes, the most confident-sounding scout will get listened to the most, but it’s a GM’s job to know the personalities in their building. The soft-spoken guy can have conviction, too, and it’s their job to parse information accordingly.” — longtime NFL evaluator.
At the end of the day, these are all individuals with different strengths, weaknesses, ideas and beliefs. The best talent evaluator in the league may work for a team that goes 0-16 in a season, and a lesser talent evaluator on an undefeated team may get more opportunities. Isolating the contributions of each individual is impossible, but this is the ultimate test for team presidents or owners who hire these general managers.
And it’s no different for the general managers themselves. They have to know their staff's deficiencies just as well as they know their own. As a general manager, they may watch less tape of more prospects while also assuming responsibility over various business objectives within the organization. The player personnel aspect thus becomes a collaborative effort that requires a tremendous amount of trust.
For the most part, the people we spoke with held fairly consistent views about the type of person and leader teams should be looking for in a general manager. However, the biggest split is a fascinating one, albeit unsurprising given the backgrounds of those who landed on either side of the debate.
A few participants were steadfast in their belief that the general manager had to be the “top scout” in the building. On the other hand, several felt as though that was not the case. The general manager job comes with responsibilities on the business side of the organization, intense media scrutiny and much more. The best scout may not necessarily be the person best equipped to handle all of the new tasks that come with the job. Furthermore, a quality executive who can surround himself with a great scouting department could be just as effective.
Names to watch
Now, onto the fun part — a cheat sheet of the general manager candidates league-wide who you should perhaps start to read up on. This list is based on media reporting, interviews in past years and independent research. They are listed below in no particular order. (Note: the job title listed from past destinations is the highest title they earned over the span).
Mike Borgonzi — Kansas City Chiefs Director of Football Operations
- Kansas City Chiefs (2009-Present)
- Began as the College Scouting Administrator for the Chiefs and was promoted six times in just 10 years
Terry Fontenot — New Orleans Saints Director of Pro Scouting
- New Orleans Saints (2003-Present)
- Saints are 35-8 since 2018, with a limited draft arsenal in 2018 and 2019
Joe Hortiz — Baltimore Ravens Director of Player Personnel
- Baltimore Ravens (1998-Present)
- Ravens have consistently been one of the best drafting teams in the NFL
Ryan Cowden — Tennessee Titans Vice President of Player Personnel
- Tennessee Titans (2016-Present)
- Carolina Panthers (2000-15): Assistant Director of College Scouting
- Could potentially join forces with Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, one of the hottest head coach candidate names
Ed Dodds — Indianapolis Colts Assistant General Manager
- Indianapolis Colts (2017-Present)
- Seattle Seahawks (2007-2016): Senior Executive of Player Personnel
- Helped build the “Legion of Boom” defense
- Colts had to scramble following Andrew Luck‘s surprise retirement but have navigated the situation in a very impressive fashion
Rick Smith — Former Houston Texans General Manager
- Houston Texans (2006-2017)
- Named general manager by owner Bob McNair in 2006, making him the youngest general manager in the NFL at 36, succeeding Charley Casserly
- Became Houston's Executive Vice President of Football Operations in 2012
- Responsible for all aspects of football operations, salary cap management and budgeting
- As we’ve learned this season after the fallout from Bill O’Brien’s firing, Houston put way too much responsibility on their team-builder’s plate. Rick Smith built a perennial competitor in the AFC South just years after the Texans were founded
- Denver Broncos (1996-2005)
- Worked his way from coaching to Director of Pro Personnel by 2000
- Washington Football Team was reportedly interested this past offseason
Omar Khan — Pittsburgh Steelers Vice President of Football & Business Administration
- Pittsburgh Steelers (2002-Present)
- Has handled every aspect of football operations, known as a contract guru.
- New Orleans Saints (1997-2001)
Jeff Ireland — New Orleans Saints VP/Assistant General Manager – College Personnel
- New Orleans Saints (2015–present)
- Seattle Seahawks (2014): Draft consultant
- Miami Dolphins (2008–2013): General Manager
- Dallas Cowboys (2001–2007): Vice President of College & Pro Scouting
- Kansas City Chiefs (1997–2000): Scout
Malik Boyd — Buffalo Bills Director of Pro Personnel
- Buffalo Bills (2017-Present)
- Arizona Cardinals (2005-2016): Assistant Director of Pro Scouting
- Indianapolis Colts (2003-2004): Scouting Assistant
John Spytek — Tampa Bay Buccaneers Director of Player Personnel
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-Present)
- Denver Broncos (2013-14): National Scout
- Cleveland Browns (2010-13): Director of College Scouting
- Philadelphia Eagles (2005-09): College/Pro Scout
- Detroit Lions (2004-05): Football Operations Intern
Terrance Gray — Buffalo Bills Director of College Scouting
- Buffalo Bills (2017-Present)
- Minnesota Vikings (2005-2016): Southeast Scout, Midwest Scout
- Kansas City Chiefs (2003-2005): Scout
Morocco Brown — Indianapolis Colts Director of College Scouting
- Indianapolis Colts (2017-Present)
- Cleveland Browns (2014-15): Vice President of Player Personnel
- Washington Football Team (2008-13): Director of Player Personnel
- Chicago Bears (2001-07): Assistant Director of Pro Personnel
Champ Kelly — Chicago Bears Assistant Director of Player Personnel
- Chicago Bears (2015-Present)
- Denver Broncos (2007-14): Assistant Director of Pro Personnel
- Before joining the NFL ranks, Kelly was a certified NFL contract advisor and general manager/wide receivers coach for the Lexington Horsemen of United Indoor Football (UIF). He helped them win the United Bowl III.
Ray Agnew — Los Angeles Rams Director of Pro Scouting
- Los Angeles Rams (2017-Present)
- Former 10th overall pick of the New England Patriots in 1990
Adam Peters — San Francisco 49ers Vice President of Player Personnel
- San Francisco 49ers (2017-Present)
- Denver Broncos (2009-16): Director of College Scouting
- New England Patriots (2003-08): Pro Scout/Area Scout
- Perhaps notable, if Detroit is interested in another duo: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is one of the hottest head coach candidates in the NFL and is a native of Dearborn, Michigan. Peters and Saleh could be a solid tandem.
Jamaal Stephenson — Minnesota Vikings Director of College Scouting
- Minnesota Vikings (2002-Present)
- Houston Texans (exact dates unknown)
- Washington Football Team (1999)
Mike Biehl — Tampa Bay Buccaneers Director of College Scouting
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-Present)
- San Diego Chargers (2001-13): Assistant Director of College Scouting
- Buffalo Bills (1998-2000): Personnel Department
Louis Riddick — ESPN Analyst
- Philadelphia Eagles (2008-13): Director of Pro Personnel
- Washington Football Team (2001-07): Director of Pro Personnel
- Football fans across the country have gravitated to Riddick for his great insights on ESPN, and the people we spoke with held him in just as high regard. His candidacy is very real.
Now that we’ve narrowed down our list, keep an eye out for further analysis on each candidate as interviews start to roll in.