For all the advancements the NFL has made in scouting and player development, even the best general managers might as well be wearing a blindfold half the time. Remember Ras-I Dowling? The Seahawks’ Matt Flynn contract? We can land a man on the moon but still can’t tell if Blaine Gabbert is going to be a bust. When everyone is wrong all the time, margins are thin. You have to be willing to go bold. You really have to be willing to admit mistakes. The Pats cut Dowling after two years. The Seahawks benched Flynn before he ever started a game. General managers have to be willing to fail, and fail some more.
The criteria is the same as years past. All hirings, signings, draft picks and contracts are fair game. “Who they hire, draft and sign, and for how much and how long,” is how I put it in 2016. This year’s three new hires are evaluated separately. 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. Last year’s list can be found here. 2015’s can be found here.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
Last Year’s Ranking: 1
Bill Belichick has always had a right-hand man in the front office. Mike Lombardi. Scott Pioli. Thomas Dimitroff. Right now, it’s Nick Caserio, who has done so well he was allowed to pose in the GM photo at last month’s owners meetings. That’s lovely. What matters is Belichick, who has more Super Bowl titles than any general manager in NFL history if we assume the personnel buck has stopped with him since 2000. Belichick the coach will always get the accolades, but Belichick the talent evaluator has done a lot more than simply stumble into Tom Brady. Belichick’s record-breaking Super Bowl victory came 98 days after he traded Jamie Collins, arguably his most-talented defender. A stunning move anywhere else, it was routine in New England. Belichick couldn’t see Collins’ Patriots future so he dealt him. He still finished with the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, a fifth Lombardi and third-round draft pick. Belichick couldn’t be nostalgic or sentimental as a general manager even if he wanted to. Those feelings aren’t part of his emotional presets. That might leave you cold, but it keeps Belichick winning.
2. John Elway, Broncos
Last Year’s Ranking: 2
At some point, the hot streak — Von Miller, Julius Thomas, Peyton Manning, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders — was going to end. In 2016, John Elway used his first-round pick on Paxton Lynch. Free agent LT Russell Okung was a bust. A re-signed C.J. Anderson struggled. It wasn’t Elway’s best year, and yet, arguably the top move of free agency was his reluctance to win a bidding war for Brock Osweiler. While Osweiler loads down the Browns’ roster, Elway is still reloading. Quarterback remains a trouble spot for a team adjusting to life without Manning, but Elway has made an executive career out of getting the big decisions right. His refusal to panic at football’s most important position could create headaches now, but leaves the Broncos better off for the long run. That’s not to mention that Lynch could still pan out. Elway’s near perfect streak is over. That’s life. Broncos fans can rest easy knowing they have a general manager with the patience and personnel skills to ensure they’re competitive for years to come.
3. John Schneider, Seahawks
Last Year’s Ranking: 3
John Schneider forgot to field an offensive line last season. It was … unideal. Still, there the Seahawks were, winning at least one playoff game for the fifth time in six years with Schneider and Pete Carroll at the helm. Schneider is no stranger to misses, but can afford them thanks to a string of massive hits. Earl Thomas, fifth-rounder Kam Chancellor, fifth-rounder Richard Sherman, third-rounder Russell Wilson, UDFA Doug Baldwin, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and on and on and on. If there’s a problem, it’s his recent series of unimpressive drafts. Thanks to trades and low picks, Schneider hasn’t landed an impact first-rounder since arguably 2010, and that’s if you’re willing to count Russell Okung. That’s a hard way to make a living. Schneider has pulled it off thanks to his eye for mid-round steals and free agent bargains. With Wilson and company still in their primes, 2017 should be another great year. Schneider just needs to start another hot streak if he wants to keep the party going into the next decade.
4. Ted Thompson, Packers
Last Year’s Ranking: 6
For his first draft pick as Packers general manager, Ted Thompson selected one of the greatest players in league history. Aaron Rodgers has worked out for Thompson and the Pack. What about everyone else? Thompson, devoted to the draft and leery of any player not born into green and yellow, can leave onlookers bemused. We’re not just talking about fans. Last year, the dean of Packers reporting, Bob McGinn, called Thomson a “glorified director of college scouting.” Harsh … but fair? Thompson might agree with what McGinn meant to be a withering takedown. And why not? Let’s allow that Thompson lucked into Rodgers. We can’t ignore that he proceeded to surround him with a roster that’s won at least 10 games seven times since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre in 2008. The Packers have made the playoffs each of the past eight seasons. That’s not all one player. Thompson is destined to remain polarizing. That should be just fine with him as long as the debates are happening after 10-win, playoff-appearing seasons.
5. Ozzie Newsome, Ravens
Last Year’s Ranking: 4
Not only have Ozzie Newsome’s teams won two Super Bowls in his 21 years on the job, they’ve done so without an elite quarterback. That’s unheard of in the modern NFL. Newsome has overseen 10 postseason rosters, 15 playoff victories and a bare minimum of 3-4 current/future Hall-of-Famers. He has earned the benefit of the doubt. That’s good, because he needs it right now. Newsome admitted last year that his recent work had not lived up to his lofty standards. Then he went out and had another 8-8 season. The Ravens have made one January appearance in four years since winning Super Bowl XLVII. A corner needs to be turned in 2017. A poor 2015 draft class isn’t going to help. Newsome’s 2016 group is looking slightly better, but an excellent 2017 haul is a must. If immediate reinforcement isn’t on the way, Newsome could be looking at his first full-scale rebuild since arriving in Baltimore.
6. Steve Keim, Cardinals
Last Year’s Ranking: 7
Steve Keim has yet to hit on a first-round pick in four years on the job. Jonathan Cooper was an outright bust. Deone Bucannon has been inconsistent, at best. The early returns on D.J. Humphries and Robert Nkemdiche have not been promising. So how in the world have Keim’s rosters won 10 games three times in four years? Hiring Bruce Arians was a good start. Day-two steals and the open market have taken care of the rest. Keim has unearthed Tyrann Mathieu, Markus Golden, John Brown and David Johnson in Rounds 2 or 3, while Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, Jermaine Gresham and Chris Johnson have filled holes through free agency. Keim’s two biggest moves, acquiring Carson Palmer and Chandler Jones via trade, provided a quarterback and linchpin pass rusher, respectively. Keim hasn’t made it easy on himself with the Day 1 misses, but his other methods of roster construction have been nearly flawless. Keim needs to improve his Thursday night drafting and find Palmer’s successor. If he can do those big things right, the little things could have him on the way to a Super Bowl.
7. Dave Gettleman, Panthers
Last Year’s Ranking: 8
Dave Gettleman has focused on small moves since arriving as general manager in 2013, mixing and matching around a core that features Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and seemingly boundless defensive line talent. It’s a strategy that’s produced three division titles in four years, one of which was a 15-1 Super Bowl campaign. Gettleman isn’t trying to “win” free agency or stockpile fourth-round draft picks. He’s exploiting the resources he has, keeping most of his homegrown talent and doing a solid job on draft weekend. Gettleman has gotten most of his big decisions right, including nailing all four first-rounders. Of Star Lotulelei, Kelvin Benjamin, Shaq Thompson and Vernon Butler, only Benjamin has even been debatable. Rescinding Josh Norman’s franchise tag was questionable, but hardly haunting. Gettleman needs to improve on the offensive side of the ball. He hasn’t meaningfully addressed running back in four years, and his receivers are one-dimensional. The offensive line has been … interesting. Either way, these weaknesses have yet to obscure Gettleman’s strengths. His first four years on the job have been those of a man who knows what he’s doing.
8. John Dorsey, Chiefs
Last Year’s Ranking: 11
The Chiefs have 43 wins in four seasons since John Dorsey and Andy Reid came to town. That’s after they won 38 games the seven years prior. Dorsey began by supplementing a promising roster and hasn’t stopped since. Second-rounder Chris Jones and fifth-rounder Tyreek Hill were two of the best selections by any team in last year’s draft. Dorsey has nailed his top picks each of the past three years after whiffing on Eric Fisher. Outside the draft, Dorsey’s squad was able to gracefully move on from Jamaal Charles after signing Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to team-friendly extensions. Dorsey has accumulated talent on defense while creating an offense that’s better than the sum of its parts. Alex Smith remains the elephant in the room, but Dorsey has wisely avoided forcing a solution. That’s a trap many other general managers are all too eager to fall into. When/if Smith’s replacement finally comes, Dorsey could help Reid hoist his long-sought Lombardi.
9. Rick Smith, Texans
Last Year’s Ranking: 10
You are correct. Rick Smith not only signed Brock Osweiler, he then gave up on him after one season, paying the Browns a second-round pick to take him off the Texans’ hands. That was a screw up. But Smith isn’t defined by one move any more than anyone else on this list. The single most important decision a general manager makes every year is his team’s first-rounder. Smith has a track record few can match. Since 2007, here are Smith’s Day 1 selections: Amobi Okoye, Duane Brown, Brian Cushing, Kareem Jackson, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, Kevin Johnson and Will Fuller. Okoye flopped and the jury is still out on Clowney and Fuller, but that is a ridiculous group. Thanks in large part to Smith hiring one of the game’s best coaches in Bill O'Brien, the Texans have made the playoffs four of the past six seasons. Smith’s team is a quarterback away from true greatness. He may never find it. That doesn’t diminish what he’s already accomplished.
10. Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones, Cowboys
Last Year’s Ranking: 15
Typically, you don’t chase off Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells and live to tell about it. That’s especially true if you’re an oilman who has convinced yourself you’re a personnel director. And yet, here we are, with Jerry Jones enjoying a late-career renaissance that was, frankly, impossible to see coming. Tired of strong-willed future Hall-of-Famers, Jones installed lemonade salesman Jason Garrett at head coach. Instead of failing miserably, the seeming marriage of convenience has gradually grown stronger, organically producing an identity in the process. Spend big on assistant coaches. Draft hog mollies. Run the ball. Bend but don’t break on defense. The result has been two 12-win seasons in three years, the second of which came with a fourth-round rookie at quarterback. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s supernatural. Whatever it is, it’s working, and after two decades of deserved criticism ol’ Jer has earned some plaudits.
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