Being a good general manager can be as simple as finding the right quarterback. It can be as complicated as a meddlesome owner forcing you into picks and moves you don’t want to make, picks and moves that come to define a reputation.
So we’re not going to pretend this is a straightforward exercise. This is a league where coin flips can determine draft position. You don’t always get a fair shake. But we still know what a good GM looks like. Perhaps more than in any other field, patience is a virtue. GMing like there’s no tomorrow might net you the occasional Josh Gordon. More often, it saddles you with Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. Even in a “what have you done for me lately?” business, the game is best played long.
When you boil it down, a GM can control:
— Who he hires.
— Who he drafts.
— Who he signs, and for how much.
— Who he lets walk, and when.
If you excel in these four areas, you’re generally headed toward years of playoff contention. If not, regime change. Even in a sport with so many variables, it’s almost always that simple. So as we embark on free agency, here are the league’s top 32 GMs, with this year’s three new hires written up separately at the end. Without further ado.
1. Bill Belichick - Patriots
Belichick has his weaknesses as a general manager. His quest for receivers is long past quixotic, and though his defenses are often effective — typically in a bend-but-don’t-break kind of fashion — they require no shortage of duct tape and super glue to hold together. Belichick’s ego isn’t always checked at the door. He seems to believe anyone can be molded to the “Patriot Way,” while his decision to let Wes Welker walk smacked of hubris. But the only reason we know Belichick’s weaknesses so well is because his strengths have kept him at the top of the NFL for over a decade. Willing to go “multiple” on both sides of the ball, Belichick is only married to one system: Winning. He’s constantly reinventing, and continually ahead of the rest of the league as a result. Belichick’s chameleon ways as a team builder can lead to some flop acquisitions, and lots of hurt feelings. All the while, the bottom line never changes — Belichick’s Patriots are always at the top.
2. Ozzie Newsome - Ravens
How did Newsome celebrate the Ravens’ 2012-13 Super Bowl title? Without emotion. Baltimore’s world championship was won on the back of an aging core. Instead of rewarding the gang with lifetime achievement awards, Newsome soberly evaluated his roster, making tough decisions where others would have gone back to the well one time too many. Ray Lewis? Allowed to ride off into the sunset without a fight. Ed Reed? We’ve appreciated your years of service, but here’s your severance ham. Anquan Boldin? Couldn’t have done it without you, but now we can’t do it with your salary. Paul Kruger? We’ll let you get overpaid, just not by us. That is not to say it all worked out to the Ravens’ advantage. Boldin, in particular, was badly missed for a team that missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But the future remains bright in Baltimore, and that’s because Newsome plans for it. Whereas teams like the Steelers and Cowboys continue to kick the can down the road on tough decisions and aging players, Newsome plays the long game instead of prolonging yesterday’s game. The moves you don’t make can be just as important as the moves you do make.
3. Ted Thompson - Packers
Like Belichick, Thompson has some weaknesses. Most glaringly, he still seems uncertain about what kind of athletes he wants on defense. He’s had more than a few first-round misses. But also like Belichick, Thompson has kept his team at the top, and like Newsome, he’s done so by keeping emotion out of the equation. Whether it’s in house or on the open market, no general manager overpays fewer players than Thompson. Yes, Thompson’s first first-round pick (Aaron Rodgers) was his best. But he’s spent the past nine years surrounding his quarterback with premium talent found after day one (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Eddie Lacy). Maybe Thompson wouldn’t be so high on this list had he not found Rodgers. That’s beside the point. He did find Rodgers, not only drafting him, but also knowing when to move on from future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre’s games. Thompson’s had some misses, but he’s not a one-hit wonder.
4. John Schneider - Seahawks
You may be asking yourself, how can a general manager who gave Matt Flynn $10 million guaranteed be considered one of the best in the league? It’s really pretty simple. Even the best GMs make mistakes. What separates executives like Schneider is that they’re willing to admit them, and make very few of them. Schneider not only pulled the plug on his worst signing after just one season, he gave his head coach permission to bench him for a third-round rookie. That’s Schneider in a nutshell, though it’s hardly the only thing that makes him great. There’s his reimagining of the cornerback position (the bigger the better), the dominance of the mid-rounds of the draft (Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor) and the free-agent bargains (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril). No GM is perfect, but few have come closer than Schneider the past four seasons.
5. Trent Baalke - 49ers
Operating as the 49ers’ de facto general manager in the 2010 draft, Baalke took Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round, and Navorro Bowman in the third. He’s been on a largely uninterrupted winning streak ever since. Officially named GM in January 2011, Baalke’s first move was hiring Jim Harbaugh, who’s turned out to be the best coaching prospect since Belichick. Together, Baalke and Harbaugh cleaned up the 2011 draft, and have sent three straight teams to the NFC Championship Game. The paint is peeling in some places. Baalke’s 2012 draft class was one of the worst you’ll ever see, while his relationship with Harbaugh has reportedly seen better days. It’s possible Baalke could eventually lose a power struggle. Until that day comes, he’ll continue running circles around his colleagues.
6. John Elway - Broncos
To be clear, Elway would belong in the top 10 even if his lone move was convincing Peyton Manning to come to Denver. It was the most important free-agent signing of the past five years. But Manning wasn’t Elway’s first home run. That would be Von Miller at No. 2 overall in 2011. Elway is only an average drafter, but has shown an uncommon proficiency at mining the open market. Shaun Phillips, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Wes Welker weren’t just excellent free agent signings last season, they were cheap excellent free agent signings. It’s true that Elway has an unfair advantage in Manning as a recruiter, but that’s not his problem. Elway’s problem is exploiting that unfair advantage, and it’s something he’s done masterfully since luring Manning to the Rocky Mountains. Elway also has remarkable patience for a man who’s overseeing a team that practically defines “win now.” He didn’t panic when “Faxgate” inadvertently made Elvis Dumervil a free agent. He waited for Phillips to fall into his lap. And where some teams would be doing all they could to retain every last piece of an AFC champion puzzle, Elway has wisely resisted overpaying free agent Eric Decker. Elway hit the longest home run of the past five years, but it’s hardly the only time he’s rounded the bases.
7. Marvin Lewis/Mike Brown - Bengals
It’s not entirely clear who has final say in Cincinnati. What is clear is that the Bengals have turned into one of the NFL’s most quietly consistent drafters, and found one of the league’s best young defenders (Vontaze Burfict) on the 2012 undrafted scrap heap. The Bengals have a deep, young roster, and seen their win total go up each of the past three seasons. The problem is that they haven’t answered the big question: Which quarterback can take this team to the promised land? Unless Brown and Lewis hit home run after home run in this year’s draft and free agency, it’s unlikely to be Andy Dalton. But even getting to the point where the quarterback is the last piece of the puzzle is an accomplishment in the modern NFL, and a testament to the talent the Bengals have slowly stockpiled.
8. Mickey Loomis - Saints
Loomis’ tenure has produced the greatest moment in Saints’ franchise history. It’s also been responsible for the worst. Loomis’ twin coup of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006 changed New Orleans football forever. His complicity in the “Bountygate” scandal made it the shame of the NFL. With Payton away for all of 2012 and Loomis banned for half of it, the Saints fielded literally the worst defense in the history of the league. Thankfully for Saints fans, that wasn’t all she wrote. The Saints bounced back to 11-5 in 2013, picking up their first ever road playoff win in the process. That’s the good of Loomis. The bad has been his over allegiance to veteran defenders, and generally shaky drafting. But when you get the broad strokes right — in this case coach and quarterback — you have room for error. Loomis uses that room quite frequently, but has made a formerly moribund franchise relevant, and is poised to keep it that way for at least as long as Payton and Brees are in town.
9. Jerry Reese - Giants
Reese has been one of the league’s better GMs since replacing Ernie Accorsi in 2007, but his boat has begun to take on water. The pass rush that fueled two title runs in five years has aged out and moved on from the Big Apple. With Eli Manning “leading” the charge, the Giants’ offense has become an increasingly dysfunctional mess. Though injuries were a big part of the problem, Reese’s offensive line was an utter embarrassment in 2013. In other words, there’s much work to be done. Whether it’s Rueben Randle in the 2012 draft or S Will Hill in free agency, Reese has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough. Even his acquisition of a battered and brittle Jon Beason turned out better than expected. But the questions he has to answer this offseason are the toughest of his career. Who will get after the passer opposite Jason Pierre-Paul? How much does Manning have left in the tank? Which side will OT Justin Pugh man in 2014, and who will line up opposite? Does David Wilson have a future as a lead back? Reese’s history suggests he’ll find the answers. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be asked “what have you done for me lately?” in a city where time passes faster than anywhere else.
10. Thomas Dimitroff - Falcons
By any measure, Dimitroff’s Falcons tenure has been a success. A team that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before his arrival has reached the playoffs in 4-of-6 years, and came within five points of the Super Bowl in 2012-13. Dimitroff found a franchise quarterback in his fourth month on the job. A bold trade three years later landed him one of the league’s best receivers. But as the Falcons ascended, Dimitroff allowed certain problems to fester as the good times rolled. He paid the piper in 2013. Both his offensive and defensive lines were exposed as woefully undermanned, while a team that had been described as “finesse” even when it was winning proved to be a paper tiger as it got battered en route to 4-12. The Falcons’ running game continued its downward spiral as Steven Jackson continued his. None of these trouble spots came as a particular surprise to outside observers, but Dimitroff apparently had to have his problems sock him in the kisser before he decided to address them. That’s exactly what he plans to do this offseason, stocking up in the trenches while getting tougher everywhere. That might not be the easiest thing to do for a general manager who’s notoriously obsessive about “character,” but he’s just as fixated on something else: Winning. The whole football world knows what adjustments Dimitroff needs to make. Now expect him to make them.
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