11. Phil Emery - Bears
The first thing you notice about Emery is his footwear. He rarely goes anywhere without his signature cowboy boots. There’s your first sign that this is no ordinary GM. Emery fired a coach after a 10-6 season and replaced him with somebody from Canada. This is not a man who’s constrained by “the way things have always been done.” He’s also not a man who’s gotten many things wrong in his two years on the job. That erstwhile CFLer Marc Trestman turned out to be just the man for the job in a city that’s more used to defensive touchdowns than offensive ones. Emery’s broad strokes have been genius. He paid a pittance for all-world receiver Brandon Marshall, found the next Brandon Marshall in the second round of his first draft and made the difficult, but correct, decision to avoid Greatest Hits tours with declining veterans Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester. The only problem is, while Emery has built the Bears offense up from the ashes of the Mike Tice “era,” some of Chicago’s signature defense has gone out the door. Emery doesn’t need to restore the unit to its Monsters of Midway-era glory, but he does need to restore order. Judging by his track record, it’s a challenge he’ll be up to.
12. Steve Keim - Cardinals
Let’s just say Keim wouldn’t have wanted to check the CARFAX upon inheriting his roster from Rod Graves. Graves left behind some talent on defense, a few good receivers and … a smoldering crater where the quarterback, running back and offensive line were supposed to be. Keim didn’t just give the Cardinals a new coat of paint, however. He found them a whole new engine. The rookie GM hit a home run at head coach (Bruce Arians), found a quarterback (Carson Palmer), had faith that two fading defensive stars could remain relevant (Karlos Dansby and John Abraham) and found some nuggets in the draft (Tyrann Mathieu and Andre Ellington). It translated to a 5-11 team improving to 10-6 in the toughest division in football. That’s despite the fact that Keim’s first-round solution to some of the Cardinals’ line woes, LG Jonathan Cooper, didn’t play a single snap thanks to a broken leg. Keim engineered one of the quickest one-year turnarounds you will ever see. Expect him to turn it into staying power.
13. Howie Roseman - Eagles
You could argue this is too high for one of the architects of the most disastrous free-agent class in recent memory. Roseman’s role in Philly’s ill-fated “Dream Team” will be a stain he wears until he trades in his suits for pleated-retirement khakis. But he couldn’t have bought a better detergent than Chip Kelly. Roseman replaced a weary Andy Reid with arguably the brightest offensive mind of a generation, and has put his team one step ahead of an ever-changing NFL as a result. As an evaluator and player procurer, Roseman leaves much to be desired. But Kelly provides an easy-to-follow blueprint, lessening the room for error. The degree to which Roseman is tied to his head coach is highly unusual for a modern GM. Thankfully, he’s chosen the right one — the kind that should make him look like a genius in due time.
14. Dave Gettleman - Panthers
It would be incorrect to say Gettleman’s predecessor left the cupboard bare. Gettleman inherited one of the league’s best young linebackers, one of its fiercest defensive lines and a franchise quarterback. But it was a damn expensive cupboard, with money tied up in some curious places. The ridiculous contracts Martin Hurney handed out to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, among others, left Gettleman with precious little wiggle room. Worse yet, thanks in part to a terrible trade, the Panthers had only five 2013 draft picks. To make an impact as a rookie general manager, Gettleman had to nail his first-round pick and find bargains in free agency. He did both, stealing DT Star Lotulelei at No. 14 overall, keeping CB Captain Munnerlyn on a shoestring deal after he reached the open market and paying Ted Ginn just $1.1 million to have a career year. With gaping holes in his secondary, receiver corps and offensive line, Gettleman now needs to repeat the feat in 2014. If he does, he’ll take his place amongst the game’s best GMs.
15. John Idzik - Jets
One of the most valuable assets Idzik inherited upon replacing Mike Tannenbaum was his coach, Rex Ryan. The problem? General managers and inherited coaches are almost always a match made in hell. Idzik and Ryan not only flipped the script, however, they agreed on a contract extension. As this Week 17 scene suggests, the duo’s respect for each other appears to be genuine. But Idzik accomplished far more than simply cozying up to his head coach. He drafted the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, DT Sheldon Richardson, at No. 13 overall. Where’d he get the pick? From the Bucs in the Darrelle Revis trade. That would be the same trade where all of one team was believed to be willing to surrender its first-round pick. In barely three months on the job, Idzik played his only card perfectly, and turned it into a player who could be a defensive cornerstone for years to come. Not bad, right? Now Idzik must pass every GM’s litmus test: Find a quarterback. If he can, Gang Green might finally crash through the door it’s been banging on since 2009.
16. Rick Smith - Texans
Smith has done it all as a general manager. There have been bad picks (Amobi Okoye) and brilliant ones (J.J. Watt). Arian Foster is one of the best undrafted free agent signings of the past 10 years, Matt Schaub one of the best trade acquisitions. But a largely competent reign has still produced a sub-.500 record (61-67), and only two playoff wins in eight years. That’s not a résumé you can coast on forever. That’s why Smith has to get the No. 1 overall pick in May’s draft right. The correct choice could buoy a talented roster back to the upper reaches of the NFL, and buy Smith another 3-4 years of job security. The wrong choice would likely be the straw that broke the camel’s back on a perfectly fine, but ultimately unmemorable era of GMing in Houston.
17. Tom Telesco - Chargers
Telesco didn’t undertake a Keim-style overhaul his first year on the job so much as get his ducks in a row. He hired the right coach, who in turn hired the right offensive coordinator, who in turn helped revive the right franchise quarterback. There was nothing particularly dramatic about it, though Telesco made arguably the best pick of the draft, snatching No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen at No. 76 overall. Of course, Telesco also handed CB Derek Cox one of the worst deals of free agency, and watched second-rounder Manti Te’o turn in 538 lousy snaps. There’s still much work to be done. Telesco has to shore up one of the league’s worst secondaries and infuse his pass rush with young talent. He needs to find a left tackle. These are big problems, but Telesco displayed the wherewithal as a rookie general manager to solve them.
18. Ryan Grigson - Colts
First things first, yes, Grigson deserves credit for selecting Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Grigson received a gift horse and didn’t look it in the mouth and overanalyze it until the cows came home. If you want to complain about luck in the Luck matter, that’s your prerogative. The rest of the Grigson debate isn’t so easily settled. T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen joined Luck as 2012 draft home runs, while convincing Reggie Wayne to stay with a rebuilding team was an unexpected coup. He acquired a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in Vontae Davis for the price of a second-round pick. That’s where things get shaky. Perhaps emboldened by his Davis acquisition, Grigson surrendered his 2014 first-rounder for a runner who went on to be the worst in the league last season. He spends like a drunken sailor in free agency, where the bigger the name, the better. Fading run plugger D’Qwell Jackson is the latest recipient of Grigson’s Monopoly money. Grigson’s 2013 draft failed to produce an impact rookie. With no first-rounder this May, that could easily be the case again in 2014. Grigson GMs with the manic energy of his owner Jim Irsay, quite possibly at Irsay’s behest. It’s made for splashy headlines, but murky results. General managers have to be willing to take chances, but they also have to be willing to suffer the consequences. So far for Grigson, they’ve been mixed, at best.
19. David Caldwell - Jaguars
Caldwell replaced a man who took a punter in the third round, so there was nowhere to go but up. Up he went, stabilizing a free-falling franchise by making a savvy hire at head coach, and refusing to reach for a franchise quarterback in the draft when there was none. Caldwell’s first year wasn’t without its curiosities. He took a tackle at No. 2 overall despite already having one of the league’s better blindside protectors in Eugene Monroe. He then sold low on Monroe in October. The No. 8 overall pick of the 2009 draft is now one of the more attractive free agents in this year’s crop. But Caldwell is clearly planning for the long haul, and isn’t going to force a rebuild that needs to be A-Z. The jury is still out, but Caldwell appears poised to present some compelling evidence in his favor.
20. John Dorsey - Chiefs
The Chiefs hired Dorsey to be coach Andy Reid’s eyes and ears. He’s turned out to be a pretty good brain. Although Reid has final authority, Dorsey was his partner in crime on several good moves his first year on the job. The oft-mocked acquisition of Alex Smith for the No. 34 overall pick proved to be one of the trades of the year, while a similarly snickered at signing, Donnie Avery, proved slick in its own right. To date, Dorsey and Reid have largely pushed play on a roster that was readymade to win. There hasn’t been a signature signing, and the duo’s first draft class appeared highly ordinary in 2013. No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher looked lost. Awakening the Chiefs’ beast within was no small feat, however, and even if Dorsey is only a co-pilot, he’s looking like he could take over the plane if need be.